WHAT IS STRESS?

Stress is our body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When we sense danger, whether real or imagined, our body’s defences start a rapid, automatic process, known as “fight-or-flight” or the “stress response”.

Homeostasis describes our body’s tendency to auto-regulate and maintains our internal environment in a stable state: our brains have evolved to seek homeostasis. A stressor is anything that knocks us out of homeostatic balance. The stress response is what our bodies do to re-establish homeostasis and can be activated not only in response to physical or psychological threats but also by just thinking about them. Allostasis describes our body’s process of maintaining homeostasis through the adaptive change of our internal environment to meet perceived and anticipated demands: our brains coordinating body-wide changes, often including behavioural changes.

Stressors come in many different forms, often having both physical and psychological elements, and we’re susceptible to them even before birth. If our mother was:

  • Malnourished
  • Bereaved
  • Injured
  • Abused

or otherwise severely stressed whilst pregnant with us, we may be borne out of homeostatic balance.

As babies, if we’re repeatedly separated from our mother or primary caregiver, or if they’re too distracted or stressed to love, touch and cuddle us, these situations also act as significant stressors.

Growing up with:

  • Social discrimination
  • Marginalisation
  • Adversity
  • even moving to a new school

can generate a chronic experience of being an outsider which is a major stressor, as are physical and sexual abuse.

Adolescence brings all kinds of new stressors:

  • Peer pressure
  • Bullying
  • Learning difficulties
  • Exams
  • Sexuality
  • Gender issues

And once we make it to adulthood we are faced with rent or mortgage payments, work, relationships, bereavement and on, and on. Life can be stressful!

WHAT IS TRAUMA?

Trauma is a severe form of a stressor.
There are two types of trauma:
  • Physical trauma (damage to the body) refers to severe physical injury caused by an external source
  • Psychological trauma (damage to the psyche) occurs because of a severely distressing event or situation
The two are often interconnected. Whether we are a little stressed, very stressed, were traumatised in the womb, as a baby, in early childhood, or by a one-off event in adulthood, what’s going on in our bodies is a result, either directly or indirectly, of our stress response.
As human beings we are extremely resilient: we rebound from wars, disasters, violence and betrayal.
But traumatic experiences leave scars on our:
  • Histories
  • Families
  • Minds
  • Emotions
  • Immune systems
  • and on our capacity for joy and intimacy.
Trauma affects not only those who are directly exposed to it but also those around them and can be unbearable. Most trauma survivors become so upset when they think about what happened that they try to push it out of their minds as if nothing happened. It takes huge energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, weakness and vulnerability and this can end up feeling utterly overwhelming.

 

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