STRESS: how it affects the body and what you can do about it
Updated: Jun 22, 2018
“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. Most, if not all, pre-existing conditions in the body become worse with stress. In fact, it’s even in the word: dis-ease, ie. the opposite of ‘at ease’, or relaxed.
Our stress response is part of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which looks after all our body functions that happen unconsciously, such as digestion, breathing, the immune response and our hormonal systems, to name a few. The ANS has two “modes” concerned with our stress response: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is our “fight/flight” mode, and the PNS is our “rest and digest” mode. These two "modes" are designed to balance each other.
Our SNS (our stress response) is our body’s response to danger. 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 PNS on the other hand, our “rest and digest” mode, is where we’d ideally be most of the time. After we’ve managed to get away from the danger (the attacking tribe, wild animal, etc…) our PNS kicks in to slow down our heart rate and respiration, and brings blood back to the digestive tract.
This system has served us well over the millennia, but in the last few decades life has changed enormously. The human body was not designed to live at the pace our lives gallop along at now. The ‘danger’ our bodies are responding to these days is often not a physical danger at all, but a perception of pressure and urgency, such as a deadline. The stresses we’re responding to on a physiological level are also often ongoing in nature, such as work, financial or relationship pressures, rather than short-lived occurrences after which we settle back into our PNS. Often we are not fully coming out of our stress response, as evidenced by things such as perpetually tight muscles, tight jaw, grinding teeth, trouble sleeping, headaches and digestive issues.
So what can we do to break this cycle?
The idea is to help the body to feel safe, so it can turn off the stress response. 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 going to be 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. Have a bath. 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 healthcare professional for further information.
Weaver, L. Women's Wellness Wisdom. www.littlegreenfrogpublishing.com: Little Green Frog Publishing Pty Ltd; 2016.