Here are some crazy stress facts
- The lowest stress levels are recorded in adults older than 72
- 80% of millennials are stressed about money
- Teenagers report a stress level of 5.8 out of 10 during the school year
- One in five college students has thought about suicide
- 83% of Americans are worried about the future of the nation
- Nearly 25% of people report feeling extreme stress during the holidays
- 45% of college students seek counseling due to stress
- Around 70% of students are often or always stressed about schoolwork
- About 14% of US citizens exercise regularly to handle stress
- Stress is controlled by your nervous system
- Stress can cause headaches
- Stress causes muscular aches and tightness
- Stress can impact mental performance
- Stress can keep you from sleeping at night
You are reading this and everything is quiet, life is good and you are fully relaxed. Now what would happen if a massive roaring lion jumped in the room…? Obviously, you are not going to nap, check your posture,or wonder what is for dinner. There's a lion in the room…
Now, our bodies work the same way. In our bodies there are various bodily systems: muscular, pain, sleep, immune, nerves, reproductive, digestive etc... When your body is not perceiving a threat and everything is good, your body’s systems are in balance (homeostasis).
However, when a big threatening lion jumps in the room to eat you, your systems prioritize survival and your body's natural balance is disrupted. You are wide awake, ready to run or fight, and tasks like healing and digestion are put on the back burner. This is normal and happens to all of us. Think about the last time you were afraid and how your body responded…?
Luckily, a zoo keeper comes by and removes the lion in the room. The threat is gone, you can let out a sigh of relief and start to calm down and relax again. Your body’s systems will relax and the balance will be restored.
Let’s talk about what happened when the lion came into the room.
The stress response that would happen with your body is fight, flight or freeze. This response comes from a part of your nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. Your body is wired this way to help you escape a threat, and it signals different areas of your body to be prepared to act to get you away from the stressor, aka a lion in this case.
These are the areas that get activated to help you get away from the lion:
- Adrenal glands
- Heart Rate
- You become alert
- Loss of reproductive interest
- Immune system shuts down temporarily
Now what does this have to do with your health and even pain levels? Ongoing stress or pain causes the same response as a big roaring lion coming into your room. The large majority of us have a lion following us around all the time…
- Work stress
- Financial stress
- Family/relationship stress
- Anxiety and fear
- Health issues
- Health issues with different explanations of pain from different people, social media, doctors etc...
- Previous failed treatment attempts
- Other constant perceived stresses
New stress of any kind causes a response controlled, primarily, by a hormone that is released called adrenaline. We typically think of this stress coming from a more serious situation like below:
- Litigation *slip and fall cases at work etc...
- Car wrecks
Now what would happen if the lion was never removed from the room? What happens to you when stress does not go away like what we all experience in our fast paced society? Our body moves past the adrenaline hormone mentioned above and moves to a new hormone to regulate the long term stress response called cortisol.
What causes the stress hormone cortisol to be released?
- Stress of any kind
Cortisol plays a role in all of these things:
- Initially cortisol helps you regulate your body’s stress response
- Help control your body’s use of fats, proteins and carbohydrates, or your metabolism
- Regulating blood pressure
- Regulating blood sugar
- Helping control your sleep-wake cycle
- Short and long term memories creation
- Ability to learn
Eventually what happens when cortisol has been released for long periods of time is
- Appetite changes leading to weight gain, especially in your face and abdomen
- Fatty deposits between your shoulder blades
- Wide, purple stretch marks on your abdomen (belly)
- Muscle weakness in your upper arms and thighs
- Muscle wasting
- High blood sugar, which often turns into Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Excessive hair growth (hirsutism) in people assigned female at birth
- Weak bones (osteoporosis) and fractures
- Reproductive issues
- Weakens your immune system
How does cortisol specifically affect my chronic pain?
- Body aches all over, tissues have increased sensitivity
- Bowel and bladder issues
- Decreases your body's ability to produce inflammation
- Decreases blood flow
- Delays tissue healing
- Even though it stops inflammation production it can leave inflammation in an area due to other mechanisms
As it turns out, there’s a link between pain and cortisol from stress as well
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Chronic Lyme's Disease
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
Now, how does a daily stressor cause physical stress and damage to our bodies?
When our body experiences a stressful event and it starts to present as a physical illness the way this happens can be explained through the general adaptation syndrome.
The three stages of GAS are:
- Alarm reaction
Alarm reaction stage
A stress signal is sent to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus enables the release of hormones, mainly, adrenaline and cortisol. This process happens outside of your control by an automatic part of your nervous system (autonomic nervous system) called the sympathetic or the fight or flight system we described last week. This is preparing you to fight or flight away from the stressor.
Next the body tries to balance the changes that happened during the alarm reaction stage (remember homeostasis we talked about). Now this is still happening mostly outside of your control with the autonomic system, except this time it is controlled by the parasympathetic system (this is nicknamed the rest and digest response). This system is trying to lower the amount of cortisol produced, and bring the heart rate and blood pressure back to normal. If the stressful situation comes to an end during this reaction the body will return to normal. Now when the lion is still in the room the body will stay in a state of alert, and stress hormones continue to be produced.
After an extended period of stress the body has depleted its energy resources by continually trying but failing to recover from the initial alarm reaction stage. This is where you will experience everything we listed above.
When you add all of this up and think about the response stress is causing us to feel constantly it is easy to see how the body can become overwhelmed and lose its ability to maintain balance.
- Chronic Stress Causes You To Have
- Mood swings
- Problems sleeping
- Sore and sensitive muscles, joints, bones etc…
- Memory changes
- Low libido
Eventually you can get stress-related health conditions
- Heart disease
- Gastrointestinal diseases
- Alhziemer's disease
- Accelerated aging
- Premature Death
- Chronic Pain
Now what would you do if a lion cub came into the room and you did not have a fear of lions? You would not freak out and you may even want to pet it. What am I getting at? With smaller threats your body's chemical stress systems do not need to be activated or ramped up. We will teach you below things you can do to make your stress manageable.
When you start these strategies again you will start to notice
- Ability to sleep
- You will feel less sore
- Have less body pain
Below is a list of things you can do to help with stress that is playing a part in your chronic pain-
Make a list of your stressors and start developing strategies to lessen the negative response they have on you:
- Do daily light cardio of any kind that makes you feel good
- Do daily meditation and or prayer (click here for our bolg on meditation)
- Take a relaxing bath
- Buy an adult coloring book
- Take yourself on dates
- Spend time with people who make you feel stress free
- Work on decreasing the stressors that happen between you and your relationships
- Laugh more
- Use a stress ball
- Get a fidget toy
- Take a relaxing bath
- Get counseling
- Connect with others (look for local groups with your interests on facebook)
- Listen to relaxing music
- Learn to play an instrument or pick up a new hobby