It is clear that we live in a world full of stressers. There is work stress, home-life stress, parenting stress and, often times, unnecessary stress. Many people are unaware of the actual physical demand that stress places on the body. Our body has various systems that are always trying to work harmoniously, but when we have discussions about being “stressed out,” people tend to only think about the mental or emotional state in which stress puts us. There is a whole other physical system that gets affected by stresses to our life.
When stress becomes a factor in our life, various hormones rush through our body. The 3 most well known are Adrenaline, Norepinephrine, and Cortisol, although there are others.
This is the one that most people have probably heard of. It is also known as Epinephrine. This is the start to the basic fight or flight response. If you are unfamiliar with the term “fight or flight,” it is our most primal mode of survival that stems from the sympathetic system of the spinal cord. If you think back to a time when you might have had to survive an attack from a Sabre toothed tiger, Adrenaline would rush through the body, enhancing blood flow and sensory input to visual systems and muscles causing readiness for either fleeing the tiger or fighting it, while overriding feelings of hunger or the need for use of the bathroom.
This is a hormone that is similar to Adrenaline. This is another arousal hormone that does very similar things as the previous Adrenaline or Epinephrine. Some scientists think that we have both in order to have a backup system when needed.
This hormone, specifically, is called the “stress hormone.” This hormone takes a bit longer for us to feel its effects, due to the multistep process it has on our body. In comparison to the other previously discussed hormones, the effects of cortisol take minutes verses seconds. In certain situations, the body’s release of cortisol can be crucial. However, when we lament on certain problems or have continued stress that is not coped with, the body continues to produce this hormone. It can suppress the immune system, increase both blood pressure and glucose levels causing insulin resistance, and contribute to obesity.
When we are not properly coping with the stressers in our life, these hormones can be produced more frequently. You’re probably wondering what this has to do with physical therapy. Chronic stress can cause our muscles to be at a more constant state of tightness. This alone can cause tension headaches, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunctions, or migraines. They can cause neck pain, poor mechanical movement of the shoulder, and lower back pain.
It is important to know what the stressers in your life are or what events trigger stress for you. When we are aware of this, we can make conscious decisions to avoid or address the stressers. These actions can be as simple as turning off our mobile device at night in order to go to bed earlier so that in the morning you can wake up well rested – or wake up earlier so that rushing out the door to sit in traffic with minutes to get to work on-time doesn’t cause increased stress. It could be as grand as selling your big McMansion to downsize to a smaller townhome or condo so that your mortgage is cheaper, requiring less of a mental need to make more money, take more meetings, take on more projects with shorter deadlines, thus leaving you in a constant frenzy of working, working, working. Figuring out this work-life balance is huge.
Learning how to cope with stress is a major help as well. In my home, I have a burlap piece of wall décor that I see everyday as I walk out the door, and it says, “Do more of what makes you happy.” It’s kind of a mantra of mine. To cope with stress, remind yourself of what makes you truly happy. Is it hanging out with your community of friends? If so, make it a priority to spend more time with them. Plan dinners, brunch dates, walks around the neighborhood, or even something as simple as planning a phone conversation date where you can just have an uninterrupted amount of time to talk and reconnect or catch up.
Maybe you have a hobby that you haven’t done in a while. Dancing and soccer are my major hobbies, and I spend a lot of time doing those things, and, while difficult, they feed me with happiness and joy. Any exercise is a great way to get hormones (such as dopamine & serotonin) released throughout our body that give us a feeling of calm, relaxation and happiness.
Breathing exercises and meditation or mindfulness practices are the easiest things that one can do. Studies are showing that even just 5-10 minutes of meditation daily causes major physiological hormonal changes in the body that then will have positive effects on body systems, one being the musculoskeletal system.
At PhysioDC we see so many people with low back pain, neck pain, TMJ pain, headaches, and forearm pain. I notice that the people who have the higher levels of stress, despite doing all the advised PT exercises and recommendations, tend to recover a lot slower from these issues.
Just remember that that we are not helpless in this life, and we can choose the little things to help lower our stress and recover a bit faster. Take a moment and breathe.