Stress and The Body

Stress is a normal biological reaction to a potentially dangerous situation where the body releases “fight or flight” hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, to prepare the body to react to the threat. Once the potential threat is over, our body should go back to rest.
However, in today’s world, many people live with a constant level of stress, which causes health issues physically and/or mentally. Now more than ever, people may be experiencing higher levels of stress, not only in their world, but in their bodies. Some may already feel the negative effects of stress on their physical and mental health, others may not “feel” the changes that stress is doing until much later in their lives.
So, what happens to our bodies as we endure stress?
We could go into a very long, in depth explanation of how it effects each system in our body, but the bottom line is inflammation.When cortisol is released into the body, it suppresses our immune system by decreasing lymphocytes, our white blood cells, and sends out an army of chemicals called pro-inflammatory cytokines to attack “invaders.”This creates an inflammatory response.Under sustained stress, these reactions can lead to tissue breakdown. The body then compensates with tightening of muscles and fascia, which can cause malalignment of joints. The tissues become less resilient and regular daily activities can overload and re-injure our joints/muscles. Tightened fascia impedes flow of fluids in/out of an injured area. Constant inflammation increases already-present arthritic conditions, as well as delays the healing of existing injuries. Chronic stress can also worsen blood pressure, heart conditions, immune diseases, and mental disorders, all in part by this high level of inflammation present in the body.

So, what can one do in today’s world of Covid-19, the unknown, and managing more than most of us want?

First, take a deep breath.

Spend a minute truly looking at yourself and asking “What would my life be like if I didn’t have to do…” This will give you an idea of how much stress plays a role in your day. You may or may not be able to actually change the stressors in your life, but you CAN change how it is affecting your “fight or flight” system.

We are going to share with you some ways to decrease your body’s response to stress. Change isn’t easy, so try implementing just one of these ideas for a few days or even a week before trying to add a new one. Some may work better than others, depending on your personality or lifestyle. A little change in our response to stress can make a big difference in our health.

Ideas for decreasing stress in our lives:
  • Sleep: What would you feel like if you gave your body 7-9 hours of sleep every night? Repair and rejuvenation happen when we sleep. Our parasympathetic system (calm system) is in control.
  • Water intake: Hydration is vital to maintaining homeostasis in every system of our bodies. We should be getting about ½ of our body weight in ounces of water every day. (If you have a medical condition where you are taking diuretic medications first consult with your doctor).
  • Exercise: Exercise can look different for each individual, depending on your fitness and activity level. Pick something you enjoy, whether it is going for a walk, biking, video fitness class etc. The important thing is to be consistent and start small, if you don’t exercise regularly. Start with just 10 minutes a day and work up to 30 minutes, as you feel more confident and comfortable.
  • Eat 7-9 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day: Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants which decrease oxidative stress in your body.
  • 10-minute time out: Take 10 minutes in your day for a break from life: daydream, write in a journal, play an instrument, sing, listen to the wind or birds. Don’t think about anything that you have to do. Just be.
  • 10 deep breaths: At various times in your day, stop and take 10 deep, intentional belly breaths. Deep belly breathing turns on your parasympathetic system and decreases your “fight or flight” response.
  • Connect with another human being: Whether you talk on the phone, video chat or in-person, human connection increases our “rest” response in our body. Reconnect with a friend you haven’t talked to in a long time, ask your spouse to tell you something they have never told you, or spend 10 minutes playing a game with your children.
  • Stay calm: Many parents are dealing with kids and the chaos that surrounds sibling interactions. When things heat up, remind yourself, “This is not about me.” This allows you to be objective in the situation, stay grounded, and remain calm. When we “react” to our kids’ behaviors we are turning on our “fight or flight” response, thus increasing our stress. This is not easy, but with practice, it will help to reduce one’s internal stress.
  • Limit exposure to negative input (TV, news, etc.): If you have to know the daily news, please make a point to only check/read it once during the day. Focus on TV shows that are fun or informational.
  • Laugh!: Read a funny book, watch a comedy film. Laughter releases dopamine, our “happy hormone”.

By Kaylin Mordock, MPT
Presidio Sport & Medicine, Mill Valley

(References: Healthline; Everyday Health; RN.com)

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