Stress is a word that gets a bit of a bad rap, but the truth is, it’s simply a chain of natural survival reactions.
The fight-or-flight response as it’s often called, is an ancient mechanism for protecting our lives when we sense danger and it involves our whole bodies. It’s a fantastic tool for running away from an angry beast or staying and fighting an opponent, but a little overblown for the usual stresses we face in modern life. Getting an unpleasant email or feeling overwhelmed by work hardly justifies the sudden rise in blood pressure, heart rate and energy production that ensues.
In the wild, animals tend to face short, sharp shocks and then have time to come down the other side. New human psycho-social stress is more of a drip feed affair that often keeps us constantly responding with little room for recovery. We can handle a more dangerous shock quite well, but relentless, chronic stress can be seen as stress-related symptoms when we don’t take time away from the challenge of work, emotional and personal expectations.
Looking out for how stress manifests throughout the body is a good way to remind us to prioritise rest:
Stress as a survival response means that our bodies and brains immediately prioritise only what is important in the short-term. When danger is sensed, digestion instantly stops, and energy, nutrients and oxygen being used to break down and absorb food is rerouted to the muscles and brain, so we can protect ourselves.
We also sense danger in the enteric nervous system in our guts, an important signalling for ‘gut instinct’ on how to react. If we’re not listening to this and just ploughing on, much anxiety can get caught up in our bellies. Constipation, loose bowels, gas and bloating can ensue from stress from our nervous systems as they struggle to adapt.
Tensing muscles is a key preparation for the approach of danger, giving us the power and fast reaction times seen when people leap into burning buildings or intercept intruders. The trouble is, that level of intensity has nowhere to go when we’re just sitting at a desk and fuming about how our boss treats us.
Without the physical play-through, we’re simply left with the contractions without the release, which is why massage is such an important de-stressor. As stress also has us breathing up into our shoulders and upper chest (rather than down into diaphragm and belly when at rest), it’s no wonder tight shoulders, neck pain and back issues are part of a common picture.
The stress response uses up a huge amount of energy. A whole host of hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters need to be suddenly produced, and the brain goes into hyperdrive for protective vigilance, using up to 75% of the body’s energy output, as opposed to around 20% when calm. Stress is quite literally tiring and without periods where we conserve energy to make up for this, fatigue can only be on the horizon.
The heightened state that is the stress response creates a necessary level of agitation needed to assume danger and act on it. So if that’s our default way of living, we soon begin to see everything as a threat and can remain in a mode that feeds negative thinking, anxiety, insomnia and even depression, as we lack the energy to play out motivation.
Skin, hair and nails: as stress diverts energy and oxygen to the brain and muscles, circulation is quickly rerouted away from skin, hair and nail growth and repair, as these are not seen as imminently important for survival.
A grey pallor is a common sign of adrenal fatigue and the inflammation that stress causes can also show up in skin issues like eczema and acne. Measures to encourage circulation back to the outer body include massage, scrubs and dry brushing, alongside relaxation techniques.
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