Stress is a normal part of life and is the body’s response to physical, mental or emotional demands that require an adjustment or adaptation to a new situation. We can experience stress in a positive way, keeping us motivated, alert and ready to avoid danger. In this way, a stressful situation may help our mind and body to become strengthened and more resilient to future stressors. However, when we experience stress in a negative way, such as continual exposure to challenges through chronic or intense stressful situations, the capacity of our mind and body to manage, process and tolerate the perceived stress is insufficient. When this occurs, prolonged activation of our stress response has an impact on the health of our mind and body .
The health impacts of stress are wide ranging and may include headache, muscle tension and pain, chest pain, fatigue, stomach upset, problems sleeping, anxiety, low mood, social withdrawal and substance abuse. Along with the effects on us as individuals, stress may also affect our interpersonal relations with family, friends and colleagues .
Stress affects us through multiple channels, for example in the body by mechanical tension and chemical messengers, and in the mind by the perception of events and through other psychological processes. All of these processes, whether originating in the body or in the mind, have an impact across the whole system. A common misperception is that stress means that “it is all in our head”, but this misunderstanding really stems from seeing the mind as separate from the body, whereas in reality we are one interconnected whole, with all parts and systems interacting.
In our work as osteopaths, we come into direct contact with the impact of stress on the musculoskeletal system on a daily basis. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress, and when muscles are tight and tense over a long period of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders. For example, both tension-type headache and migraine are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the neck and shoulders.
Musculoskeletal pain in the lower back and upper extremities have also been linked to stress, especially in the workplace, which can involve both occupational stresses on the physical body, such as work station setup, and psychological stress in the workplace .
The osteopath is not only interested in what is happening in the body but also in the person’s life to bring about the states of physical tension. Such a holistic perspective can allow the osteopath a greater appreciation of the person and can enable them to guide the patient toward a more holistic understanding of their experience, and toward more comprehensive solutions that take their various needs into account. For example, relaxation techniques and other stress-relieving activities and therapies have been shown to effectively reduce muscle tension and increase a sense of well-being. For those who develop chronic pain conditions, stress-relieving activities have been shown to improve mood and daily function, and can form a part of a multi-modal management approach .
The Christmas and holiday period can be a busy and exciting time of social and family-related activities. Many people however, may face a range of stressful pressures and triggers heading into this time.
Given that stress in an inevitable part of life, it is essential to learn how to manage it in order to enable our system to recover and to limit the impact it can have on our health and our relationships. Managing stress is as multi-faceted as we are and incorporates the following approaches:
- Schedule time for exercise, relaxation and time out. Have reasonable expectations and achievable goals. Spend time with people you care about and make time to connect with others who understand you.
- Take time out to do simple things that bring you joy and provide a break from the stressful situation.
- Drink plenty of water and try to maintain a healthy diet including lots of fruits and vegetables, especially during the festive season!
- Exercise has a positive effect on our physical and emotional wellbeing, whether it is walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing or the gym. The key is to choose something that you enjoy.
- Rest and practice relaxation such as gentle yoga, meditation or simply listening to music .
- And most importantly remember to breathe! Apps such as ReachOut Breathe can help you reduce the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety by slowing down your breathing and your heart rate with your iPhone or Apple Watch. Slowing and calming the breath is one of our most valuable resources for calming both the mind and the body. And the breath and this app are free.
WebMD (2017), The effects of stress on your body, WebMD Medical Reference
- Mayo Clinic (2019), Stress symptoms: effects on your body and behaviour, Mayo Clinic
- APA (2019), Stress effects on the body, American Psychological Association
- Relationships Victoria (2019), Managing stress during the holidays, Relationships Australia Victoria