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Stress Related Illness

Stress- related Illness: Is it Mental or Physical?

ME (chronic fatigue), fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, back pain and other chronic conditions cannot be pigeonholed as EITHER physical OR mental. They involve complex interactions of the mind and body. There are rarely obvious structural or physiological problems and so doctors tend to conclude people have a “mental not a physical problem” which is not helpful. Western medicine has been much slower to embrace these mind-body connections than has Eastern medicine. Mind and body interact not only in the development of illness or disease but influence how well we fight back or recover. When we first become ill, an infection or other stressor sets in motion a series of reactions in the body and mind. There are probably many complex interconnections that have caused us to become unwell and science and medicine are not yet at the stage where they can explain how and why it happened and what to do about it.

What can we do to recover from stress-related illness?

Unfortunately there are rarely any “quick fixes” in the form of drugs or other treatments for these chronic conditions– but that does not mean that we should give up. Getting ourselves well will take work, effort, patience and focus. The most important thing is that our bodies have innate knowledge of what they need – that is the way we were designed and they will, given the slightest encouragement, heal themselves. Again, we do not know how this works, there’s a lot of trial and error involved, and it’s different for everyone. If you can develop a way to listen to your body, or your inner voice, or your gut feeling, that’s probably the right way for you to go. It might not be the right way for another person.

I have worked with many people suffering from all kinds of chronic conditions where there is no obvious physical cause. Many of these people are extremely sick and their illness has caused huge disruption in their lives. Some are unable to walk, many have given up jobs that they loved, many face financial hardship as a result of their illness and their relationships often come under strain.

Current research is finding that cultivating a certain mental attitude can help to ease some of the burden of chronic illness and can even reduce some of the symptoms.

Some ways to cope

The following seem to be beneficial:


Accept where you are at the moment. This doesn’t mean roll over and give up. Research has shown that people who battle against their illness experience, suffer a lot more than those who totally accept. This may not be the way we were taught to deal with difficulties. For another of my blog articles which looks at the value of acceptance in illness, click here.


This might mean grieving for what you’ve lost – we didn’t expect life to be this way – we expected to be fit and healthy well into old age. There may be some things you now cannot do that you find very hard to accept you can’t do. Acknowledge that the grieving process might be an unpleasant one, just as it is when we lose someone close to us.


As much as you can, have a positive attitude to where you are: “This is where I am but it doesn’t mean that I can’t do A, B or C”. Having a positive mental attitude has been shown scientifically to be a huge factor in improving mood and performance. All top class sportspeople make use of positive mental attitude in their training today – it has been found that even visualising yourself as being healthy can help in recovery.


Set clear goals for yourself: “I want to get better and get a life back” is too vague. You need clear goals such as “I want to be able to walk to the shop and back” or “I want to be able to take my children to the park”, goals that you can visualise. These goals must be positive, achievable and needs oriented. You will then be able to see how you are progressing. It also mirrors how our brains work – our brains set up systems to work towards these goals. Note that you might have goals in the back of your mind that, at this point in time, are not achievable. Let go of these goals. Again this might not be what we have been taught from childhood is the right way to deal with goals which was to hold onto them at all cost. You are not abandoning goals, you are replacing them with new more appropriate goals.


YOU are in control of your recovery – other people might be happy to walk along some of the road with you (and if they do that will be an enormous help), but in the end it is just down to you. Take back your power, to be in control is an extremely strong place to be..


You have your own set of personal resources that have got you through life already and which you can now use to get yourself well. These might include being a good parent or partner, having gained qualifications, a job, skills and strengths such as being determined or ability to focus.


Stress may be the major cause of becoming unwell, and even if it is not, it has probably made things worse and it is very important to look at the part stress is playing in our lives. We live lives that our brains/bodies are not capable of living. The world we live in has changed hugely over the past 3000 years, and especially in the past 100 years. Evolution is slow to catch up with these changes. What simple changes can you make today to lower your stress levels? For more information on lowering your stress levels click here.


