The number of us living in a heightened state of stress has reached tragic but not surprising levels over the past year. In February, the American Psychological Association released findings of its annual Stress in America survey. It found that 84% of adults reported feeling at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress in the prior two weeks. The most common? Anxiety (47%), Sadness (44%), Anger (39%). Additionally, 2 in 3 adults said the number of issues America is facing is overwhelming to them.
Let’s look at the role of stress in our lives and how it shows up that we might not recognize.
What stress is…and isn’t
First, I can’t say this enough: Stress IS NOT something to be ashamed of or something that only happens to weak people. Quite the contrary. It’s a normal human reaction. In fact, the human body is designed to experience stress and react to it.
The stress response is the body’s way of protecting us. When working properly, it helps us stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save our lives by creating extra strength to defend ourselves or prompting us to slam on the brakes to avoid a car crash. The built-in stress response, “fight-or-flight,” helps the body face stressful situations. It’s a good thing…until it’s been activated for too long and our physical health suffers.
The body’s autonomic nervous system is responsible for the parts of us that do their jobs without us needing to control them – heart rate, breathing, digestion, vision and more.
When we feel threatened by perceived danger, the nervous system releases a flood of stress hormones to prepare the body to spring into action. The heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath speeds up and the senses go on high alert. All of this happens to increase our strength and stamina, speed up our reaction time, and enhance our focus—preparing us to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.
The brain perceives danger in many forms. It could be something we know as danger, like when we slip and fall. But, the body also perceives danger when we are overstimulated. This past year, our brains have received more jarring information than they could process. Before we could cognitively distill the information, more came at us. Our nervous systems went haywire and our bodies moved into fight-or-flight to protect us.
We’ve lived in a state of chronic stress. (In past articles, I’ve also referred to this as systemic trauma.) The release of stress hormones, faster heart rates, increased blood pressure and sensory reactions have taken a toll on us. Our bodily functions have been working overtime and they’re tired.
More commonly recognized stress signs like feeling anxious or emotional show up and stay with us. But, there are other less-recognized signs like these:
Pumping out stress hormones takes a lot of brain power. This results in us not having the awareness we need to complete daily tasks that otherwise would be second nature. Stress can make it hard for us to focus. Or lose things. Or forget to turn off the stove. When these things happen, we tend to feel even more stressed. Clients come to me and say, “I feel like I’m losing my mind.” While it might feel that way, I believe the brain is tired and confused. I’ve worked with many people on mindfulness, meditation and breathing techniques to help the brain slow down. A calm brain can function and focus.
Stress responses can literally hurt our heads. The release of certain stress-related chemicals cause physical changes in the blood vessels. These changes and physical stress such as tight muscles in the shoulders cause tension headaches. Painkillers such as ibuprofen are known to help muscles relax and provide headache relief. However, stress headaches keep coming back until the root cause is addressed. I help clients treat headaches with techniques for breathing, mindfulness and movements to release muscle tension.
Low back pain
Tight back muscles tend to settle in the low back. There are a few reasons for that including the fact that the low back is where our physical movement resides. The low back – lumbar spine and sacrum – hold the spine to the pelvis. That area is responsible for holding us upright in the world, and that’s a really big job. Somatic treatment for low back pain often includes stabilization practices to help the hip, pelvis and low back muscles release tension as they do their jobs of keeping us upright and moving well.
Stress and anxiety can affect the stomach and digestive area big time. Increased production of stomach acid is part of the overall bodily speeding up that happens in fight-or-flight. Heartburn stomach aches and diarrhea are common during stress. The other end of the spectrum, constipation, occurs when abdominal muscles and pelvis clench in protection and forget how to relax. The most effective treatment I’ve worked with in this area includes somatic movements and breathing techniques to bring the muscles and internal systems back to a place of calmer function.
An overstimulated mind gets stuck in a cycle of overwork and can’t calm itself down. In a less stressed state, the brain receives information and has time to make decisions about what to do with it. It knows whether to store it in long- or short-term memory or to let it go completely. A stressed brain doesn’t have the time to discern one piece of information from another, so everything spins around awaiting its turn. I often advise clients who have what I call “busy brain” to find an activity to distract the brain rather than staying in bed and trying to force it to calm down. After that, techniques like gentle movement, calming movement and other methods of calming the nervous system down can be effective.
Strategies for stress management
Accept that stress is a normal part of life. Learn to recognize signs and symptoms for what they are and look for ways to be gentle with yourself. Tired and overwhelmed? Say “no” to additional activities. Fidgety? Move your body around. Feeling negative? Jot down a few gratitudes.
Our bodies are built for movement. Get exercise every day, even the smallest amount. Stretch. Walk around the block. Dance to your favorite movement. Do anything that moves your muscles and helps you feel more awake and alive.
Stay connected with people who help you feel calm and provide emotional support. Get help with tasks that overwhelm you. Even in this time of COVID, a friend or neighbor could pick up your curbside order or share other responsibilities that feel overwhelming to you.
Don’t face your stress alone. If you feel like you’d like more support than family and friends can offer, seek help from a professional like me or someone in another field of treatment. If you need a referral, I can help you tap into my network of practitioners in massage therapy, reiki and psychotherapy.
Remember – stress is a normal part of our lives. But, it doesn’t have to define us. We can learn to cope and manage. If you’re not sure where to start, consider the words of the Buddhist spiritual leader, Thích Nhất Hạnh,
and go slowly.”