For some reason, Christmas last year seemed to be a very stressful time for me. At the time, it really did seem quite daunting with all of its implications of organisation and costs. But, on the other hand the thought of contact with old friends, meals to be enjoyed, and other Christmas pleasures to be had, got me smiling with anticipation.
Stress and excitement – sometimes we love them but other times we could really do without them, especially the stress.
Stress is a part of us; it is in our make up. You cannot avoid the symptoms of stress – in fact it is a sophisticated survival response that will serve us well on many occasions. Our physical reaction to stressful situations are much the same whether the threat is a hairy beast about to attack us, or, anticipating a PowerPoint presentation to the directors with a dodgy laptop with only fifteen minutes notice.
As soon as any threat is perceived, our bodies make immediate changes to make us stronger, faster and much more alert. Adrenaline is broadcast via the blood stream and received by all of our organs. This prompts changes in our breathing, heart rate, digestion, hearing, sight and perception of time. The objective is to make us ready to run, hit, fight, be strong and alert as well as totally focused on survival in the face of this danger.
We also have defensive postures that we adopt when stressed, for instance we tend to tighten, and thus strengthen, our necks, lower backs and hips.
Our bodies also respond to stress in other ways, for instance the body employs the so called reticular alarm system to deal with immediate threats that require instant extra strength - this is centred on the jaw area. This mechanism actually does make us stronger. Out of interest, try hitting something hard without clenching your jaw, it's almost impossible, somewhat like sneezing and trying to keep your eyes open. By clenching your jaw you can generate more power with your arms.
In the normal course of events our bodies will revert back to a steadier situation when the stress has passed. This calming down is achieved through the parasympathetic nervous system - the antidote to adrenaline, if you like.
So having fought off the hairy beast, run a half mile, we get our breath back and carry on with the rest of day.
But modern stress doesn’t always come in bursts like that – it can be chronic and persistent in nature. Caring for a child or partner with a long term illness can be stressful; dealing with finances can be stressful; relationships can be stressful; dealing with chronic pain is stressful. And any of these may be present for years.
The effects these long term stresses will have on our bodies are fairly predictable – the short term effects of stress mentioned earlier will become long term effects. Back pain, neck pain, digestive problems, headaches and jaw problems are very common long term symptoms of stress.
If the stress remains present for a long time, then these physical symptoms may become painful enough to cause stress themselves and exacerbate the problem. The feature of chronic stress is that it builds up gradually over a period of time and we tend not to recognise the gradual changes in ourselves and so it can go on and on. It can be very hard to recognise symptoms of stress within ourselves.
Interestingly, some people have an area, such as a knee or lower back, possibly previously injured or strained in some way, which will become very painful or uncomfortable when they are under stress. Call it a weak point if you like, but it can be a very handy pointer to the fact that “yes, I really am under pressure here” – a useful wake up call.
A mantra I use a lot when talking about stress is “if things don’t change they’ll remain the same”. Obviously true, but what can be done to improve things?
This is a brief article so here are my simple suggestions:
Firstly, my favourite and a very powerful weapon against stress, humour and laughter. Anywhere you can find it - in a book, in a film, on the radio, on the T.V., or a stand-up comedian. Whatever your choice, actively seek it out. Our bodily reaction to situations will depend on our perception of that event and if we can view a situation with a degree of humour then it become far less threatening.
When your situation reaches the point of total absurdity, then you can more easily smile, view it with a better perspective and calm down. Look for the daftness in the situation, smile at your reactions.
Relaxation from activities such as meditation, yoga and tai chi will also help us to view the situation with a better perspective.
Another tactic, and probably both the most obvious and difficult, is to physically move away from the stress. If the stress is centred on work or home, then this may be tricky but it is obviously vitally important to somehow give your system a break from the continuous bombardment of stress. Just a break for an hour, or so, will have some good effects and perhaps combine it with my next suggestion.
Physical exercise can be very helpful, be it walking, swimming, riding, football or whatever else takes your fancy. One of the effects of the stress response is to generate glycogens in the blood stream. These glycogens are a form of food and are absorbed by the muscles in order to fuel the mighty exertions that may be required to survive. If they are not used up then we can be left with feelings of being
over-energised; exercise will help this.
Exercise has many benefits; in this context of stress management it can serve as a very useful distraction and a big boost to our own self image.
Lastly let me suggest some physical therapy to ease the tightness from aching backs, necks and jaws as well as alleviating other physical symptoms. You wouldn’t be surprise, I’m sure, that I recommend craniosacral therapy for this purpose, however other therapies can also help if you have been used to them and they have worked for you in the past for other problems. Relieving the physical symptoms of stress will also relieve the intellectual component of that stress and release resources of energy and vitality.
Stress, in itself, is certainly not a bad thing. It enables us to deal with worrying, threatening or exciting situations with increased resources and inner strength. Chronic, or continual and unrelenting stress can lead to physical symptoms which we should acknowledge and do our best to alleviate them.
By Eric Demmon BSc CST
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