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The “psychology” behind Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome



I think it is safe to say that you are not likely to find a possible candidate for Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome spending much time lounging on the couch! However, to more fully understand the factors that make someone susceptible to  Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) a focus on the role and consciousness of the adrenals will be beneficial.

In BodyTalk and other modalities that focus on the connection between the body and mind there is an awareness that different organs, endocrines and body parts not only play a physical role in the body but also hold a consciousness (specific qualities that shape our awareness and behaviour)  that is very linked to that physical role. Generally, when we are balanced the body will be operating well and there will be an experience of emotional harmony. However, often if there is emotional imbalance the body will be affected physically in a way that is aligned with the emotional imbalance e.g. when feeling like life is overwhelming one of the physical responses could be in the colon (e.g. constipation or diarrhea) which holds a consciousness of compulsion (think of peristalsis pushing food forward) and control and also needs to maintain these characteristics in a healthy balance in order to function well.

The adrenals play the role of enabling healthy responses to stress, protection from danger, and ultimately survival. Please read my last post for more information on the physical role of the adrenals. The consciousness characteristics of the adrenals are related to this survival role in terms of having strength, motivation and willpower. If we are experiencing optimal stress (we all need stress to motivate us) then these aspects will be in balance and enable survival. If we are feeling overwhelmed by stress these aspects will be affected (either excess or deficiency) and we will feel drained and depleted, often experiencing burnout and overwhelm.

The adrenals are closely linked to the kidneys. The kidneys hold the consciousness of fear and fear is deeply related to stress (optimal stress and fear will enable us to be alert to dangers and to protect ourselves). When we feel excessive fear in relation to the experience of ‘not coping’ i.e. feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed, the adrenals are functioning in a pathological way. Thus, the consciousness of fear, paranoia and obsession is linked to the adrenals and when people are afraid of exposing their weakness and vulnerability there is a tendency to cloak these with a facade of coping. (A cope is a vestment/cloak worn by a religious figure to cover his ordinary clothes). Coping, in the same vein, is covering something. It is a mechanism by which we use coping behaviours to hide our perceived ‘weakness and vulnerablity’.

Considering the above people who are susceptible to burnout and AFS are those who are driven, highly motivated and have an unconscious belief that succeeding and achieving are very important (usually these are markers of self-esteem). It goes without saying that perfectionists are susceptible to AFS. People who battle to sit with uncertainty, not knowing, making mistakes and failing are susceptible to burnout as they try to hide their ‘weaknesses’ and vulnerability behind a facade of competence and success. Sometimes this is conscious but very often this is an unconscious default behavior. These are people who are likely to want to do their best at everything they do, they often take on too much and may try to do too much for others as well. In this sense boundaries can be poor i.e. the ability to see “this is mine and that is yours” and also to the ability to say “no”.

I have seen with my clients that very often there is a genetic aspect to these behaviours and temperaments. Perhaps parents indirectly modelled this driven and perfectionist behaviour. Perhaps it was more direct and mistakes were criticized and only ‘good’ achievements were encouraged or endorsed. Often in these families success and achievement are deeply aligned with self-esteem.

I have noticed that in many instances where people experience an unstable, unpredictable or insecure childhood i.e. lots of changes, losses, traumas,  or lacking parental support and guidance, a perception develops that the world is out of their control. Often these children perceive their parents as being unable to manage the difficulties and trauma (due to their own overwhelm, depression or tendency to withdraw and shutdown when under stress). This sense of not being safe and the great fear linked to that often results in children trying to control as much as they can – holding it all, managing it all and doing it as well as possible in order to feel safe and competent.

These are coping mechanisms and sets up a default that whenever there is a perception of things being unsafe, unknown or out of control the response is to try to control all actions and even people in the environment. Many times such children will dabble with controlling what is eaten/not eaten i.e. bingeing or restricting. They may throw themselves into sports or academic achievements or they may try and fix and take on everything for everyone else at their own expense. All of these behaviours are coping mechanisms and are set up to create a false sense of being in control and feeling safe, which carries through into adulthood.

Other aspects that may be noticeable are talking fast, driving fast, walking fast -everything is done with a sense of urgency. There may be great difficulty in delegating tasks. When time becomes available for a break it may be filled with other tasks/things to DO as the doing helps the sense of being in control. BEING on the other hand results in having to face the fear and paranoia and obsession to hide the ‘weakness’ and ‘vulnerability’ of being not good enough or not being in control. As an adult the extreme nature of these behaviours may seem irrational but remember that what is being hidden is a little child’s fear of having their survival jeaopardised as it really seemed that things were falling apart or having to face ‘not being good enough’ with no one to hold them in that space.

AFS involves a lot of holding. Holding on to a sense of coping and being in control and all of this holding and doing requires a great amount of adrenal activity and exertion. The adrenals ultimately cannot keep up with the demands and ultimately become depleted. Then, for many with more advanced symptoms of AFS, rather than lounging on the couch, being crashed out, exhausted, on the couch is the only option as they don’t feel able to achieve much more than that, and the sense of inadequacy linked to that can be huge for many. This is when it becomes crucial to look at where this all started, how it started and how it plays out in lifestyle, behaviours, relationships so that much-needed changes and letting go can happen.

In the following posts I will focus on managing adrenal fatigue and the different aspects of that in relation to the psychology and emotional experience of BodyTalk.


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  1. Thanks for an interesting topic made even more insightful for me personally as I not only relate very strongly to having adrenal fatigue (which my GP pooh-pooh’ed, when I once asked about this) but, today, I first heard of ACA, which stands for Adult Children of Alcoholic parents. I am an ‘ACA’ and discovered that there is a list of similar characteristics shared by the adult children of alcholics (fear of losing control, perfectionism, rescuer, low self-esteem, etc). To me there are definite correlations here and I’m still doing lots of reading on this topic. Thanks again.

    1. I am so glad the post resonated with you Penny. I can completely understand why you would have developed those characteristics. In any childhood in which a child does not feel safe, supported or certain of the outcome of things the coping mechanism tends to be to try to control and master as much as possible in order to have that sense of being OK. It’s a useful coping mechanism and serves a role at the time but unfortunately for so many it becomes a default and can be detrimental in later years. Wishing you all the best on your journey of growth and healing.

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