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Stress, Brain and Body

As of 2016 most of you know that mental stress creates tension in the body, but do you really understand what the underlying mechanisms are. It is not just some ambiguous “mind-body thing,” but rather, a concrete physiological process. In other words, when people, be it a professional, a parent or a friend tell you “it is all in your head.” No, it is not.

Fascia (connective tissue) muscles and bones work together as one inseparable unit that is mutually interdependent with our brains (minds). The result of that is that any problem in the body affects the mind and vice versa. All kinds of stress (interpersonal conflicts, panic attacks, deadlines, fears of heights or snakes, etc.) turn on the sympathetic nervous system, which then prepares the body for fight or flight. The adrenaline pump is turned on and blood gets rerouted to skeletal muscles, heart and brain so you can run, fight and think while the adrenaline makes you numb to pain. If, in reality you are not actually fleeing or fighting, but just stressed out in your office or car, you are now stuck with the ready to go muscles and the alertness of the adrenaline, which can have manifold effect. Mentally, you might feel impatient, irritable or angry and you might pick a fight with somebody who doesn’t really deserve it. Physically, it can manifest as an overall feeling of unease, nausea, queasiness, shortness of breath, muscle-ache or a site of an old injury (painful hip or back, osteoarthritis, headache, scar tissue etc.) might flare up and cause pain.

The physical sensations caused by stress can be confusing as they don’t always present as direct cause and effect, meaning you might not feel much in the heat of the moment, but rather afterwards, when the urgency is over and the sympathetic nervous system has calmed down. The beauty of this design is that it lets us fight our battles without the interruption of pain, be it literally as a soldier in war, or the daily battles we all fight, ranging from passing exams to closing deals or dealing with insurance claims. A less active sympathetic nervous system implies that the adrenaline level subsides, and the no longer numb body can feel all sensations including pain.

The emerging physical sensations can be scary and your instinct might be to keep still, as in not moving the body, out of fear that you will make it worse. It is also common to hold your breath as a means to ease the pain. The counter-intuitive solution is to actually create movement, in whatever little pain-free way that you can, as motion is lotion. Similarly, the key is to breathe into the pain and/or tension to help it dissolve. The fascia literally contracts when the sympathetic nervous system is turned on, and with sustained stress it can become brittle and prone to micro-tears, pulls and strains. The movements along with the breath can help dial down the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. In addition, they soften the fascia, like oil on a rusty hinge, and through stimulation of the proprioceptors, movements can reduce the amount of pain signals reaching the brain.

What can you do to deal with stress?

While it is important to seek out professional help, it is also essential to develop tools to take care of yourself. The first step toward that is to cultivate awareness of what is happening with you. A way to obtain that is to simply ask;

“What is it that makes me feel the way I feel right now?”

By asking “what” versus “why” you are more likely to pinpoint the source of your immediate mental and physical experience.

The next question is;

“What do I need to do right now?”

The answers to this will probably be situational and vary from day to day. If your stress can be resolved by communication or other means, there is no better solution. But if resolving the problem is not within immediate reach, the stress might manifest in sync with the coping mechanisms (good or bad) that you have developed in your life. These can range from an urge to eat, drink, walk, run, scream, shop, cry, write, lift something heavy, punch something, hug a tree to have sex. As some of these might be counter productive or out of reach, you then have to ask yourself;

“What is possible to do right now?”

It might not be the best idea to start screaming or having sex in the office (but who knows), and it can be difficult (but not impossible) to hug a tree in New York City. But the one thing you can always do, regardless of where you are, is to acknowledge what you are feeling, as in for instance; “I feel really disrespected right now. ” You then take a deep breath, feel the ground under your feet and exhale. By reconnecting with your physical body through breath and gravity you can start to dissolve the intense energy, and access your rational brain and heart again. As you focus on the breath and the concrete sensation of your body, your sympathetic nervous system starts to calm down, which will help you get a different perspective on the situation. Now, taking a walk around the block might help calm you down further, and the Haagen-Dazs craving you felt a minute ago subsides.

In the long run, it is important that you build into your life “anti-stress” activities that work for you so that you can counteract the stress that life throws at you. This can help bring balance to your life, both within your body and in relation to your environment, and thus you are one step closer to staying healthy.