Humans incredible ability both chemically and physically to react to external stressors has enabled us to develop into the most dominant species on the planet. The intricate cascade of chemical reactions that occurs every second of every day allows us to move, communicate, learn, heal and live all the while keeping our bodies within its normal range via the mechanism of homoeostasis.
The bodies sensitivity and reaction to a perceived external stressor, whilst the driving force to our evolution, can have detrimental effects on our health.
Throughout humans evolution stress has always been something that would lead to a physical action. For example seeing a predator would cause us to run away (or run towards it). This system is called the Sympathetic Nervous System or the more commonly known as the ‘Fight or flight’ response. On seeing something dangerous our brain stimulates different parts of the body to release hormones to ready us for action. These hormones increase our heart rate, divert blood away from digestive organs to the muscles where it will be needed and readies us for action. The main player in this system is the chemical cortisol. The big daddy of stress hormones. And the system has worked beautifully for hundreds of thousands of years.
There is a problem however. The brain is unable to differentiate between a real perceived physical stress or danger ie: Big lion just walked into the room, and non physical stress ie: Printer has jammed for the third time today and you need to print a very important document for your boss, oh and its 5pm on a Friday! Either way the same chemical cascade occurs.
The cascade of chemical reactions, if repeated numerous times a day, can lead to health problems. It is known to increase heart rate, blood pressure, decrease the immune response, cause nausea and headaches. It can reduce our bodies ability to digest food and absorb its nutrients. This can lead to diarrhoea, bloating, flatulence and indigestion. It also has huge effects on our mood leading to irritability, short temper, agitation, inability to relax, feeling overwhelmed and depression. From a musculoskeletal view point it tightens muscles, particularly our fight muscles (Upper Traps, Scalenes and Rhomboids) and flight muscles (Gluteals, low back extensors and hip flexors) which has an affect on the function of our frame.
Stress also has an effect on our breathing cycle. Normally the main respiratory muscle, the diaphragm, contracts and relaxes drawing air into our lungs allowing them to fully expand. The abdomen should expand as air is taken in. Shallow breathing or ‘stress breathing’ is driven by the Intercostals and Scalene muscles not the diaphragm. It draws less air into the lungs with more upper chest and shoulder movement than abdominal expansion. The reduced oxygen intake can have an effect on our concentration, sleep quality leading to lethargy, headaches and a further increase in heart rate.
So how do we overcome the shallow breathing?
Firstly its important to address the stress in our lives. Unfortunately most of us are unable to quit work and live on a desert island free from stress and the worries of everyday living.
What we can do though is simple daily actions that reduce the Sympathetic response to everyday perceived stress. Coping mechanisms, mediation, breathing techniques and daily exercise are a few of the most popular. Acupuncture, mindfulness and visualisation techniques are also becoming more popular with large corporate industries offering many of these to their employees. A health happy employee after all is going to be more efficient in the long term.
A simple and effective technique which I use with many of my patients is diaphragmatic breathing. This not only reduces stress by taking our focus away from the daily grind but also re-trains the body how to breath effectively, efficiently and correctly.
Here’s how you do it:
- Lying on your back in a quiet peaceful place. This can be in your bed or on the living room floor as long as it’s quiet.
- Have a pillow behind your head and get comfortable.
- Place your hands on your lower abdomen.
- The diaphragm should contract downwards towards the belly button when breathing in, causing the abdomen to come out, NOT the chest up and out.
- Focus on this movement of the diaphragm and abdomen by taking slow deep breaths in. Taking 5 seconds for the in- breath, 5 seconds out. Do this for 5 minutes
This can take time to get right but the action of focusing on the breathing cycle is enough to reduce the sympathetic response even if not done 100% correctly. Doing this every evening is a great way of de-stressing after a long day at work. It can also be done sitting. If work’s getting too much, turn off the monitor, close your eyes and focus on your breathing for a couple of minutes. It can be done on the bus or train so you feel relaxed before walking in the front door. I have had patients tell me how this has improved their relationship with their partner as they feel less stressed before getting home and less likely to argue over the small things.
Stress breathing is linked with poor posture. A predominance to slouch when sitting makes it difficult for the diaphragm to fully expand and contract further encouraging the secondary respiratory muscles to be used. Learning how to set up the work station, car seat, and sitting posture at the dinner table is important. The core muscles, which support our spine and frame, tend to switch off after 20 minutes of sitting. This increases the likelihood of adopting poor sitting posture. Getting up and moving for 2 minutes can help re-activate the core and prevent poor posture creeping in.
But what is a chiropractor doing giving stress advice?
To provide the best possible care to a patient I feel I need to look beyond the presenting symptoms and to the underlying cause of the problem. Often that involves looking at posture, lifting technique and exercise routine but it should also include their nutrition and possible emotional drivers. Although my focus is predominately on the musculoskeletal issues at work it would be unethical of me to ignore these other factors as they play such a big part in the recovery process.
In summary stress is often an inevitable part of life whether you like it or not but our perception of stress and how it effects our health is completely up to us. It shouldn’t be viewed as a sign of weakness but embraced as the incredible evolutionary response that has kept the human race the most dominant species on the planet.