NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Monday, December 19, 2016

NYC Psychotherapy Blog: Are You Experiencing Chronic Stress and Not Aware of It?

In my prior article, How Do You Know When You're Under Too Much Stress?, I began a discussion about enduring overwhelming stress.  As I mentioned in that article, there are many people, who have lived with chronic stress all their lives, who don't recognize when they're overwhelmed by stress.  It just feels "normal" to them.

Are You Experiencing Chronic Stress and Not Aware of It?

But there are definitely psychological and health-related consequences to longstanding chronic stress.

In this article, I'm exploring this dynamic by giving a fictionalized clinical vignette to illustrate how people who experience chronic stress can be unaware of it and what can be done to overcome this problem:

Ina started therapy after she saw her doctor for debilitating headaches and chest pains and medical tests ruled out any underlying medical problems.  Her doctor told Ina that the cause of her headaches and chest pain was stress and recommended that she start therapy (see my article: Mind-Body Connection: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Are You Experiencing Chronic Stress and Not Aware of It?

Ina had never been to therapy before, so she wasn't sure what to expect, but her therapist provided Ina with psychoeducation about therapy and helped her to understand how therapy could help.

During the next two sessions, Ina talked about her family history.  Although her family history was filled with many losses and significant emotional trauma, Ina talked about it in a matter-of-fact way without much emotion.  She was very emotionally detached from her own childhood history.

When her therapist reflected back to Ina, Ina seemed surprised.  She had never thought of her childhood history as being particularly traumatic.  In fact, she had not thought much about it at all.  In response to her therapist, she shrugged her shoulders and said, "That's just the way it was."

Part of her early history was that Ina had to over-function for both of her parents because they both had serious problems with alcohol.

As the oldest, Ina took it upon herself to cook, clean and take care of her younger siblings--starting at the age of 10.  She told her therapist, "If I didn't do it, no one would have done it.  I couldn't just let my brothers and sisters starve or not go to school."

Ina was so detached from that younger part of herself that was emotionally and physically neglected and who had to mature beyond her years that she didn't realize that she had paid a psychological and physical price for taking on this role.

Since she couldn't see it for herself, her therapist asked Ina how she would feel if one of her own young children had to take on these adult responsibilities at such a young age and without help from any other adults.

At that point, Ina began to cry because even though she was detached from her own early childhood trauma, she cared very much for her children and she never would want them to have to go through the same thing as she did.

It was only when Ina was able to see her situation from the point of view of her own children that she realized that what happened to her was traumatic.

In the following therapy sessions, her therapist talked to Ina about the ACE study, which was an extensive study which showed how experiencing early childhood trauma could lead to stress-related psychological and physical problems.

After that, Ina began to open up more and she was able to talk about how hard it was for her and how anxious she was all the time because she didn't know how to do half the things she was doing for her siblings.  She worried all the time that she might get it wrong and they would suffer in some way.

In many ways, Ina still worried excessively about her siblings--even though they were all doing well as adults.  So, her therapist realized that Ida was emotionally stuck in the past.  Even though she knew that her siblings were all doing well now, she still had the same worries as when she was a child.

When her therapist pointed this out to her, Ina was surprised because she never thought of this before.  She realized that her therapist was right--there really was no need to worry about her siblings anymore.  Then, she became curious about why she was continuing to worry.

Her therapist explained to Ina that she had learned to habitually worry about her siblings and her emotions had not caught up with the present.  She was still worrying as if she was living in the past.

Are You Experiencing Chronic Stress and Not Aware of It?

Over time, Ina learned had to take better care of herself.  Her therapist taught her how to meditate.  She also began exercising at the gym.

Her therapist also talked to Ina about how EMDR therapy could help Ina to work through her unresolved childhood trauma so that she wouldn't have to continue to live in the past (see my articles:

As Ina and her therapist did EMDR therapy, Ina noticed that her chest pain had disappeared and her headaches were infrequent.

Gradually, Ina worked through a childhood of trauma and loss and, as she did, she was under much less stress.  It was as if a big weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

It was only after she experienced much less stress that she realized how much stress she had been carrying around inside of her.  She was able to relax more, sleep better and enjoy life more.

A lifetime of chronic stress can take a heavy toll on you both physically and emotionally.

Chronic stress can become increasingly debilitating over time.

Many people who have experienced childhood trauma and loss become "shutdown" to just how much stress they're experiencing.

This makes sense when you realize that, as children, they didn't have many options if they wanted to survive.  Like "Ina," they did what they had to do without much awareness of the toll that it was taking on them.

Medical doctors who are savvy about the mind-body connection know that many (if not most) medical complaints that their patients have are stress related.  After they have eliminated any underlying medical cause, they know that their patients need psychological help--not medical help--and they refer them to a psychotherapist.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you recognize yourself in the vignette above, you're not alone.  Millions of people have had similar experiences.  The unfortunate thing is that most of them never realize that their symptoms have psychological roots.  They often go from one medical doctor to another for "the answer."

As a child, you might have survived your circumstances by not allowing yourself to be conscious of how bad the situation was and how it was affecting you.

Often, it's not until you're an adult that you begin to experience the stress-related symptoms.

Although it's helpful to go to the gym and use other self care techniques, if you have the kind of childhood history that "Ida" had, those self care techniques aren't enough to overcome the trauma.  They can help temporarily to overcome the stress, but the psychological trauma will still be there just under the surface waiting to be triggered by a current situation.

If you can identify with the vignette above, you can take the first step to overcome these stress related  problems by setting up a consultation with a psychotherapist.

By working through your unresolved childhood trauma in therapy, you can live a more fulfilling life free from your history.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.