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Stress: how it affects the body

Stress: how it affects the body

12th December 2017

“Stress” is a term widely used, and widely experienced, but how does it affect the body?
Stress can be the cause for many issues in the body, such as tension headaches, digestive issues, or trouble sleeping. In fact, it’s even in the word: dis-ease, ie. the opposite of ‘at ease’, or relaxed.

To understand the effects of stress, we must look at our autonomic nervous system (ANS). Our ANS “runs” our body behind the scenes, outside of our conscious control. It regulates our breathing, heart rate, temperature, immune function and hormonal systems while we go on with life. The ANS includes the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is the ‘fight/flight’ aspect, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is the ‘rest and digest’ aspect.

The SNS is our survival response, hardwired to support action in response to a deadly threat. It raises our heart rate and respiration, and releases stress hormones (including adrenalin and cortisol) into the body. Blood is redirected from the digestive system into the muscles, so that we can either make a quick getaway or fight for our lives.
The counterbalance of the stress response is our PNS, the ‘rest and digest’ response. After we’ve got away from or fought off the attacking tribe, the wild animal, etc, the PNS kicks in to slow down our heart rate and respiration, and brings blood back to the digestive tract.

The thing is, these days the ‘deadly threat’ that our body is responding to can be our perception of pressure and urgency, such as a deadline; it can even be our caffeine consumption. Our body’s physiology doesn’t know the difference between an actual ‘danger’ and what we perceive as a problem. Many times people cite their stress levels as low, or claim that they have nothing to be stressed about, but the body doesn’t necessarily need a conscious ‘stress’ to activate the stress response. For example, the busy mind that won’t switch off at night because it’s always going over the to-do list is likely to be either the cause of the stress response or a symptom of it.

These days, the stresses that our bodies are dealing with are likely to be ongoing, such as work and/or family pressures and responsibilities. In this case, we are in fight/flight most or all of the time. The nervous system becomes imbalanced, and a whole host of knock-on effects take place, such as impaired digestion, poor sleeping patterns, muscular stiffness/tightness, mood fluctuations, headaches and increased blood pressure, to name a few.
So what can we do to break this cycle?

The idea is to help the body to feel safe, so it can turn off High Alert mode. Activities that centre around breath work, such as yoga, tai chi, meditation and qi gong are all great for this. The key is in the deep, slow breathing. Think about it: you definitely aren’t meditating if you’re being attacked by a lion.

Soothing physical therapy such as massage can also be very helpful in a number of ways. Apart from helping the PNS kick in, it can also help alleviate muscular pain and tension caused by being consistently in ‘fight/flight’ mode. For example, think of those tense shoulders that keep creeping up towards your ears, or your jaw that’s been getting a workout overnight as you grind your teeth (a sure-fire sign you’re in fight/flight mode).

So if your body is showing you signs that you’ve been on High Alert, try dedicating just a few minutes a day to letting it know it’s safe to relax. Sit and take some long, slow breaths. Go for a little walk. Take a yoga class. Or book yourself in for a massage. It’s an investment in your health.

This article is for information purposes only. Please consult your Osteopath or primary healthcare professional for further information.