Stress has been a big topic at our clinic lately. Many people, maybe even you, feel stress in certain areas of their bodies. We’re only weeks away from the Christmas Holiday – and while it’s meant to be a joyous time of year – for many reasons it also brings a lot of stress to people’s lives.
For some it’s the neck and shoulder area, for others it’s between the shoulder blades, or even the low back.
Many people ask us “why do I always feel my stress in this area”…and today I’m going to tell you! I’ll also tell you what you can do about it 🙂
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When it comes to stress, you may have heard of a hormone called Cortisol. This is a hormone that is released into your bloodstream when you are in a stressful situation.
This used to serve humans well, because it’s one of the things that happens for our “flight or fight” response to happen successfully. But as our society has evolved over the past several centuries, it’s no longer as helpful for the person who is not regularly in physical battle or fleeing for their lives.
Now that we do not have to hunt for food, fight, or run from predators, it’s other things that trigger this response in us. Over time, if left unchecked, this response can become easier and easier to set off.
When cortisol is released into the bloodstream on a regular basis it can affect several systems in our bodies. The one we’re talking about today is your muscles (your musculoskeletal system). What we see often in our clinic is that people begin to ‘feel’ the stress in their shoulders, back, or somewhere else where they already have an injury or pathology.
For example: if you feel that when you get stressed, your neck and shoulders ache, even if you don’t have current shoulder pain, it can be an indicator that you overuse these muscles on a regular basis. In other words, there is already physical stress in that area. When this physical stress is combined with the stress caused by cortisol, you have that gross achy feeling settle into that area.
Over time, you may notice the things that frustrate you make you feel that sensation more easily. That’s what’s important to notice, because that’s the circle that you have to break if you don’t want that feeling to keep happening so easily.
There are 2 primary strategies to attack this issue.
First: You have to acknowledge the stress, anxiety, or whatever emotion you’re feeling. Don’t just ignore it and go about your day. These feelings are almost always linked to an unsolved problem, and it’s your job to find out what that is and figure out a way to solve it.
Many people are tempted to think that if they just had no more problems, their stress would go away. That’s not going to happen. Even if you solve the current problems you have, life has a way of presenting you with more and more complex problems. In the end the challenge may in fact be to see what level of problems you can actually get to, rather than not having problems at all 😉
This of course means that you will no longer be stressed out by the little things!
Second: You need to figure out the reason that your pain shows up in that same area every time. For example, if it’s your neck and upper shoulders – you might have a lot of shoulder weakness that makes you use those muscles too much.
If it’s your back, you might have a low level of back pain that you’ve just come to accept and try to ignore. The primary goal here is to TAKE ACTION. You don’t have to keep putting up with that stressful feeling day in and day out. Finding a long term solution and enlisting help along the way will set you up for success.
Here are some of my favorite ways to combat stress during the Holidays (or any time of year):
I know this might sound cliché, but breathing is one of your best friends when it comes to quickly reducing and interrupting stress. As little as 30 seconds can make a dramatic difference.
When you breathe deeply it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The best part is you can do this anywhere — in the car, at the office, while shopping, even in the bathroom. Although breathing may not eliminate stress permanently, it does interrupt it. And interruption is key when it comes to managing stress — both emotional and musculoskeletal. When you interrupt the ability for the forces of stress to accumulate, you decrease the toll it can have on your body and brain.
2. Practice Gratitude
Did you know that gratitude helps lower cortisol levels in our bodies by about 23 percent?
Prolonged stress causes elevated cortisol levels, which causes lots of different health problems such as heart disease and high blood pressure. Research shows that when we think about something we appreciate (i.e. practice gratitude), the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming one) is triggered. Our parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for returning the body to its automatic and natural rhythm. So when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, your heart rate and cortisol levels lower — which is the opposite of what happens when your sympathetic nervous system is activated and you’re stressed out. Your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems can’t both be in charge at the same time – so when you consciously practice gratitude – you actively lower your stress.
3. Get Moving
Any kind of movement is going to help you control stress for a few reasons…
First, it gets your blood flowing which contains endorphins — natural chemicals of the body designed to decrease pain and stress.
Second, movement helps to end the “flight or fight” response of your body. In ancient times, our fight or flight response protected us from danger (like a lion chasing us), by triggering us to run away. Running away (movement) would signal the end of the stress cycle caused by fight or flight by letting the brain know we were safe and out of danger. In our modern world, triggers of stress are not as obvious as a lion trying to eat us. The end of the stress cycle is not always clear and can just keep going – which is one of the ways stress becomes chronic. Therefore, purposeful movement can help decrease stress by physiologically ending your natural fight or flight response. Something as simple as walking can do the trick. But even jumping jacks or dancing in your living room can feel good and get your heart rate up enough to end the fight or flight cycle.
I hope these tips help you feel confident that it is indeed possible to combat stress completely on your own.
If you find that you can’t, it’s always a good idea to talk to a professional who can help you.
While a little bit of stress is normal – being chronically stressed is not.
Give these easy and practical tips a try and see how you do!
Oh – and if you’re suffering from any kind of back, neck/shoulder, knee, hip, or ankle pain right now – and not only is it stressing you out – but you’re worried it might ruin your Holiday Season…
Talk to a specialist at my clinic – for free!
Have you been suffering from back, knee, neck/shoulder, hip, or ankle pain for longer than you should and wondering if now is the time to get some help – or if resting/taking it easy is still the best course of action?
A specialist at my clinic can help!
Don’t try to figure it out on your own – that’s what our open office hours are for 🙂
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