Most people are aware of the emotional signs of stress- being tired, irritable, feeling overwhelmed, anxious and on edge. These can come from many causes, such as financial stress, work stress and deadlines, relationship troubles, family troubles, illness or even a global pandemic. But what a lot of people don’t realise is the effect that emotions, positive or negative, can have on your physical wellbeing.
Your body often picks up emotions and translates them into survival instincts. For example when we laugh our brains produce ‘feelgood’ hormones, that signal to the body that everything is good, now is a time to eat, drink and be merry, and maybe think about creating the next generation *wink wink nudge nudge* This can happen with many positive emotions and actions, not only laughing but things like cuddling, feeling connected and part of a group and even exercise can all create the positive hormonal response.
So what about the more negative, stressful emotions? What effect can they have on your body? Most people are familiar with the fight or flight response, the surge of adrenaline just before a stressful event, like public speaking or jumping from an aeroplane. What is not so well known, is that the fight or flight response is on a sliding scale, with fight or flight at one end, and rest and digest (eat drink and be merry) at the other. We call these your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and in a ‘perfect’ world, it is easy to slide from one to the other without too much effort, allowing your body to focus on what it needs in that moment. But when your emotions and mind are stressed, this ramps up the very sensitive fight or flight response, because it can’t tell the difference between public speaking and financial troubles, it just knows you are stressed and need to respond accordingly.
So what are the physical signs of stress? Let’s go through what the fight or flight response triggers in your body so you can see how stress is affecting your body.
When your body is ready to fight or run away, the last thing it wants are relaxed muscles! Your body wants nice tight, tense muscles that can respond at a moments notice to a threat. The main muscle groups affected by this are your hamstrings, so you can jump or run quickly, and the muscles in your shoulders, so you can punch hard or grab quickly. Ever heard anyone say they carry their stress in their shoulders? It’s true! This tense-ness can affect any and every muscle group in your body, so it is very common to feel tight and stiff when you are stressed. Interesting observation: We often see people who have hurt themselves while moving house. The emotional stress, combined with the extra levels of physical exertion while moving are a recipe for trouble!
When your body is in fight or flight, it wants to get as much oxygen to your muscles as quickly as it can so you can make your quick getaway. So your breathing gets faster and more shallow, so you can take in as much oxygen as quickly as possible. In the short term, this is a great idea. But when your stress extends for months on end (hello pandemic!), shallow breathing can become uncomfortable. When you are not taking deep breaths, your ribcage doesn’t move to its full capacity and can become restricted and painful. Those tight muscles we mentioned before can also restrict ribcage, and lung, expansion. Your diaphragm, the muscle that makes you breathe, is also not moving to its full range of movement and can become restricted as well.
Oily skin and breakouts
Many of us can attest that we have woken with a giant zit on our face the morning of a big meeting or event where we are on display. Yes, this is more than just coincidence, with the stress hormone cortisol increasing sebum (oil) production on our skin surface. The fight or flight response can also promote inflammation in our body, and increased oil plus inflammation is not a good combination for acne. Added in with the situation specific factor of having to wear a mask outside of the house, which provides a warm, moist environment for your skins bacteria to flourish, and it is no surprise that we are getting mask acne!
Headaches and postural changes
The tight muscles we were talking about before can have a significant effect on how you hold yourself and move. With tension in through your shoulders, it is easy to develop a stooping, hunched posture, with your shoulders and head rolled forward. This creates a vicious circle, where the muscles then need to work harder to hold the increased weight of your head as it hangs forward, making the muscles tighter yet. These postural changes and increased muscle tension can then lead to headaches, which are often a result of referral patterns from trigger points in tight and cranky muscles. While headaches are common, they are not normal, and are usually a sign of underlying stresses in your life and body.
There are many more physical aspects of stress that we have not discussed here, but these are many of the common presentations we come across in our chiropractic practice. Stress is so much more than a state of mind, it is a whole body experience that if let go on long enough, can cause a lot of long term problems. If you would like more information on what to do about lowering the stress levels you are experiencing and supporting your body through stress, have a look at our Facebook and Instagram pages, this blog post on managing stress or make an appointment with us to have your individual needs assessed.
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