Stress. What is it? How does it occur? How can stress impact your health?
Stress is a natural reaction in the body that activates your innate ‘fight or flight’ response – otherwise known as your sympathetic nervous system. This occurs when we experience some kind of threat and require an immediate response from the body. However, as our lives have become more fast paced, the ‘threats’ that trigger the fight or flight response have changed dramatically from what they once were.
For example, the fight or flight response was typically activated when a life-threatening event occurred such as ‘running away from a lion’ or ‘fighting off an attack’. Now we think of stress as ‘work’, ‘meeting deadlines’, ‘not getting enough sleep’, emotional stress, trauma, etc.
While new age stressors aren’t the same as the old stressors, they still cause the same reaction in the body, only this time the effects can be longer lasting if you can’t switch off from constant stress.
Back when there were lions and tigers to run away from, the body would naturally switch from a fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system response), to a rest and digest response – otherwise known as a parasympathetic nervous system response – once the threat to the person was gone.
Today we are seeing something very different. We are stuck in fight or flight mode all the time, as we are constantly living our lives as if we were in fact running away from a lion.
Symptoms of fight or flight/sympathetic response are:
- Forward head and shoulders
- Tight Achilles tendons and back of leg muscles
- Increased heart rate
- Hypersensitive to sight and sound
- Digestive, immune, and reproductive system suppressed
- Increased blood sugar levels
During periods of heightened stress (e.g., running from away from a lion), this response it is necessary for survival. We need to tighten our leg muscles to run away. The head and shoulders move forward ready to flee or to fight. The digestive system and reproductive system need to slow down because the body needs more energy and blood flow to your arms and legs to run away. Your heart beats faster to pump more blood to the arms and legs. You sweat, and your senses to light and sound sharpen so that you see and hear better.
These are all GOOD things, designed to protect your body and to survive, but they are only good in the SHORT TERM! We need to be able to switch this mechanism off to avoid chronic stress symptoms.
When we are stuck in fight or flight mode all the time, we can become tense, irritable, stressed out, wound up and overwhelmed. We can also start to see many different conditions arising from being constantly stressed out.
Symptoms of constant stress include:
- Shoulder and neck muscle tightness
- Sensitivity to light and sound
- Digestive upsets – bloating, constipation or diarrhoea
- Light sleep, vivid dreams and feeling tired
- Increased blood clotting factors (increased risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis – DVT)
- High blood pressure
- Feeling cold
- Difficulty losing weight
- Salt and sugar cravings
- Gallbladder problems
- Hormonal imbalance, including high oestrogen and/or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Uterine fibroids
- Hair loss
- Thyroid imbalance
- Water retention
- Anxiety, depression and irritability
You might be thinking ‘what does bloating have to do with poor sleep’, or what ‘does high blood pressure have to do with fatigue?’. When you can understand the roles of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, it’s clear to see how all of these issues can be linked through constant stress.
We should be living most of our lives in parasympathetic mode, and only switch over to sympathetic mode when something is truly threatening our lives.
If you have any of the symptoms listed above you should consult your GP, or if you’re already consulting with your GP, don’t stop. You can also visit your local Chiropractor to discuss some strategies to help with stress, as well as get your spine aligned to improve posture and recovery.
Some things you can do right now that may help you get out of this constant stress cycle:
- Meditation and deep breathing
- Stretching your pectoral and hamstring muscles
- Laying on a posture pole for 15 minutes a day
- Strengthening back muscles
- Eliminating foods that cause bloating
- Turning off electronic devices 1-2 hours before bed
Chiropractic & Physiotherapy Health Centre