Research from as early as the 1950’s shows that when the human body is exposed to a harmful stimulus – psychological stress, extremes of cold or heat, bacteria or viruses, physical stress (pain or dysfunction) or even chemical stress (allergens, etc.) – the body responds to stress in exactly the same way.
The initial response to these stressors is to produce adrenalin as the body engages the “fight or flight” response. In the short term this is beneficial to us, readying us to run or fight; anything to keep us alive.
With this our blood proportionally shift towards the muscles, away from the gut (digestion is not important in fight or flight) and away from the skin (so that in a survival scenario if we cut our skin we do not bleed as much).
When the stressor has disappeared our “relax and repair” systems re-engage, calming the “fight or flight” response and reversing its effects.
If, however, this fight or flight switch remains on we have a problem. If there is continual stressor that is triggering our fight or flight response we won’t just feel “on edge” but in actuality our body is in a perpetual state of readiness to respond to a threat.
If we remain in fight or flight for a long time the body is writing more and more cheques which will eventually need to be paid, or else the bank manager will not be best pleased!
If we remain in long-term “fight or flight” mode, the increased adrenalin levels and other stressor hormones causes our sleep to become increasingly erratic, dulls our immune response, impairs our digestive function and so a process begins which can lead to real lasting harm to the body.
A rough guide to the symptoms of long term stress are as follows; poor sleep and digestion are some of the first to arrive, later the body struggles to deal with infection or even becomes so overworked that it thinks everything is a threat (intolerances, rashes, etc.), and in the long term these people many end up incurably tired and suffering from hormonal issues.
So why does this switch, this “fight or flight” response stay on? There could be a number of reasons. The answer, however, is to try and rid your body and mind of their stressors.
As said before stressors can take many forms, the common ones seen day to day include stressful work or home life, long term pain or stiffness in the body, or chemical stressors like viruses or too much alcohol, sugary foods or cigarette smoke.
As a Chiropractor the stressor I see most regularly in patients is mechanical. Mechanical stress is pain, dysfunction or stiffness of the joints, muscles, tendons or ligaments of the body.
The chiropractor’s role is principally to help redress these imbalances by creating movement in dysfunctional joints (usually in the spine). When joints are restored to normal function they reduce the pain input to the brain.
With normal joint function and reduced pain, this in turn further reduces the “fight or flight” response of the body. Over time, this can have a profound impact on the general health of the body.
Furthermore to best help mechanical function, posture is critical. When we respond to any threat our normal biological instinct is to lean our heads come forward, our shoulders round and the muscles of our abdomen and calves tighten; ready for fight or flight.
Over time, if people have experienced a lot of stress they can become incredibly practiced at this posture.
If the initial stressor is then removed (the individual has a less stressful job for example) the posture will naturally want to change but crucially if this person has become fixed in that hunched posture from long practice and long term stress, their hunched posture still tells the brain “help we are still under attack”, as if the stress is not full removed.
The muscles, tendons and ligaments have shortened up in the front of the chest and neck; the muscles of the upper back have become weak from lack of use.
A tip to try and help reverse this is to imagine there is a cord attached to your sternum (breast bone) tied to a helium balloon – this balloon pulls your chest up to the sky. This posture if sometimes
called the superhero pose, with shoulders back, head up and chest out.
A good posture is one where the head sits directly above the shoulders and which in turn sit above the hips. In this balanced posture the body is producing far less mechanical stress.
For this posture to become ingrained, it must be practiced constantly throughout the day, which seems like a lot! But a subconscious habit like posture takes diligence.
It is common sense to say the more you practice the better you become, if you forget during a busy day don’t be upset with yourself, up just pick up where you left off – even a little practice can help.
If you find this practical advice too difficult or painful it is likely that your spine, ribcage and hips are too tight or dysfunctional and may need professional help.
Chiropractic is very well placed to help with mechanical stress and I urge you not to suffer in silence, we are here to help!
There are many more stressors that have their own unique cures; this is summed up well in the book The SD Protocol by Dr Wayne Todd. I highly recommend it if you wish to know more about this topic.
Yours in health,