Stress and a two pronged way to beat it.

Posted by on Jun 24, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

Stress and a two pronged way to beat it.

‘Stress’ is a word I hear often as an osteopath and its effects manifest in a variety of ways in patients.

We may all be aware of ‘classic’ stress related diseases; ulcers, high blood pressure, skin disorders or sexual dysfunction, but it is also implicated with the manifestation of seemingly ‘ordinary’ illness – the common cold or back ache. Stress can make the body both more susceptible to ill-ness, and it also makes it more sensitive to it too; not only are we more likely to hurt our back or catch a cold, it is likely to be more severe or painful when we do.

But what is stress and how do we beat it? My simplistic two pronged approach is advising exercise and mindfulness and I’ll explain what stress is and why that approach can be so effective at combating it.

• Stress is a function of the fight-or-flight mechanism
• This mechanisms works the same if you are predator or prey
• It is designed to be switched on full volume for a short period of time
• Modern humans can suffer from chronic or long term stress
• It is designed as a response to external stimuli, or stressor
• Many of our stressors are internal stimuli

Fight or Flight

The ‘fight or flight’ mechanism; where the body thinks it is about to be threatened or is about to threaten something else and responds by either running away or fighting. But how does this relate to the 21st century human animal with our lives relatively free from life or death situations?

The neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky used the example of zebras and lions in his 1994 book ‘why zebras don’t get ulcers’.

When a zebra is threatened, a number of changes to its metabolism occur very rapidly; its sympathetic nervous system fires up and its endocrine system floods the blood with adrenaline. The result is that blood is diverted towards where it is critical; the cardiovascular system diverts blood to the muscles and brain so they are able to function at maximum levels and away from systems not needed immediately – the skin, reproductive system and the digestive system for instance.

For the next few minutes all of the animal’s resources are geared towards survival – at the end of this it is either being eaten or returning to the business of looking for food, looking at the sky or finding a mate.

When a lion is about to threaten something, a number of changes to its metabolism occur very rapidly; its sympathetic nervous system fires up and its endocrine system floods the blood with adrenaline. The result is that blood is diverted towards where it is critical; the cardiovascular system diverts blood to the muscles and brain so they are able to function at maximum levels and away from systems not needed immediately – the skin, reproductive system and the digestive system for instance.

For the next few minutes all of the animal’s resources are geared towards survival – at the end of this it is either eating or returning to the business of looking for food, looking at the sky or finding a mate.

So for these animals, stress is episodic, short lived and in response to an external stimulus, the stressor. It is also very similar for both predator and prey.

Humans evolved as both predator and prey, but have little need for life or death situations nowadays. Instead, modern humans turn on these same mechanisms for years worrying about work, the mortgage or relationships. The stress is now chronic and often as a response to internal events – thoughts, feelings and worries. Although the annoying boss can be stressful, he is unlikely to actually kill and eat you, so there is an argument that our stressor (the stress causing event) in many cases is in fact our brain’s response to these events.

The physiological effects.

During the fight or flight response, adrenaline desensitises pain and makes us feel energetic and alive, but when it has run its course, its counterpart, cortisol, comes into play. This now makes us feel more sensitive to pain and also more lethargic.

Likewise the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work in counterpoint to each other as well.

In addition to the hormonal and neurological changes, stress physically has an effect. If we look at how muscle tension increases under stressful situations (imagine hunching your shoulders protectively; now hold them there for a month), it’s easy to see how those same muscles can become fatigued and how the joints they move can become dysfunctional.

So – to a solution. We’ve killed all the predators and farm all the prey so even if we wanted to return to a hunter gatherer lifestyle there are a number of impracticalities. However we can still run, or swim, or cycle, or box. In many ways exercise tricks the body into thinking it is in a life or death situation and gives the body the feeling that it is doing what it needs to deal with it – sure the heart pressure is raised, but now in a natural way which has all the other systems working too. Now the stress hormones and the systems they affect are able to work as nature intended; more episodically rather than chronically.

To combat the fact that the thing causing stress is often our own brain and its response to things, I recommend some form of mindfulness. Meditation works, but so can hobbies, especially ones we are passionate about and which require concentration because they break the thought patterns which circulate again and again triggering again and again the minor cascade of the stress reaction.

So – exercise to break the physiological cycle of stress and a way to break to cycle of thought which look to those systems just like the silhouette of a lion.

Exercise / mindfulness.