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! 

Working from home?

At the end of March, most of us were thrown into working from home. This meant enormous changes for us all and I’d imagine most of us spent the first few weeks working from the sofa or dining table. As a result, I had messages from lots of patients saying their backs were sore, their necks and shoulders were tight and they were getting headaches, none of which came as a surprise given the circumstances. But was it how they were sitting or how LONG they were sitting for that was the problem? 

Recent research has shown how it’s actually the length of time we’re sat for that’s the problem. In fact, being in any position for too long can cause aches and pains. Pair that with uncomfortable chairs and working from a laptop or tablet rather than a desktop and it’s no wonder we’ve all felt a bit stiff. Being at home can go one of two ways – we can either be distracted and get up every half hour or so, or the more common one, we can sit for hours on end, typing away and not realising the time. At least in the office, we get up to fetch something from the printer, chat to a colleague or walk over to a meeting room. With this not happening at home, we get stiff and uncomfortable and end up with our shoulders up by our ears by the end of the day. 

The other point to remember is that when we’re working from home, we are missing the commute. Being so close to London, a lot of you get the train into town and I can guarantee you’ll be moving more than you realise. Walking from home to the station, the station to the office, around the office, out for lunch and then back to the station and home – it all adds up so you’ll be doing far more steps than you realise. I certainly found this – on a normal day in clinic, I average 6000 steps. One day when working from home during proper lockdown, I managed a grand total of 623 – 90% less than normal. No need to ask if I felt achy that day! 

While the research is proving it’s less and less important, we should discuss desktop set ups. Cramming yourself onto the corner of the dinner table or sat on the same sofa morning to night isn’t great. Creating a healthy work environment needn’t mean expensive desk chairs with all the bells and whistles attached but it is important to feel comfortable and stable. More on that later on.  

One final point to address is stress! We can all agree dealing with coronavirus has been stressful, working from home has been stressful, social distancing has been stressful, finances have been stressful and worrying about our health and the health of our loved ones has been stressful. This has a massive effect on us both physically and mentally and is a whole other blog post entirely (keep your eyes out for that!). Stress affects us all in different ways – some get headaches, some get back pain, some get stomach ache and so on. Knowing your signs is really important and is something I’d encourage you to consider as sometimes our bodies feel recognise stress before our minds to.  

“But what can we do about it??” I hear you cry! Here are my top tips for working from home: 

  1. Have a structured schedule that you stick to and try to not work overtime where you can help it. There will always be work to be done! Oh, and a lunch break is mandatory! 
  1. Have your meals away from your desk and if possible, go into another room entirely to eat 
  1. Keep hydrated! I use a bottle with time markings on it which helps to keep me accountable and reminds me to drink. Some people find glasses to be better – a small glass of water by your side will need to be refilled and this will get you up and away from your desk 
  1. Set an alarm for every hour. When it goes off, take a walk around the house, do some stretches or get some fresh air. (Official guidance is to get up every 30 minutes but I appreciate it’s hard to get any work done if you’re up every half an hour!) 
  1. Desk set ups are so individual. I don’t have a desk and prefer to work sat cross legged on the sofa, which is completely fine as I feel comfortable in this position, but it won’t work for everyone. If this doesn’t work for you, find a position that does. Typically, sitting on a backed chair, back resting against the chair, with elbows at a right angle and wrists straight works for most people. If working with a laptop, try to at least get a separate mouse. Better yet, a separate keyboard so you can raise the monitor to your eye level without compromising your wrists and elbows.  

The take home point here is to do what works for you but be sure to be getting up often! Take this as your cue to get up and have a walk and then when you’re back at your desk, set a timer for an hour and repeat. With stress levels still very high, don’t let aches and pains add to your stress. Be kind to yourself and do what works for you. As always, if you have any questions, get in touch! 

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