The concept of stress is known to almost everyone, once sourced from physics it means tensions, pressures or forces acting on the respective system. Stress affecting humans was not uniformly defined by the scientific community yet, but theories of stress talk about the pressures and stresses that the body experiences under the influence of factors that are called stressors. The stressors that we have to cope with sometimes imperceptibly degrade our psyche and body. The undeniable connection between the conditions of the mind and that of the body can be observed in people who, under the influence of long-term stress, begin to develop physical health problems. Manifestation of stress physically forces a person to look at themselves and seek medical advice. While the somatic symptoms are real, their causes cannot be medically explained. Man is a harmonious psychophysical being, and stress disturbs this balance painfully affecting the health of both the psyche and soma.
The body is the organ of our soul
Psychosomatics is not a new idea, already the ancients suspected the relationships between body and mind. Johann Christian August Heinroth is an outstanding figure in medicine, frequently referred to as the first professor of psychiatry. This German physician, already in the early 19th century, realized that a disease could be mental in its origin. Heinroth’s ideas and reflections gave the impetus for the emergence of modern psychotherapy. It was Heinroth who introduced the term “psychosomatics” in the medical literature, and it was he who recognized that treating symptoms alone was not sufficient. He believed that the use of somatic measures: pharmacology can help, but the right thing to do is to reach people directly. He noticed that since a bad person, an “evil spirit” can have a devastating effect on the human soul, a good mentor can have a positive effect on the condition of the sick person. This observation seems to be extremely accurate and relevant today, for example in the context of stress experienced at work. Condemned, in our professional environment, to a person making our life difficult, we can suffer mentally because of it. We seek help from people with certain personality traits, who can help us with gentleness and persistence (traits attributed to Heinroth). It may be someone close, it may be a psychotherapist. Disregarded or overlooked mental ailments begin to resonate with the body. Physical complaints resulting from mental problems are defined as psychosomatic. A person with such ailments is called somatized or psychosomatic. The human being must be perceived by the doctor as a whole, because the symptoms reported by the patient are just pieces of the puzzle.
The stress hormone and its researcher
Hans Selye – it is thanks to this distinguished doctor from Vienna, that we use the term stress in relation to the body. This physical term has found its deserved place in the medical lexicon. Selye has dedicated his entire life to the study of stress. According to Selye, stressors are different, but they trigger the same biological stress response. The organism wants to maintain homeostasis at all costs and falls prey to exhaustion under the influence of long-lasting stress. Selye focused on the negative physiological effects of long-term stress, developing the theory of GAS (General Adaptation Syndrome), i.e. one consisting of three phases: alarm, resistance and exhaustion, when the stress coping mechanism breaks down and exhausts itself. The biological effects of long-term stress include an increase in the concentration of adrenal hormones, catecholamines (adrenaline, noradrenaline), which cause vasoconstriction, acceleration of heart rate and increase in blood pressure, and corticosteroids (cortisol) that are responsible for weakening of our immune system. The increase in the stress hormone cortisol leads to problems with sleeping, concentration and remembering. The organism’s immunity weakened by cortisol increases its susceptibility to infections, and promotes obesity through increased appetite caused by changes in blood glucose levels.
When stress is visible
Obesity, increased susceptibility to bacteria, viruses and fungi, inflammation and severe allergies can all be the results of living under chronic stress. Chronic stress manifests itself through all organs, but the easiest way to observe it is on our skin. Changes in this largest human organ, resulting from mental stressors, are visible to everyone. The skin is derived from the same germ layer as the nervous system, so stress becomes visible very easily and quickly on the skin, worsening its condition. Psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, allergies, alopecia areata – these diseases are activated or exacerbated by stress, thus confirming the activity of psychosomatic mechanism. Graying, commonly regarded as a symptom of experiencing long-term stress, is caused by oxidative stress and an excess of free radicals in the body. The excess of free radicals may increase under the influence of chronic stress, but also under the influence of ionizing radiation, UV light and high temperature. In the event of oxidative stress one should keep a diet rich in antioxidants. The skin lesions visible to the eyes of others cause secondary problems: stress, anxiety and depression. The diagnosis of psychosomatic diseases is not easy, we never know if the patient is under stress, because he is sick, or if he is sick due to stress. To break the vicious circle of this psychosomatic correlation, one should first exclude the organic causes of organ malfunction.
