How does stress effect us?
Every day we are bombarded with talk of stress and things to stress us out…we should be aspiring to have the bigger car, better exam results, perfect life – but we also live in the real world so we have pressure to work, see our families, get kids to school on time although it is frowned upon to be in your pyjamas when you do drop them off. All the while managing to post all of it on Facebook and making it look effortless.
We are also told stress will cause lots of health problems from acne to headaches. I have a problem with stress, I feel it is an overused term; if you look at definition of Stress it is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger, whether it’s real or imagined the body’s defences kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction or the “stress response.” The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you.
There is evidence that long periods of negative stress (small amounts of stress can be experienced as positive and energizing) can cause negative affects on your body by doing things like suppressing the immune system. When it comes to the problems we see every day in clinic with musculoskeletal pain, I genuinely believe stress doesn’t cause harm on its own, but it can focus and exaggerate problems that you may already have.
Quite a statement, but I think that we blame stress too much; life is stressful and we all experience it every day…be it positive stress like what shall I have for lunch or which party should I go to, through to negative stress like if I don’t get this project finished I will get fired or a dispute with your neighbour.
Yes, stress does affect our body, when we are under stress the flight ,fight and fright response does kick in. This causes a complex reaction in your body with a stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system which causes adrenaline and cortisol amongst other things, which increases our heart rate, increases sweating and generally getting ready to run away.
Handy when a dinosaur attacks not so useful in a dispute over a parking space. This getting ready to flee is one factor which can build muscle tension – but it tends to go to the areas we are already holding tension, so if you are preparing to defend yourself from the rampaging dinosaur you will grip your club harder ready to strike out – this will involve tightening your hands and arms, tensing your shoulders and then waiting to strike. However now a days dinosaurs are few and far between and hitting people with clubs is frowned upon unless you happen to be in an anger room – so all that tension we build up gets stored up and never released.
So if you think of the common areas where you feel tension or pain, it is usually in between your shoulders, or in your low back, neck or calf muscles, all regions you would use when running away.
Another influence of stress is whilst your sympathetic nervous system is turned up (this is your get up and go nervous system) your parasympathetic nervous system is turned down – this is where problems can really kick in as this is your chill out and relax nervous system. This will slow your heart rate, relax your breathing, stimulate your digestion and generally help everything you don’t need when being attacked by a metaphorical dinosaur.
This lack of parasympathetic nervous system can contribute to your blood pressure creeping up, poor digestion and irritable bowel symptoms amongst other things. So it is quite easy to see that if you are under stress, then you can have a variety of symptoms from tension to bowel problems. But what can we (here at the clinic) and you do about it?
Firstly, as I said, the tension aspect of stress tends to hit you in the areas you are already tight in. Therefore regular treatment can help mobilse these budding problem areas and help prevent the potential for build up.
More importantly (yes there are things more important than us!) you can help yourself with exercise; research has shown that only 20 minutes of physical exercise can have a benefit to your mental health. Also exercise will also stimulate blood circulation which is required for all aspects of the body, and it will act as the dinosaur – you can use up all that potential energy you have stored up to club the dinosaur by exercising – be that hitting a punchbag, hitting the gym or channelling your inner Anton du Beke and taking to the dance floor.
Many dietary influences exist too so avoid sugar. I mentioned cortisol as a stress hormone: too much sugar changes blood chemistry so it will release cortisol to cope with increased blood sugar. Artificial sweetners are not a good replacement, as they can retrain your body to seek sugary food and can cause side effects themselves like headaches.
Processed food has a large amount of sugar in it so may also have the same affects; they also have a large amount of salt, this can make you thirsty but also cause your body to retain fluid which will mean your have more fluid for your heart to cope with. These foods tend not to have much nutritional value.
Alcohol is bad too, again because of the sugar but also due to the negative affects it has on your body and your sleep patterns.
The final diet change is Caffeine, this is a stimulant that can kick off the stress response all on its own, and if you are already in a heightened state of anxiety it will exaggerate it – it is also a diuretic, which can cause dehydration.
If you are experiencing the symptoms of stress, we can help by releasing the muscle tension you are feeling, and helping to balance out the two nervous systems I mentioned earlier – the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic we want to turn down by releasing the rib cage and upper back (this is where the nerves exit) and stimulating your parasympathetic which comes from your pelvis and the top of your neck – the vagus nerve at the top of the neck is arguably one of the most important nerves in your body.
If the vagus isn’t firing properly you can have all the symptoms I have spoken about, but also your gut brain axis is affected this brilliant feedback loop is how your brain knows what is happening in your guts – if this is negatively affected you can get IBS symptoms and it can also affect your friendly bacteria which live there. This works both ways, so if your bacteria is bad it can affect your brain too. There has been links with diet and everything from dementia to parkinsons, so this is a feedback loop you will want to take care of. We can help by maximising neural flow and taking as much pressure off it along its pathway.
Finally avoid large amounts of negative stress – there you go problem solved, I don’t know why you didn’t think of it sooner! Obviously avoiding negative stress is difficult, but how we perceive stress massively affects how we respond to it, one way to change our response it through Mindfulness meditation. Dr Maret Dymond – Bassett
at New Forest mindfulness can help with this.
If you are experiencing the physical symptoms of stress, we may be able to help, and if we can’t we can signpost you to someone who can.