It’s taken nearly two weeks to convince Shirley Girly there’s more to life than hiding behind the couch with the dust bunnies. The little wisp of smoke decided she could show her whiskers in public.
She’s becoming fond of timidly claiming my lap in the evenings as the other two felines fight for the alpha’s lap next to me. Though Shirley appears outwardly calm, her muscles tense under my hands. She doesn’t like noise, or cats arguing who gets where. She’s clearly afraid of children, fast movements and tall, loud people. The sound of them turns her into an armpit ostrich, instantly – with a matching set of clawed boxing gloves ready to swing. I often wonder if she’s having nightmares when she jolts awake for no reason.
Even though trauma happened to her long ago, she clearly has bad moments and spells triggered by little things. Shirley is probably the closest animal I’ve seen to having post-traumatic stress. She has psychogenic alopecia (a soothing method turned into obsessive grooming) and is missing about half the hair on her body. On the outside it’s crystal clear she is anxious 24/7. She grooms to keep herself calm.
It’s obvious we know anxiety affects us. What happens to the body inside when we are anxious and afraid? Have you ever wondered?
Every day it seems we hear on the radio or read online about the facts that too much stress can (k)ill a person. We know this is likely true, because just about every one of us knows someone (who knows someone else that knew that guy) who died from a sudden stroke or medical mystery at a pre-senior age.
I’ve read dense medical jargon until my eyes were stinging roadmaps about the effects of trauma on the psyche. It’s something I had to learn about in the last few years, because my body is indeed affected physically by the psychological aspects. I truly wanted to stay blissfully ignorant at first. I didn’t want to know, and I didn’t want to face it.
So, here you go. This is what I know.
How our bodies react to stress
THE PTSD MIND-BODY CONNECTION
It all starts with a moment of fear. Something happens..
Oh, let’s say you’re walking home alone on a dimly lit street and you sense someone may be not far behind. Let’s say you suddenly don’t feel comfortable because you remember long ago, you were stalked. As you argue with yourself, your strides lengthen with faster steps and then for no reason you can offer, you feel so much panic that you’re running so fast your feet can barely keep up. You’re feeling absolutely ridiculous, yet justified, and you’re running for your life.
The panic you feel is a body response. During that time, our brain signals adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) to be released into our bloodstream from the adrenal glands.
Those beautiful little glands snuggle right on top of the kidneys and when the brain is yelling at the body to get ready, those glands send a powerful rush to the entire system. Our heart beats faster, our blood pressure rises with the feeling of a barometer rising in our chest and our muscles are ready for fight or flight. Adrenal glands, put simply, are the body’s First Responders. When we hear about people having moments of Superman strength saving another person, it’s the adrenals at work.
For the average person the adrenaline rush lasts maybe a few minutes at most. The brain will tell the body to release the counter-agent (magnesium) into our bloodstream. Once that happens, the show’s over folks, nothin’ to see here, move along. The body returns to normal and resumes its usual functions.
Magnesium has made nearly front-page news in the last few years. Not many people know what it does, or how it works or why we need it so bad. All they know is that it’s not good when they don’t have enough of it.
Short and sweet, we literally can’t live without magnesium. We have to have enough magnesium in our body for over 300 metabolic reactions to happen. It also helps us keep calmly copacetic and helps us sleep. Only 1% hangs out in your bloodstream (when a doctor checks your magnesium, he’s only able to check that 1%.) The other 99% is in your bones, cells and organs.
The average “normal” person in a crisis will recover fairly quickly. The body will balance itself out by telling the kidneys to draw magnesium out of the bones and wherever else it can to balance the 1% in the bloodstream back to that 1%. As long as that bloodstream stays at 1% the body doesn’t care what organ or bone they borrowed the magnesium from.
Where things can go terribly wrong is when a person is in a crisis for a long time. The stress hormones keep flooding our body. At first the body can keep up. The rush..cortisol; the calm..magnesium; the rush, the calm, etc etc etc. But the body begins to show signs of wear and tear and it doesn’t work as well as it used to. And it doesn’t like excess cortisol. Still, the body’s a trooper and will fight itself for homeostasis. The blood will stay at 1%, but the body… well, not 99% anymore.
Now add more crisis, more calm, over and over. The adrenals are struggling to keep up with the demand, the kidneys are getting confused and tired, and your blood sugar starts to run a little high. The body is running low on stress hormones, and running out of its places to borrow magnesium from your bones and organs, and that tightly regulated 1% is no longer balanced.
Here’s when the serious symptoms are screaming, because of those over 300 metabolic reactions, magnesium keeps the heart beating. Not enough magnesium means your heart will hiccup, and pause, and beat strangely. Magnesium lets you absorb protein, calcium, and more. Not enough magnesium means your body may eventually starve, no matter how much you eat. Kidneys will fluctuate on reserve power. In fact, most of the body may be running on reserve because without nutrition, there’s very little energy available to climb stairs, or run, or think.
Adrenal fatigue and chronic low magnesium are found in many trauma survivors with PTSD. It’s a mind-body connection of disastrous proportions. When we remember, our body experiences the trauma all over again. And yes, if we can’t get a grip on ourselves sooner or later (sooner is best), over time we can become terribly sick.
Domestic violence survivors aren’t the only group affected. Include high risk jobs to the list (firefighters, police officers, soldiers, etc), and anyone who is in a high risk group of being in a chronic, long-term stress situation.
So what can we do to help ourselves not get sick?
Part of the answer lies in self-care and self-awareness, and in our own methods of soothing and calming ourselves. Some of us have less-than-healthy soothing methods (like Shirley Girly, for example.) Humans are a little more complex, though. We develop some unhealthy habits trying to soothe ourselves.
If only we could lick ourselves all day long! That would be such an easy fix.