The Holy Seven
Constant stress keeps the body in constant alert, which puts a strain on the nervous, endocrine and immune systems. Under the influence of stress, physical discomfort may appear in various parts of the body. We complain of headaches, abdominal pain, muscle aches, tinnitus, blurred vision and disturbed function of intestines. In the 1950s, a list of diseases of psychosomatic origin was compiled. This list was called the Holy Seven (or the Chicago Seven), and included:
- peptic ulcer disease,
- arterial hypertension,
- bronchial asthma,
- rheumatoid arthritis,
- inflammatory diseases of the large intestine,
- atopic dermatitis.
In the case of these diseases, it is considered that the relationship between the psyche and the appearance of disease symptoms is the most visible. It is worth paying attention to the arterial hypertension that forms part of the list, which, if left unchecked, can contribute to a myocardial infarction or stroke – the most common causes of death worldwide. It is currently considered to add ischemic heart disease, migraine, obesity, and autoimmune diseases to this list.
Stress disturbs your balance
Stress that continues over time disturbs the balance of the body and psyche. Disturbing bodily symptoms worsen the patients’ situation, driving them into another stress reaction that exacerbates the existing symptoms. Interestingly, long-term stress caused by trauma leaves a mark on genes, which was proven by means of epigenetic research. Our body does not like to be overloaded and to function in conditions of constant alertness. In every way, it demands that people pay attention to themselves, learn to react rationally, do not harm themselves and reach out for help in order to be able to live well, mentally and physically. Our body “screams” when it can no longer cope with a stressor, when the stressor comes as a surprise, or when there are too many stressors. That is why it is so important to improve your stress management skills. This “coping” is the activity of an individual which, when taken under the influence of a stressor, restores the balance of the organism at a low cost. This can be done in two ways by regulating one’s emotions (self-calming) or by improving the relationship with the environment, or even altering it. Dealing with stress may take place on the basis of avoidance – avoiding a difficult situation or confronting a stressful situation, i.e. taking action to solve the problem. The respective style for coping with stress will not always be adequate to the situation. Ending a stressful situation is effective not so much when it is consistent with the situation, but when it does not stand in contradiction with the individual style of coping with stress. The requirements of the environment that are disproportionate to the resources or human capabilities cause imbalance and stress. Sometimes it is necessary to re-assess and alter the developed stress defense mechanism in order to avoid future stress.
Time to help yourself
In a situation where we suspect that the onset of the disease is related to stress, and when the disease is accompanied by stress, it is time to help ourselves. Relaxation techniques that calm the mind and at the same time the symptoms of the disease are very helpful to this end. In the situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, we do everything to protect ourselves from getting sick by building immunity. While caring for our immunity, we must not forget about the ways to alleviate the effects of stress impairing the correct immune mechanisms. As a solution, VR TierOne proposes a proprietary virtual therapy with scientifically proven effectiveness in reducing stress by 28% according to PSQ. THe VR TierOne total immersion virtual therapy is dedicated, in particular, to patients exposed to hospital stress, with symptoms of depression and anxiety. VR TierOne can also be used to prevent chronic stress, as the elements of psychotherapy strengthen human vitality.
Psychosomatic diseases are becoming more and more common because we do not give ourselves sufficient time to regenerate. Keeping our bodies in the condition of constant alertness does us harm, as the body will eventually defend itself, sending signals that are to alarm us. It is always worth reading the signs that the psyche sends us through the body. Watch your own emotions, don’t ignore your body signals. By ordering the emotional life, cultivating rest, improving the condition of our psyche through therapy, it is possible to reduce the effects of living under stress and restore the harmonious operation of both the mind and the body.