Most people have already noticed that going for a run, having a hard workout, or getting a good massage helps to reduce feelings of stress in their lives. This widespread experience is not just a coincidence, there actually happens to be a good explanation. Understanding the body’s physiological reaction to stress not only improves the chances of fighting it; it should really impresses the essential and absolute need to do so.
Too often, people think of stress as something that lives in only in the head, failing to recognize how the physical body inherently suffers the consequences. To help conceptualize the body’s reflexive reaction to stress, imagine some of the first human species in their daily lives... our reflex patterns are deeply rooted, even though living environments have undergone tremendous change over the centuries.
Our historic ancestor is just arising from an afternoon nap and stepping out of the safe, dark cave for some fresh air and a stretch. A cool wind blows, but the thick layer of hair on the skin is protective against it. (These days, goose bumps represent the physical attempt to erect this layer of hair, for which modern clothing and shelter have reduced the need).
The tree leaves rustle, and their casted shadows are enjoyed, dancing playfully upon the earth. But the outer edge of vision senses that one of these shadows is larger, moving slower and coming in for the attack! (Today, this shadow could be an approaching car or bus, the test that is about to be dropped on the desk, or a piece of mail announcing rent is late again.)
The options are to run or put up those dukes and the body needs to be ready for both RIGHT NOW. Here’s how that translates:
1. The calves lock- to protect the achilles tendon from ripping when launching into a sprint.
2. The muscles in the neck and shoulders tighten- to prepare for blows.
3. The digestion ceases- because who has time for that when THEY’RE about to be lunch?!
4. The body pumps out cortisol- an adrenalin-type hormone that boosts the flight or fight response.
But today the lucky stars are shining (or are they?)… The head on collision was a near miss, the test is over and the bill has been thoughtlessly added to the growing pile. Somehow danger was averted, the body never ran, never fought, and now is left with the consequences of stress all over it:
1. Excessively tight calf muscles- which attach to the feet and knees and allow for upright posture. Increased calf tension causes extra torque on the neighboring joints and muscles (think chronic plantar fascitis, ankle sprains and unidentifiable knee pain). This also requires redistribution in muscle tonicity to maintain normal posture; now the quads, butt and low back get involved- causing tension or pain on up the chain.
2. Taut and aching neck and shoulders- and the time spent hunched in chairs with fingers typing most certainly perpetuates this problem. Additionally, the muscles force increased pressure on the big veins and arteries of the neck, which supply the brain, inhibiting normal blood flow (and with it- mental function). Chronically tight muscles here can also trap extra blood in the head, creating the pressure of a headache, and perhaps the dreaded migraine.
3. Ceased or slowed digestion- which may lead to the feelings of indigestion, heartburn or constipation. If chronically stressed, the gut may shut down to the level that it fails to harvest proper nutrients from food (assuming they were put there in the first place...perhaps a little finger-pointing), leaving one predisposed to fatigue, illness and obesity. Worse still, this reduced elimination sets up toxicity in the body allowing for chronic disease and improper daily functioning.
4. Excess cortisol in the system- though this is handy in true survival scenarios, and a very important chemical for the body’s operative balance, its excessive presence inhibits the ability to form memories or learn from experiences. No wonder our anxious youngsters don’t seem to be retaining any of the information they are being taught. Long-term abundant cortisol also dampens the strength of the immune system, (so that’s why those kids always seem to be so sick!), the reproductive system and basic growth processes.
Now if the attack back in the forest had actually come to blows and the body was given the chance to get that out of its system, the whole story may be different. After sprinting, striking, panting and making the kill, our hero would have cooked up a nutritious organic feast, savored every delicious bite of victory and walked leisurely back to the cave for some quiet time and full night of deep sleep.
Knowing that all too often modern day folks never leave their seats during the daily attacks, we must let knowledge be the weapon against the painful consequences. Here’s what you can do:
1. Workout regularly. A cardiovascular workout like running, cycling, and brisk walking will all help to release the built-up tension in the calves. Adopt a daily (or better yet- hourly) stretch routine. A great idea for the calves is to pick one step in the daily path to stop on for a good stretch with each passing. Find your “stretch step” in your work or home.
2. Help the muscles to relax. By meditating, hot tubs, saunas, rubbing one’s own neck around the collar bone, or getting help with that from a friend or professional, you will reset your muscular and vascular system. This will decrease pain, enable free blood flow, and even allow you to think more clearly.
3. Eat simple foods that are easy to digest. Whole, unprocessed, natural foods may take a little longer to prepare, but you will make up for that in the quality years added to your lifespan. And teach your friends, children and loved ones to do the same, so they’re still kicking as long as you will be! Eat slowly and try not to race onto another activity the moment your belly is stuffed.
4. Decide that you are in control of your life. Breathe deeply, especially as stressful moments feel imminent. You may not pick the moments, but you can choose how you respond to them. Just exercising this control will remove your system from its survival state and reduce the body’s need to release excess chemicals. Take the time to identify, confront, and resolve stress in your life. It is important to communicate your problems, but do not dwell on them; be proactive and positive.