Stress & Pain – How They’re Related & How You Can Feel Better

Here’s the thing… We’re all stressed or have experienced massive stress this year and it’s not something most of us have dealt with because there are still a lot of unknowns and adjustments that are occurring. As a result, we’re seeing a large number of patients come into the clinic with signs of sympathetic overdrive. 

Chronic stress and being in overdrive has enormous implications on your whole body – your cardiovascular system, digestive system, endocrine system, and the most common systems that physios work in – the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. What this means is that stress and the way you process it (or not) can have physical repercussions and lead to the development of tension in your connective tissue and therefore pain. 

This is not something clients expect to hear when they walk in the door at our Lindfield clinic – your stress and how you manage it is playing a role in the way your body feels and how this injury presents – and so it can be very confronting. But think about it this way – we’ve all had the experience of going on holiday and immediately getting sick. Staying in a state of chronically elevated stress is a little bit like your body being forced to live in a state of coping maximum all the time. Eventually, something has to give. 

Our bodies can go into fight, flight, or freeze responses to stress, and if we don’t have a way to process stress, a way to let it go, then we can get stuck in this stress response. When someones nervous system is wound up it often presents as what we call an ‘infinity sign’. This means when we go to assess your alignment, if we were to place our hands on your pelvis for example it would be in a constant oscillation – the size or speed of which can vary. This means your alignment is not static, it is constantly changing because your body is having trouble coping for one reason or another. If your physiotherapist doesn’t help your nervous system reset and restore some space back in your body it will struggle to maintain any other changes we try and put in. What this means is that if we do some massage techniques, or joint release techniques, or a chiro manipulates a joint, your body will not be able to hold this change and integrate it – you need to settle the nervous system first and help the person bring themselves out of a stress response overdrive.

How do we do this? 

There are lots of different things we can do like specific neural releases, cranial releases, craniosacral work, and pelvic releases. Sometimes we get two physios in to treat a client and one works at your cranium (head) and the other works down at your pelvis to access the neural system most directly and unwind both ends at the same time to get as much space back for your nervous system as possible. 

Two very important ways to process and manage stress that physios like ours often recruit are breath-work and movement. 

It’s really common that people skip breathing exercises because they don’t understand how VITAL the way you breathe is to how well your body functions. 

At its most simple level, you take more than 20,000 breaths per day. If you mostly use your neck and shoulder muscles to do that breathing instead of engaging your diaphragm and other breathing muscles more, it’s a little like doing 20,000 bicep curls – your bicep is going to feel it tomorrow. If you chronically breathe with your neck and shoulder muscles these muscles ache because they’re overworked, fatigued, and not getting to relax as much as they should. The way you breathe can have huge impacts on tightness in the arms, pelvic floor, legs, and even in the feet. It can impact your neural tone and how cranky your muscles are. Breathing is huge.

So, breath-work is a really easy way to help your body manage some stress and calm things back down a bit.

Movement, or exercise in general, is another really important way to manage stress and to help your body cope with the stressors it encounters. Maybe you’re a runner, maybe you love to dance around your house to your favourite song, maybe you like taking time out for yourself and doing movement therapies like yoga or Pilates – whatever – you need to move.

Still not convinced?

There is actual science around how stress messes up your body and how you can help yourself manage it. Recently Brene Brown released a great ‘Unlocking Us’ podcast that works to summarise some of these findings which is free for you to listen to. They also make transcripts available on her website which is linked here.

We hope you’ve found this information helpful and informative.

Below you will find a video that we made earlier in the year that includes one of our favourite exercises to help with dampening the stress response. If you check out our Facebook page you will also find other videos where we talk you through breathing exercises and how stress can manifest physically in the body.

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