When your sleep pattern is disturbed and you do not have sufficient slow wave sleep (the really deep, non-dreaming sleep), the physical body does not get a chance to repair and recover. This affects our immune systems.  It affects all our bodily functions. It also means that when we are awake we do not feel refreshed. One reason why we do not spend enough time in slow wave sleep is that we are spending too much time in REM sleep (the dreaming sleep). Worrying about stuff during our waking hours, means that we need to discharge these worries during REM sleep, we spend longer then in REM sleep and a shorter time in deep sleep – we have lost the important balance. If you can deliberately STOP worrying (perhaps write down a Worry List or decide to have a Worry Half Hour every so often) and find ways to really relax and wind down as it gets towards bed time then all this will help to restore the healing Slow Wave sleep. For more information on how to get a good night’s sleep click here. 


The body learns chronic pain, just as it learns how to walk or ride a bicycle. It can get very good at it, which is a scary thought. We still know very little about pain but we do know that it has a huge emotional component. If we feel pain AND worry about it (“I’ll always feel like this” “I’ll never be able to go on holiday” etc) the pain will actually worsen. It’s not easy but notice you are adding to your experience of pain with all these worrying thoughts and simply acknowledge “yes, now I feel pain in my back”. For more information on Mindfulness click here.


Treating our bodies in the best way we can is crucial to our recovery. This means eating as good a diet as we can (without being over the top), and it means keeping moving (our bodies are designed to keep on the move rather than to be sedentary and then spending a frantic half hour on the treadmill). Rest and relaxation are very important – again we are designed to have burst of activity followed by rest/recovery. Relaxation does not mean sitting in front of the TV or laptop – sometimes we have to learn how to relax all over again. When we are “in the zone” and focused on what we are doing, our minds will quieten, we will stop worrying, our sleep will improve.


It is very easy when we have a “good” day to try to squeeze every drop out of it and do all those jobs that have been lining up, to clear our “to do” list. It’s very important to step back and see the bigger picture and not do this. A day of constant activity may well mean several days in bed recovering.


Related to pacing, this means, in your own way, keeping careful note of what helps and what doesn’t, whether it’s in your diet, exercise, sleep, mood or anything else. Some people keep detailed diaries so they can look back see if any patterns are starting to emerge.


Do you put yourself first or do you attend to everyone else’s needs then your own? Are you still trying to be the person you used to be in relation to other people even though you are no longer that person physically? It’s worth giving these issues some thought and seeing if there are any changes that you can make.


it is very easy to start to see ourselves as nothing more than a “sick person”, to lose sight of who we once were, to loose self confidence and self-esteem as a result of being sick. It is very easy to start to beat ourselves up and blame ourselves. Developing self-compassion is extremely important – go easy, don’t treat your recovery as yet another chore on the endless to-do list. For more information on self compassion, click here.


We live our lives in our heads flitting to the future and back to the past all the time. (“Why did my boss say that? Are they thinking of firing me?” or “what shall I get for dinner tonight and where is my son’s football kit?” We very rarely stop and notice exactly what is happening here and now. The time when we do this best is on holidays, when magically those worries disappear and we just go with the flow. A mindful approach continually brings us back to the present. Mindfulness is a tool we can use ourselves, it is portable, free and always available to us. It takes time and effort to incorporate simple techniques into our lives but the results can be life-changing.

Do you notice when your body is starting to complain that you are asking too much of it? When you are getting areas of tension or discomfort? When your heart is thumping and your breathing is shallow or when you’re hungry or thirsty. Sometimes we get so caught up in our thoughts and worries we forget to notice how our poor worn out bodies are feeling – until we collapse with exhaustion. Take time out, even a few moments, during a busy day, just to check out how your feeling, slow down your breath, recharge your batteries. For more information on Mindfulness click here.


Humans have certain emotional needs that must be met in order to be healthy. If these needs are not met, they become unwell. There is general agreement that they include status, security, emotional connection to others, having one person (may be a partner may be a friend) who totally accepts you warts and all, a sense of control, the opportunity for quiet reflection. Many would add “having fun” to this list, to be able to laugh is incredibly important. When the chips are really down see if you can laugh at yourself rather than cry. The most important need though is to have purpose and meaning in our lives.  People who have clung onto this despite appalling situations (such as being interned in concentration camps), have survived. For some this might be religion or the belief in a higher power, for some it may be serving the community.

For more informaation on my counselling services go to my counselling Cork and counselling Douglas pages.

Need some more help and support?

Suffering from stress related illness and need some more support and advice? Give me, Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork a call on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!