The body and stress - does physiotherapy help?
Almost everyone can relate to the miserable feelings of stress - the exhaustion, the anxiety and tension. Over the course of evolution, our human body has developed a well-adapted system for dealing with daily stressors. However, recent evidence over the past few decades has shown that long-term stress can have harmful effects on the body. And all of the research points to the same conclusion - chronic stress is harmful to our bodies.
To be able to understand why chronic stress is bad, first you need to understand what happens in the body. When our body first encounters a stressor (for example, having a stressful day at work), our body releases fast-acting hormones called adrenaline and noradrenaline. This activates our immediate stress response system in the body, known as the sympathetic nervous system, and produces the typical symptoms we’re used to - increased heart rate, sweaty palms, feelings of anxiety. If the stressor doesn’t go away within a few minutes, then a secondary, long-term stress response system is activated, and cortisol and other stress hormones are released.
On a short-term and acute basis, this stress response and cortisol release allows for an adaptive stress response in an effort for the body to deal with the stressful event. But what happens if you have a continually stressful time at work (and are therefore stressed for long periods of time)? When the stressor turns chronic, this once adaptive cortisol release can lead to over-activation of our body’s stress response, and can thus cause major problems such as increased inflammation in the body. When hormones such as cortisol are constantly released due to long-term stress, the body becomes less sensitive to the effects of cortisol over time. This de-sensitivity subsequently makes it harder for the body to turn off its own stress response, and thus results in an overproduction of chemicals that cause inflammation (i.e. inflammatory agents). What’s even worse is that this chronic stress activation also decreases chemicals that stop inflammation (i.e. anti-inflammatory agents). This results in high levels of inflammation in the body that can’t be turned off, known as chronic inflammation. This over-activation of both the stress response system and inflammatory process has been linked to increased risks of stroke, heart attack, diabetes, sleep problems, mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, and more.
But what can physiotherapy do for chronic stress, anxiety, and even depression? As noted above, inflammation of the body is one of the most common and typical symptoms of the stress from anxiety and depression. It may cause areas of your body to suddenly become painful or even may exasperate underlying pain issues that a person may have been previously dealing with. Inflammation of the body is often a topic that is left out when people, even health professionals, are talking about the effects of stress, anxiety, and depression on a person. Thus, many people do not always associate their physical pain as being connected to their psychological state.
Physiotherapists can have many different techniques to reduce inflammation and overall pain in the body. One such approach is Myofascial Release Therapy. Trauma, repetitive stress injury, scarring, inflammatory reactions, the effects of gravity on a poorly aligned body and life stressors can all create restrictions within the myofascial system. These restrictions cause pain, stiffness, and inflammation, making it difficult for you to move and prohibiting you from doing those things you love to do. Myofascial Release is a hands-on approach to treatment which evaluates the whole body to treat the cause of your symptoms, whether it be pain, tightness etc. By releasing these restrictions, the body’s connective tissue is able to move properly, therefore reducing pain and inflammation that can evolve from improper and compensatory movement patterns.
As well, those experiencing inflammation and pain around the skull and neck area may also benefit from Craniosacral therapy. Similar to Myofascial Release, Craniosacral therapy attempts to release restrictions within the craniosacral system that may be interfering with the natural cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) fluctuations within the spinal cord and brain environment. The restrictions can cause pain, inflammation, and tension in the body, especially around the spine and head, if these CSF fluctuations are disturbed. Craniosacral therapy works to release these restrictions and allow proper flow of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), therefore reducing inflammation, tension, and pain around the central nervous system and the connective tissue.
Acupuncture is also a widely used tool to improve circulation in the body, thus reducing inflammation and pain. Acupuncture needles are placed in specific locations in order to draw the body’s attention and focus to the specific area. This allows increased blood flow to that area, bringing oxygen and nutrients, which in turn helps the body reduce inflammation and tension.
Physiotherapists also have expertise in guiding people with exercises. Research has shown time and time again that consistent exercise is a major stress reliever and can counter the effects of stiffness, inflammation, and malalignment when the exercises are done properly. Some physiotherapists are also skilled at providing pain education when the nervous system becomes sensitized, another possible consequence of stress in the body.
Overall, the body is all interconnected, something we all learned in grade school. However, we tend to act as though the physical and mental are completely separate and never have any interaction or communication. By understanding this connection, you may allow yourself to better recognize and deal with stress in your body.