STRESS - THE OMNIPRESENT BANE OF OUR EXISTENCE.
Most people would say they have it, though not everybody realises how much it affects their life. This article will cover some of the physical aspects of stress, how it affects our body and mind and what you can do about it.
Adrenaline is secreted rapidly, and the effect lasts only a short while.
Cortisol, on the other hand, is secreted more slowly but the effect lasts longer.
These hormones help us to fight or run away from danger. They release energy from the body’s reserves. They help regulate the blood flow to the vital organs and the muscles. Energy is spared from ‘unnecessary functions’ like digestion, reproduction, growth and healing. Also pain perception is altered; often people don’t feel the pain before the situation calms down.
When lasting for a short while, all this is very good for our survival. It isn’t until it becomes chronic that it becomes a problem
Stress in itself isn’t negative but helps us to act in a tough situation (fight or flight) and to evolve (eg. workouts). The body will have a physical reaction to stress regardless of the type of stressor (physical, mental, emotional).
A stressor is an event that takes the body out of homeostasis (balance). The stress response strives to bring the body back to a state of homeostasis (bodily functions are in balance). Hormones are secreted in stress; mostly adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol.
We as humans have a unique ability to cause ourselves stress with our thoughts. The body can’t distinguish psychological stressors from purely physical ones (“you have to run to survive”). And so, a reaction that’s meant to last for a few minutes can last several days and weeks, which is not what nature intended.
This causes the body to shift its attention away from important functions such as digestion, growth, recovery, reproduction, etc. Symptoms such as tiredness, overwhelm, hair thinning, loss of libido, weight gain, and poor sleep quality, are all signs of chronic stress.
Also when we get stressed we tend to tense up, especially in the neck and shoulders. We start breathing more shallowly and lose our sense of safety, being on high alert (hyper-arousal). This is nature's way of protecting the important structures and preparing us for a fight or flight, if possible, or freeze if the fight or flight is not a viable option in the situation.
Because we often don’t get to run away from our stress-inducing thoughts, the stress becomes chronic and so do the changes in our bodies, leading to neck and shoulder pain, lower back pain, tension headaches, and even migraines. In chronic stress, the body doesn’t get a chance to relax or heal.
Also, digestive problems such as being too loose or constipated, increase because the body is in constant sympathetic overdrive (fight or flight) which means it doesn’t use its energy for digestion (parasympathetic => rest and digest).
So what can you then do to help yourself?
Ideally, the best course of action is to reduce the stressors in your life, whether they be physical or mental. The second best is to have daily practices that alleviate the effects of stress.
Your attitude matters: is it anxiety or excitement? You can change how you relate to stress, and the differences in physical reactions come from how you interpret them: If you feel stress more as a threat than a positive challenge, it will increase your cortisol secretion.
Short bursts (up to a minute) of intense exercise help to reduce the levels of stress hormones and use up the energy released by the stress hormones in the body by mimicking running away from danger. Walks in nature also help to ground us and stay more present, which reduces stress. Also, meditation and mindfulness exercises help you to stay in the present and reduce stress when practiced regularly. You can start with just 3-5 minutes a day!
Deep breathing exercises and vagus nerve stimulation help to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest part of your body’s
What can an osteopath do to help you with stress?
As osteopaths we treat the person as a whole, taking into consideration the physical, mental, and emotional aspects. In addition to working on the tight muscles, we might suggest minor lifestyle changes and hacks for de-stressing, give recommendations for supplements, and provide exercises to help you recover.
Cranial osteopathy is very beneficial in relaxing the body and restoring its energy, helping the body to calm to a state where it can once more heal itself.
In addition to treating the tight neck and back muscles that may be causing you pain and tension headaches, your osteopath can also work on your thoracic diaphragm to help you with deep breathing. This diaphragm tends to get tense if not used to its full capacity for deep breathing, and thus deep breathing can be challenging initially, although when done daily, or even several times a day, can produce very rewarding results.