Most of us are so used to living in a state of stress, we often don't realize the negative effects it is having on our body. In fact, small infrequent doses of stress are not bad. It can help you accomplish tasks and avoid getting hurt.
Stress is the body's reaction to a real or perceived harmful situation called "fight or flight". If you were a cave man, running from a bear, stress hormones would allow you to run faster and harder. When a stress hits, your body's critical systems for survival rev up and less urgent needs are set aside.
Immediate physical symptoms of stress can include a headache, muscle tension, rapid heart rate, insomnia, dry mouth, clenched jaw, and nervousness. While stressed, your nervous system keeps the body on alert.
But, what happens when traffic jams, work deadlines, no WiFi, or a long line at the coffee shop gets our blood boiling on a daily basis?
The Effects of Chronic Stress
With chronic stress, your body remains in a prolonged state of muscle tension and produces high levels of stress hormones. This type of stress can cause or worsen many health problems including mental illness like depression or anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive problems, and skin conditions like acne or eczema.
You might think of stress being a problem only for your mind or psychology. However, your brain and body work together and cannot be separated.
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system and signals the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and cortisol that slows digestion (because this isn't really the top priority if you are running from a bear) but also increases inflammation in your body. The hormones constrict blood vessels and reduce blood flow to soft tissues including muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves.
As you would imagine, this results in muscle spasm, slowed healing, and frequently pain symptoms. Please remember though that stress and emotional factors that lead to pain result in real physical symptoms and are not imagined or made up.
Stress and Pain are Linked
The bodies experience of stress and pain each have an impact on the other creating a vicious cycle. Pain is regulated by the nervous system so the brain is a key player in how we perceive pain. To maintain balance in our body and help us function, the brain works hard to try to minimize pain signals. When you are stressed, your brain is unable to filter the pain (or inhibit) signals so pain intensity will increase.
Whether your pain or stress came first doesn't really matter, both negatively affect your quality of life.
A change as small as lack or disruption of sleep caused by pain and/or stress limits your body's ability to heal and recover. For many people, learning how to avoid or cope with stress can lead to significant pain relief.
Where to Start?
Sometimes stress relief can be as easy as taking three long deep breaths. To be most effective breathe in through your nose and let the air fill your belly. Hold for a few seconds and then slowly blow out through your mouth. In the moment, this can decrease the production of stress hormones and start to relax your muscles.
For more ideas and actionable steps, look for a follow-up blog post for the 3 steps process for stress and pain reduction.
In the meantime, head over to Facebook where you will find tips, tricks, conversation, and Live chats on these and other health topics. You can post any questions you have there.