Dr. Jim Mitchell, D.C. -- It seems that most of us have some form of stress that we must deal with on a daily basis. Home, work, family, friends, relationships, etc. - it seems as though the list could go on forever. So what can be done about the stress in our lives? How can we diminish the harmful effects of stress on our body, so we are not constantly sick or fighting off some other condition brought on by stress?
Stress affects all systems of the body: muscular, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous and reproductive. While our bodies are miraculous creations and can adapt to handle stress in small doses over a short period of time, our bodies are not meant to handle chronic stress forever. When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflexive reaction to stress, and is the body’s way of guarding against injury or pain. With sudden-onset stress, the muscles tense up all at once, then release their tension when the stress passes. Chronic stress, then, causes the muscles in the body to be guarded virtually of the time. When muscles are tout and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions in the body, or even promote stress-related disorders in the body. For example, both tension-type headaches and migraine headaches are associated with chronic muscle tension in the areas of the shoulder, neck and head. Musculoskeletal pain in the lower back and upper extremities have also been linked to stress, especially job-related stress.
Millions of individuals suffer from chronic painful conditions secondary to musculoskeletal disorders. Often (but not always), there may be an injury that sets off Chronic Pain Syndrome (CPS). What determines whether or not an injured person goes on to suffer from CPS is how they respond to the stress of an injury. Individuals who respond with fear tend to move towards chronic pain. This can be fear of re-injury, fear they will never fully recover, or fear of becoming permanently disabled. Individuals who seek professional help for injuries tend to have better outcomes. Finding a clinic or provider that is willing to help in all phases of treatment for injuries is important to a full and lasting recovery. Having confidence in your healthcare provider can help to eliminate some of the fears that can derail your recovery.
Relaxation techniques and exercise—along with other stress-relieving activities and therapies—have been shown to effectively reduce muscle tension. They also have been shown to decrease the incidences of certain stress-related disorders; such as headaches, high blood pressure and general muscle tension in the shoulders and back. For those who develop chronic pain conditions, stress-relieving activities have been shown to improve mood and daily function. It is unsettling to hear that stress can play such a devastating role in our overall health. The way this occurs is that when we have a stressful encounter, it gets into our brain and stored as a memory. This occurs in the thalamus and hypothalamus of the brain. When this occurs, those regions of the brain release hormones and other chemicals that create mood and emotion surrounding that stress. When this happens, our body is then just responding to the stimulus provided—usually by a tightening of the muscles somewhere. After a period of time with continuous stress, though, our bodies can break down and see the development of weakness. It’s like putting your car in neutral and turning the engine on, then placing a brick on the accelerator. How long could the car’s engine run wide open like that without something breaking down? Our bodies are very similar in that we ask them to respond over and over to negative stressors in our lives and we rarely let the engine cool down before another stressor comes along to “rev the engine to full throttle” again. The body doesn’t understand that this is harmful, because it is just responding to the stimulus; it is doing what it is designed to do. Remember the thalamus and hypothalamus? Once chemicals are released, the body is just responding to those chemicals. The key is to reduce “how” that stress is affecting our senses at the time it occurs. Easy to say, right? It’s hard to send calming thoughts to your brain when someone is blaring their car horn at you as they cut you off while talking on their cell phone. But that’s the trick. We must be in a place of calm when the storm is blowing all around, and this is possible with practice. Some people have had positive results with meditation, exercise, breathing, reading, and praying. These are all useful tools in relaxing the brain and calming our response to stress. It is important to have a provider who takes all of these options into consideration when finding a treatment plan that is right for each individual.
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