I read an article today that stopped me in my tracks.
The headline was Stress in pregnancy ‘makes child personality disorder more likely.’ What? I had to know more, so I kept reading. The article detailed a study of more than 3,600 Finnish women published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
That study found that women who experienced severe stress during pregnancy had children who were nearly 10 times more likely to develop a personality disorder by the time they reached 30 years of age. Even moderate stress had an impact. Children of women who were exposed to moderate stress were four times as likely to develop a personality disorder as those whose mother experienced low levels of stress.
You may be wondering what that article has to do with adrenal fatigue, but to me it’s clearly relevant. It’s imperative that women begin to understand the huge, undeniable connection between stress and adrenal issues. We are learning more than ever about the impact stress has on our bodies, and a lot of that impact comes directly from an imbalance in the stress hormones produced in your adrenal glands.
Even when women know what stress can do to their mental and physical health, all too often they think there isn’t any stress in their lives. Without stress, they can’t have adrenal issues, right? Wrong. What they don’t know is that that stress lives within them and it originates in childhood, or according to that article, even before birth.
That’s why when a woman comes to see me, I always ask a lot of questions. And that’s when I often discover how thinly stretched these women are – and have been for years.
Women on the Edge
Emotional symptoms can be incredibly confusing for women, especially if they feel like they are handling any stress in their lives well. These women often tell me that they find themselves feeling like life is simply too much to handle, but they can’t explain why. They are constantly on edge, ready to lose it on anyone who even looks at them the wrong way.
Have you found yourself feeling this way? Does a car cutting you off in traffic ruin your entire day? Do you feel like you might just “snap” at any moment? Have you found yourself flying off the handle at the tiniest issue, even with your loved ones? Or maybe you just can’t focus on the task in front of you, no matter how important the deadline is.
All of these symptoms – and so many more – can be a sign of stress induced adrenal imbalance. When you find yourself in this place, it can create even more stress as you feel guilt or shame for reacting in inappropriate ways. And more stress places more strain on your adrenal glands, causing more mood swings, and more guilt and shame. It can become an endless loop.
These symptoms are essential to talk about with your health care practitioner, but all too often women gloss over them, forget to mention them, or avoid talking about them altogether because of that misplaced shame or embarrassment. They don’t want to admit yelling at their child over spilt milk or making angry gestures in traffic because someone was driving slower than they’d like.
The problem is that when these symptoms are ignored, your health care professional doesn’t have critical information they need. These emotional symptoms are a signal from your body that something isn’t quite right. Paying close attention to them can give us great insight into what we are doing to our bodies (or what was done to our bodies years ago) when we don’t give stress the attention it deserves.
Let’s go back to those questions I ask for a minute. One of the first things I ask women is how much stress they have in their lives. I’m astounded at the number of these women who answer they don’t have much at all. But when I begin asking follow-up questions (what about the stress you put on yourself? What was your childhood like? Did you feel unconditional love? Were you hugged or otherwise shown affection?), that’s when the floodgates open.
As difficult as that is, it’s when I can do my most effective work. Knowing what they’re really dealing with allows me to come at the issue from a trauma-informed standpoint and make the best recommendations for these women. It also allows me to educate them on how their bodies respond, biologically, to stress. Learning about the physiological impacts of stress, and the way imbalanced hormones can prey on mental health, is often a relief, and allows women to be much more gentle on themselves. The cycle can be broken.
Understanding the Impact of Stress on Your Body
Your adrenal glands are responsible for producing hormones that are essential to life – including hormones that help your body deal with stress. When your body detects stress, your adrenals spring into action, pumping out adrenaline for instant energy, and cortisol to help support your body through the stress. This is a natural, essential process.
The problems begin when your body doesn’t realize that the stress it detects isn’t an imminent threat. Stress is all perceived in exactly the same way by your brain. So even though there’s a big difference between stress that lingers in your tissues from long ago trauma and the immediate threat of a wild animal attack, the physiological response is the same.
Over time, constant exposure to stress results in hormonal imbalances and a wide range of uncomfortable symptoms, including digestive issues, diminished immune system functioning, trouble with metabolism, cognitive issues, depression, anxiety and mood swings. That’s because your endocrine system overrides the production of sex hormones to continue producing cortisol. You can read more about the impact of continually high levels of cortisol here.
