Copyright (c) 2008 Dr Jeanne King PhD
Migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, essential hypertension, chronic pain, insomnia, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, excessive fatigue are just a few of the ongoing complaints of domestic violence survivors. And it’s not surprising.
These conditions are ALL mediated by the sympathetic nervous system-a system perpetually “on” for individuals whose lives are entangled in domestic abuse.
Stemming back to our caveman ancestors, we inherited a physiology that is built to protect us from the perceived threat of impending danger. And when present, sympathetic arousal occurs.
For example , when the caveman saw a tiger, the thought “tiger” registered, activating a limbic system response of FEAR… ultimately, resulting in an adrenergic response that prepares the body for “fight or flight. ” And with this, of course , mobilizing the proper body systems to deal with the circumstances at hand.
The Good: Our Survival Mechanism
Here’s what happens: blood rushes to the core of the body and away from the periphery, fueling the core organs, (heart and lungs) for this magnificent maneuver. Blood is quickly pumped into the large muscle groups to enable your rapid exit or fierce fight.
With this, many other physiological changes occur. You’re getting the picture, correct? In a nutshell…
1) Your cardiovascular system is aroused: increased heart rate, rise in blood pressure.
2) Your neuromuscular system is activated: increased muscle tension, and
3) Your gastrointestinal system shuts off: dry mouth, build up of acidity in the gut, bowel and bladder relax.
This is sympathetic arousal; that is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. It is our body’s response to impending danger. It’s your survival mechanism, your natural stress response. This is good.
The Bad: Failure to Cycle Down
However , here’s where it’s not good. In the same way that our bodies are built to trigger this response, so are we built to cycle down when the impeding danger or perceived threat passes. And since our physiological systems don’t know the difference between real and perceived threat, we have the ability to keep this stress response “on” such that complete cycling down fails to occur.
Then when the next tiger comes our way, naturally we are appropriately aroused. But this time the excitation starts from an already elevated point of arousal, thereby resulting in a higher-level stress response.
Now for a moment, let’s envision our creating a habit, if you will, of not fully cycling down between each perceived threat; that is, between each tiger crossing our path. What happens?
Your body systems, associated with the stress response, remain “on” and at higher and higher levels of arousal over time with subsequent activation. This is what we call “chronic stress. “
The Ugly: Stress-Related Illnesses
Here’s the danger. When you keep these organ systems functioning as such, eventually they show symptoms of excess activation. This is the basic etiology of stress-related illnesses: migraine headaches, muscle contraction headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, essential hypertension, insomnia, chronic anxiety… and the list goes on.
Further, you can expect chronic stress to exacerbate depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment and more. It is the one factor you can count on to aggravate emotional psychological distress.
Your know how it is when you are refreshed and calm: anxiety, depression and cognitive impairment are low. And when you’re excessively stressed, anxiety, depression and cognitive impairment are magnified many fold.
If you are a domestic violence survivor, seek to cultivate habits that turn “off” the stress response. This will off-set damage done by a pattern naturally inherent in a current or past life of constant criticism, unpredictable partner rage, and ongoing caution, trepidation and fear.
For help in recognizing what keeps the abuse dynamic going and what stops it, see the Intimate Partner Abuse Screen’ at www.PreventAbusiveRelationships.com. Dr . Jeanne King, Ph. D. helps people recognize, stop and heal from emotional verbal abuse