Stress – it just affects us mentally, right?

At some point or another, we all go through stress, be it physical or mental. We grow from it, we learn from it – it’s a necessary evil to progress in life. Many would even argue that it’s a positive thing and that pushing our boundaries is what we need (I would agree in many circumstances!). We all know how stress makes us feel but how does it affect us physically? 

In clinic, I see people every day who’s aches and pains can be put down to stress. Be it tight shoulders, headaches or back pain, we all have a place where our stress migrates to. A big part of what osteopaths do to help with pain is to identify this ‘stress area’ and show you how to strengthen and stretch it out. This helps with long term recovery and will help your body cope with whatever you through at it. Of course, this relies on reducing stress where possible too.  

During times of stress, we go through a ‘fight or flight’ response, a reaction that’s controlled by our hypothalamus, located deep in the brain. The hypothalamus communicates with the rest of our body via our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems which act like the accelerator and brake for our body. During times of stress, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in and gets us ready to act (fight) or run (flight) by causing adrenaline to be released. This in turn triggers a number of other things to happen: 

How fight or flight affects us on a physical level

As you can see, stress doesn’t just affect us on a psychological level. All of these factors help to explain why conditions like type two diabetes, heart disease and digestive issues are so much more common in people who have stressful lifestyles or struggle to control their stress levels. Particularly in the early stages of these conditions, lifestyle changes can have a big impact on how the conditions progress and can in some situations reduce symptoms entirely. This of course is something to discuss with your consultant or doctor. Bear in mind medication and monitoring are still super important here! 

With stress being part of our everyday lives, it’s important that we learn to control the elements we have a say in. Here are some tips you could try to reduce your stress levels: 

  1. Mindfulness! Be it meditation, gratitude lists or other mindfulness strategies, taking your head out of the game for a moment can be really beneficial. Like everything, you have to be engaged with it for it to work – just sitting down for ten minutes won’t do a lot unless you’re able to commit to whatever it is you’re trying to do. For example, I’m a restless soul and so I find meditation quite difficult (clearing my mind doesn’t come easy!). Instead, I find gratitude really helpful – considering what I have to be grateful for. It doesn’t have to be anything major, even just having time to have a cup of tea is something to be grateful for at the moment! 
  1. Decide what is and isn’t out of your control! Traffic is out of your control but the route you take or the time you give yourself for a journey is within your control. The coronavirus outbreak is out of your control but staying at home is within your control. The amount of work your boss expects you to do is out of your control but how you plan your day is within your control. Do you see what I mean? Change what you can and work around what you can’t! 
  1. Be in tune with your body! Know your warning signs – be it a twinge of back pain, a nauseous feeling before a headache or otherwise. Recognise the signs of getting stressed and try to mitigate them (or better still the stress itself!) before it becomes an issue! 
  1. Ask for help! Don’t be afraid to delegate or ask for assistance. We’re all only human and there are only so many hours in a day. Make a plan, divide it into tasks and delegate or put things off if things get too much 
  1. Contact your GP! There’s no shame in asking for help and I’m sure your GP would prefer to help at the start of an issue than when things have become overwhelming and there are a number of factors to sort out. It’s the same with osteopaths – seeing us when you’ve got a niggle is better than waiting until it’s a full blown injury. Better to be sorted sooner rather than later! 

Really what this comes down to is good awareness of your own body, mind and stress. I’m by no means perfect at this but it comes with time. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not quite there yet…that’ll just create more stress! One step at a time! 

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