Stress. A state of being that many of us are keenly aware of. We know a certain amount or, rather, a type of stress can be good, but what we lack is the understanding of what too much stress can do.
Our minds and bodies are not separate entities, they are irrevocably connected, meaning the mental stress that you experience influences your physical body as well.
It is no secret that we are rapidly approaching the holiday season, stores decorated floor to ceiling and holiday sales won’t let us ignore the preeminence of the times ahead.
So, as we all are gearing up for the holiday season, a joyous time of year that inevitably brings a level of stress to our daily lives, let’s explore some effects of stress on our bodies and ways to healthfully cope with that stress.
First, a general overview on the experience of stress at a basic level. Essentially, our experience of stress is our brain’s and body’s reaction to a perceived threat. This results in our body’s release of various stress hormones that gear us up for a response to the perceived threat. The physiological changes that our bodies make to cope with stress are amazing.
Reading this, you may think that this is singularly our bodies response to stress in the form of a physical attack or eminent danger. This is a common misconception and only a portion of the stress experience.
The presence of psychological and relational pressure, a common experience during the holiday season, creates a similar stress response in our bodies. This nervous system response, when experienced chronically, is unhealthy for our physical bodies. Cortisol and adrenaline, the prominent stress hormones produced in the stress response process, create physiological changes in most all body systems.
Chronic increased stress weakens our immune system which makes us more susceptible to getting sick, depleting our body’s ability to fight off sickness. The musculoskeletal system is also greatly affected by chronic stress. The stress response cues our muscles to tense up in order to protect our bodies. This reflex is protection against pain and potential injury but, in a chronic state, can contribute to muscle pain and headaches.
When we are experiencing constant stress, our muscles are living in a consistent state of tension to guard our bodies from the threat (expectations, pressure, emotional stress, etc.) that our brains are also experiencing. Living in a constant state of stress causes our bodies to live in a constant guarded state in which muscle tension becomes the norm. This causes us pain and can inhibit healing and progress for those recovering from injury. Our respiratory, endocrine, gastrointestinal and nervous systems are all impacted by chronic stress as well. This is problematic in the physical therapy world, which is why we work to educate others on these effects of stress and potential interventions.
Exercise is an effective way to bring about stress relief. Though this activity is often the last thing we want to prioritize in times of stress, even just 30 minutes of walking a day can make a drastic difference regarding the influence of stress on our minds and bodies. The endorphins produced during physical activity work in a way that relaxes the body and mind.
To intentionally go out and exercise during times of stress is daunting. Studies suggest that exercise of low to moderate levels are sufficient in combatting some of the negative side effects of stress. In addition to exercise, slowing down to breathe and incorporate light stretching is another tool to use to bring about stress relief.
There are plenty of resources that illustrate various breathing exercises and techniques that are advantageous but slowing down and being mindful of how we are breathing and transitioning to deep and full breaths, can be just as effective. Mindful breathing paired with light stretching can bring about some relief to tense muscles that revert to protection mode during stress.
The two stress relief options discussed are just a couple of ways to lessen the load that stress places on your body.
The foundation to both of those activities is a level of self-awareness and self-care. Amid stress may we make it our goals to check in with ourselves and others while doing what is good for our bodies in the moment to combat the long-term effects that stress can have.