3 Powerful Ways Childhood Trauma Survivors Can Positively Manage Hyperstress
“When stress literally makes you sick” — Childhood abuse & the body’s response
‘Every child deserves a safe and happy home.’
As a 10-year-old girl, those 8 words haunted me. Every day I was confronted by them, as they stared tauntingly from the colourful sticker pressed to the brick wall behind my childhood bed.
Those 8 words were a constant reminder of the nightmare I lived every day. As I sat by the wall, tracing my fingers across that sticker, the depression nestled deeper into the pit of my stomach.
For so many years, my childhood and teenage years were spent in fear. Anxiety and stress were my best friends, and walking on eggshells was my art. I never knew what kind of ‘Father’ I was coming home to each day, and I could never predict whether Mum would be able to calm him down. Every footstep coming toward my room, or the sound of his car tyres crunching on the gravel driveway, gave birth to another surge of adrenalin.
Day after day, year after year…
Tragically, my dad decided that the only way to free us from his abuse was to take his own life. And then, several years later, I was also a victim of a sexual assault. By age 20 I had become an expert at functioning under high levels of stress or depression.
But despite my high-performance at school, and my ability to perform well at work, I found that any amount of stress wreaked havoc on my body. My constant state of ‘worry’ left my nerves shattered, and I’d literally become ill from hours spent thinking about a comment from a co-worker, or something I should have done/said better.
WHEN STRESS MANIFESTS AS PHYSICAL SICKNESS
As a mental health advocate and writing coach who specialises in assisting trauma survivors to tell their stories, self-care is a big part of my personal and professional life. But it wasn’t until this year, that I finally discovered the true connection between my childhood, and my physical response to stress.
You see, unlike many of my friends, I’ve discovered that when I become highly stressed — whether it be flashbacks from my past, disappointing news about something I was emotionally invested in, the breakdown of a close friendship, or unrequited love — simply ‘having a good cry’, doesn’t help.
In fact, it makes everything a million times worse.
Why? Because once I reach that point of stress where I’ve allowed my overwhelm to pour out through tears, or my stomach to become a tightly coiled knot of anxiety, my body begins attacking itself.
Often, the ‘emotional breakdown’ begins with a dull headache, or a throbbing migraine, followed by flu-like symptoms — nausea, sinus pain, literally feeling ‘sick to my stomach,’ and a general sense of ‘unwellness.’
This has been an intrinsic part of who I am for as long as I can remember, yet I’ve never understood exactly ‘why’ my body responds in this way. So after another round of ‘fake flu’ symptoms earlier this year, I decided to take to Google. Eventually, I found my answer… And suddenly, it all ‘clicked’.
HYPERSTRESS RESPONSE — THE FACTS & HOW CHILDHOOD TRAUMA INFLUENCES IT
According to psychologist Noosha Anzab, who works for the online health platform ‘Lysn’, Hyperstress Response is actually one of the most common forms of stress, and refers to an emotional state where an individual has been pushed ‘beyond their normal limits or has overloaded themselves physically or mentally — often resulting in ‘burn out, aggression, and anxiety.’
Although childhood trauma (as is my case), does not necessarily cause Hyperstress Response, it can certainly be an influencing factor, says Noosha.
“We tend to forget about our stress when we live with it chronically, and for sufferers of childhood trauma, chronic stress can be their norm — it can even feel comfortable or familiar,” she explains.
“We need to keep in mind that as humans, we are built for survival and we are incredibly equipped to last even when our resources are limited… and a chronically stressed state can lead to a hyperstress response when really pushed to the limit.”
“As people, we have a unique ability to learn to thrive in incredibly stressful situations and just as we see here [in Jas’ experience], sometimes, the longer we work under adverse or demanding circumstances, or are mentally and emotionally strained (as seen in chronic stress), the more susceptible we are to really exhaust our resources for survival (through long term attrition) and end up in a hyperstressed state.”
As I read Noosha’s answers to my questions, and read more about my body’s ‘fight or flight’ response to stress — including the smallest and most trivial of things — I felt a rush of relief.
Suddenly I understood why something as simple as checking my social media during times of hyperstress was so overwhelming…
…Why I would feel shots of adrenalin surging within my stomach, the moment I saw that little red bell, or ‘comment’ icon, appear on my social media… I understood why I literally felt under threat when responding to negative comments online.
HOW TO POSITIVELY MANAGE & AVOID HYPERSTRESS
Since learning about Hyperstress Response, I’ve begun to experiment with different ways of managing it. Here are mine and Noosha’s top three tips for avoiding chronic stress symptoms.
1. BEATING FACEBOOK FOMO
When I’m in a high state of stress, scrolling mindlessly through Facebook or reading rage-baiting statuses immediately influences my anxiety and physical stress response.
Posting my opinion on something becomes a terrifying experience — not just because I worry about reading negative comments, but because of the auto-response produced by my body when I so much as ‘think’ about confronting hateful messages.
So when I feel myself going down that tunnel, I immediately get off social media. For someone whose entire business revolves around being online, and posting to social media regularly, this can feel tricky. But I know that prioritising my health is absolutely vital.
So during these times, I limit myself to posting only on my business pages and avoid Facebook entirely. I don’t check my feed, my friends, or even my comments, for the best part of a week.
2. PRIORITISING SLEEP
Staying up late… Scrolling through my phone long into the evening… These activities don’t really help when I’m battling HS Response. So instead, I indulge in some guilty Netflix pleasures around dinner time and make sure I stop working, or using my phone, by 9pm at the very latest.
This is a technique also recommended by Noosha. “Sleep deprivation actually leads to hyperactivity in our brains, causing poor mood regulation and impaired memory… and essentially, feeds the hyperstress response by releasing more stress hormones into our system.
“Sleep will ensure that your body and mind are rejuvenated and if you’ve had a stressful day, it can be just the thing to allow your body to relax and reset.”
3. MEDITATION & MINDFULNESS
Tip number three, as Noosha explains, is to harness the benefits of meditation and mindfulness — two very simple, yet powerful, ways to calm our minds and collect our thoughts when experiencing hyperstress.
“Mindfulness can be incredibly refreshing and help us maintain a moment-by-moment awareness of our body, feelings, thoughts and surrounds. This can really help in keeping us grounded rather than lost in thoughts which can sometimes be maladaptive.”
Personally, meditation is something I struggle with immensely (due to anxiety), but one thing I like to do in its place, is to listen to relaxing music prior to bed (such as Binaural sleep music) or ASMR (audio sensory meridian response).
ABOVE ALL, REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE NOT ALONE…
In today’s busy world, there are millions of us struggling with stress in one form or another at any given time. Be kind to yourself, and try to learn your body’s unique stress triggers. That way, you’ll be able to adopt a self-care routine that your body responds to, and implement it before the physical symptoms grow too large.
JAS RAWLINSON is an Australian author, freelance journalist, and writing coach who specialises in empowering survivors of trauma to transform their adversities into powerful life stories.
Connect with Jas via her mental health page ‘Reasons to Live’, or subscribe to her site and receive her free gift guide for aspiring writers: #1 secret to getting your story out of your head & onto paper.