The month of April is recognised annually as National Stress Awareness Month.
The Stress Management Society founded National Stress Awareness Month to raise awareness of psychological distress in the population and promote strategies to address it. There is a lot of talk about mental health nowadays as attempts to destigmatise it are rightly made. Too many people suffer in silence. So, nowadays, everyone knows about stress. To the point that I think sometimes it is just accepted as the norm. As part of life.
What is stress?
On a daily basis I see stress in action. People driving desperately to drop their kids off at school and then hurrying to catch their train. Thumbing their way through emails on their phone before alighting and rushing off to catch their underground train. Sprinting to beat the closing doors because they’re in too much of a rush to wait two minutes for the next one. And then squashing themselves into a tiny space on a boiling hot carriage before spilling out and rushing off to their workplace.
All this before even starting work, they may face deadlines, high expectations, pressure to perform, and little support from managers and colleagues. And then it’s home time – back to the kids!
It’s estimated that 43% of adults experience stress, 45% of all sick days are taken because of it and up to 75% of GP visits are due to stress-related problems. And unfortunately, there is a growing trend of stress in children and adolescents put down to factors, such as school pressure and social media use. Overburdened parents who are stretched too thin. This may set them up to be more prone to stress in later life.
What are the potential effects of stress?
I think stress is a part of modern life. That may have to be accepted. But it can be managed. You might not be able to stop the stress, but you can learn to manage its effects.
Short term stress is actually quite healthy. Long-term unmanaged stress can lead to various health problems such as neck and back pain, headaches, sleep issues, high blood pressure, IBS, stomach ulcers, anxiety, chest pain, breathing difficulties, immunosuppression, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. Therefore, long-term stress can actually lower life expectancy.
Too much stress for too long can lead to the body not regulating its anti-inflammatory system properly. It makes us more inflamed. It also makes our muscles tense and then they hurt too.
Stress is one of the main predictors of future neck and back pain. More predictive than anything you find on an MRI scan. A lot of people take time off work with musculoskeletal pain like neck and back pain, and many of those will have an underlying problem with stress. I see them every day in my clinic.
What can we do about it?
But now for some good news. If recognised, it can be managed and controlled. But successfully managing may differ from person to person, and you should be prepared to work out what works for you.
You have two parts of your stress system. On and off. The ‘on’ part is the fight or flight response and is part of your sympathetic nervous system response to threat. It involves adrenaline, short quick breathing, an increase in blood pressure and heart rate and muscle tension. Ultimately, its goal is to prepare you for taking action. Even if you’re just sitting at your desk. The ‘off’ part is the calm part of the system controlled by your parasympathetic nervous system. It is your calm state, characterised by the opposite physiological responses such as slow relaxed breathing and muscle relaxation.
You can’t be in both parts at the same time. It’s been shown that you can control which part of the system you are in, so you can switch off your stress response and put yourself into your calm state. Simply controlling your breathing can achieve this, which is why focus is still placed on relaxed breathing when treating individuals experiencing pain, shock, or unease (such as in childbirth).
Some top tips to manage stress.
Talk about your stresses to someone good at listening. The adage ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ can be true. Talking therapies have been shown to be as effective as medication for a lot of mental health problems. And it doesn’t always need to be with a counsellor or a psychologist; a friend or a family member will often be just as good. Although a professional can be useful to teach you self-management tips if this doesn’t work.
2) Regular breaks from work.
It can prevent prolonged activation of the stress system and reduce muscle tension accumulation caused by prolonged immobility. Just taking a break, stretching, and moving around can decrease neck and back discomfort and enhance cognitive abilities like focus and analytic skills.
3) Regular exercise.
Making sure to take some time to regularly exercise can reduce stress as well as having all the other health benefits. It doesn’t have to be formal exercise, just some form of activity that raises your heart rate and gets you a little out of breath. To maximise the benefits from this activity, make sure it’s something you enjoy doing. Exercise for exercise’s sake is unlikely to make you keep coming back!
4) Breathing exercises.
Doing some focused slow abdominal breathing exercises and consciously relaxing your muscles for a few minutes several times a day can help you return to a calm state regularly.
5) Learn to adopt relaxed rather than tense postures.
This will help regulate your stress system and reduce the chance of developing muscular pain and fatigue. Use your phone alarm for a half-hourly reminder to check you are relaxed and to do so if you’re not. When sitting, sit relaxed with relaxed abdominal breathing but remember to get up and move regularly. As physios, we are experts in human movement and posture, so if you would like more advice or guidance on your posture and how you can optimise it to reduce the effects of stress, contact us today to make an appointment.
It’s not for everyone, but mindfulness mediation is proven to help with things such as stress, anxiety and sleep. Once you get good at it you can use it to help keep you in your relaxed state. And you don’t need to go and lay down in a dark room and listen to whale music!
I’ve noticed a few things that have proven effective with my patients, and packaging these tips together can be especially helpful.