Stress Can Be New – or Very Old
Here’s the most important piece of information I can give to women regarding stress: You have to acknowledge, understand, and deal with it – wherever it originates.
I’m not saying you can do anything to change the stress your mother was under while pregnant. Or that you can undo the biological impact of trauma you suffered as a child. What you can do, however, is recognize how your body might be responding at the cellular level and take steps to release and heal that trauma from your tissues.
For years, I’ve been talking about the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, and finally, I’m not alone! It seems like we’re hearing about it all over the place now, and people are finally beginning to understand that what happened to you in your early years absolutely can have an impact on your health later in life.
That doesn’t mean there’s no hope, or nothing you can do. One of the most important ideas I teach women is that what they think impacts their health. Your story, the things you’ve internalized throughout your lifetime (or even before you were born) has great power. And that same story can have a huge impact on your adrenals due to the underlying stress it creates in your body.
That’s why it’s so important to help women recognize the signs that your adrenals are suffering. Many know the physical symptoms but are less familiar with the emotional clues.
Common Psychological Signs of Adrenal Dysfunction
Here are some common complaints I hear when women are suffering from adrenal dysfunction. Do you recognize yourself in any (or all) of these symptoms?
- You’re irritable and quick to lose your temper.
- You’re prone to road rage or become extremely angry over little things.
- You feel as though you’re constantly on edge, ready to “lose it” at the least little thing.
- You feel listless, depressed, or emotionally numb.
- Your sex drive is low.
- You frequently have nightmares.
- You often feel an overpowering urge to cry.
- You have trouble concentrating or feel mentally foggy.
- You suffer from free-floating anxiety.
- You are easily startled.
- You simply feel stressed all the time.
- Everything seems like a chore.
Explaining the Contradictions
When reading the above list, you might have noticed that some of them seem to contradict each other. How can you be both always on edge and emotionally numb? The truth is, when your hormones are out of balance, moods can swing wildly. And adrenal dysfunction is a progressive condition that moves through successive phases, manifesting in different ways as the condition worsens. So, you might feel overwhelmingly sad at one point, extremely angry at another, and too tired to care at yet another point along the way.
It can be terrifying to feel like you have no control over your emotions and thoughts, no ability to focus on what really matters, and no coping skills whatsoever. The good news is, you don’t have to just live with it. Knowing that these feelings could be a sign of adrenal dysfunction allows you an opportunity to take control – one small step at a time.
Addressing the Trauma that Contributes to Adrenal Fatigue
I have many articles on natural ways to slow your life down and heal your adrenals in my health library. All of the advice I give there – eating well, getting quality sleep, supporting your body with targeted supplements, and finding ways to reduce stress – is relevant and helpful. But when you’re talking about addressing the underlying emotional trauma, you must go a step further.
Therapy can help, but I find that techniques that allow you to really release the stress your body has been holding to tightly is most effective for long term healing. So many women I know have reached menopause and realized they just couldn’t do it anymore. Their bodies had had enough! It’s like an elastic, stretched and stretched until it finally snaps. My goal is to help women let go of that internal trauma before they reach the breaking point!
A number of alternative therapies that your conventional practitioner will likely never suggest can be incredibly helpful in mobilizing your amygdala response, helping you release trauma from your tissues. EFT (tapping) and EMDR are two that I have referred patients to with great success.
You Can Heal Trauma and Free Yourself from the Psychological Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue
All of this may be overwhelming, especially if you’ve been pushing aside early experiences as if they don’t matter or putting excessive amounts of stress on yourself to just perform, regardless of how you feel.
I want to reassure you that change IS possible. You have so much personal power, and the more knowledge you have, the more power you gain. That article I mentioned at the beginning may leave some women terrified that the stress they experienced during pregnancy has irreparably damaged their children — but it hasn’t. Nor has any stress or trauma that may have been present in your children’s lives until now.
When you know better, you can do better. There is work that you can do to heal yourself, and help your children heal as well. You can give them the gift of an emotionally and physically healthy parent from this moment forward. You can teach them how to release their own trauma so they, too, can be emotionally and physically healthy. There is always hope – it’s never too late to change your story.
Healing is a journey, and it won’t happen overnight. But it can happen, when you give yourself permission to examine your past and take control of your own future. Understanding how your body processes stress is the first step. Then it’s time to take charge and do something about it. That’s when you’ll recognize your real power! Isn’t it time?
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD