How Does Stress Affect Your Health?

Raise your hand if you’ve never been stressed in your life.

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While all of you with hands raised report back to your home planet, I’m going to share some facts that the rest of us probably already know and experience. We’ve felt how stress can affect our bodies and health whether in the short or long term. Sweaty hands, racing heart, upset tummy. Fatigue, depression, insomnia. I wanted to dig a little deeper into how and why stress affects us in such ways and, of course, what massage can do to help.

Stress and our physiological responses to it have always been part of human life. Our acute response to stressors are actually life-preserving functions. I talked about the sympathetic nervous system in my previous blog post about how massage works. I’ll even quote myself here!

The sympathetic nervous system regulates the “fight or flight” response to real or perceived threats.  This is the system that releases neurotransmitters including adrenaline at the sign (or even the thought of a sign) of trouble or stress. This prepares the body for action, including making the heart pump faster, contracting muscles, and slowing down digestion. While the sympathetic nervous system is extremely important for our survival, notice that it doesn’t take an actual threat to activate. The stressors of everyday life can trigger a fight or flight response.
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Think of what the fight or flight response looks like in your body. Your peripheral blood vessels constrict so that if the tiger rips an arm off, you’ll lose less blood. This makes your heart beat faster and raises your blood pressure. The hormone cortisol increases the sugars in your bloodstream so you have energy to run or bat the tiger over the head with a club (good luck.) Cortisol also suppresses functions that you don’t need during the attack like your digestive, reproductive, and immune systems because ain’t nobody got time for digesting those berries when you’re in a fight to the death with your carnivorous neighbor.

Whether you’re being chased by a predator, hear a strange noise in your house, or see that awful ex-boyfriend at the grocery store, your body reacts the same way. And that’s a good thing! If you need to sprint down the freezer aisle, your body is ready! Even things like exercise can be thought of as a stressor to your body but that’s no reason to drop the dumb bell. Manageable amounts of stress are good for you. Once the perceived threat passes, hormone levels go back to normal and your body stabilizes.

The problem comes when the stress, or perception of stress, is constant. We’re simply not built to sustain the fight or flight response for days, weeks, or months at a time. But often due to demanding jobs, a busy family, and the pull of technology, our bodies react as if they are constantly under attack. In a culture where “busy-ness” is a badge of honor and hustling to get ahead is a way of life, we can overlook what stress is doing to us and ignore the ways in which it can be better managed. When the physiological reactions to stress are sustained, you’re at a much greater risk for major health issues like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

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HOW MASSAGE CAN HELP

I can’t count the number of times a client has come into my massage room and said, near tears, “I just need to relax.” While I enjoy helping people find pain relief from muscle tension or injury, I find equal and sometimes greater fulfillment helping to relieve stress. I know how important relaxation truly is and how difficult it can be to achieve sometimes.

From a physiological perspective, massage triggers the parasympathetic nervous system which is in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system mentioned earlier. When that happens, it has the direct opposite of the fight or flight response. The heart slows down, muscles relax and digestion returns to normal. It creates a pause in the constant battle, turning down the volume of stressors and allowing your body to find a calm neutral again.

From a psychological point of view, having that massage appointment to look forward to can boost your mood and maybe put some of your stress in perspective. Taking care of yourself, whether that’s through massage, yoga, exercise, eating well, meditating, or spending time laughing with loved ones, is vital in managing stress and the effects it has on your body.

SOURCES

Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic, 21 Apr. 2016, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037.

“Healthy Heart.” American Massage Therapy Association, AMTA, 19 Aug. 2014, www.amtamassage.org/articles/3/MTJ/detail/2993/healthy-heart.

“Stress Management.” Go Red For Women, American Heart Association, www.goredforwomen.org/fight-heart-disease-women-go-red-women-official-site/live-healthy/stress_management/.

Molly Kerrigan