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How Stress Can Really Effect Our Ability to Exercise Effectively

Quite often, people who are stressed are so caught up in the problems which have initiated their stress, that they can fail to see the physical impacts which it is having on their body. Stress can have impacts in:

Understanding the Automatic Nervous System

To understand the role of stress on the physical body, it’s important to understand the nervous system. If you visualise your spine, there are two branches of nerves coming from it which are responsible for sending messages to the brain.  The sympathetic nervous system reacts voluntarily to external environmental factors and is responsible for helping you to react quickly to threats. For example, if you find yourself in a dangerous situation, your sympathetic nervous system will take over and use a fight or flight reaction to deal with that situation effectively. Once you are out of danger, your parasympathetic nervous system automatically takes over controlling your rest and digest functions, such as pumping adrenalin around your body to make your heart pump faster to help you deal with stressful situations. What is important to understand is that both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system are interdependent and it also follows therefore that mind and body are interconnected.

Evolutionary stress management

Our bodies have evolved over centuries to ensure that we can react effectively to extreme forms of stress. Our senses pick up on stressors and send messages to the brain which then triggers a physical response. In healthy people, the automatic nervous system remains on high alert which prevents the body and mind from relaxing.  Moreover, if your ANS is constantly on alert to stressors, you are experiencing further emotional and physical stress on your mind and body due to this impairment.

Problems caused by stress

Stress and the ability to deal with it is not a negative thing indeed, it keeps us safe and out of danger. However, when the body’s automatic nervous system is impaired and permanently switched on, we are in a constant state of stress and there is little respite. This in turn can manifest itself in physical issues such as back problems like sciatica, muscle tension in the form of neck, back or shoulder pain, headaches and indeed cardiovascular and other disorders. Being stressed prevents our bodies and minds from relaxing fully and as such we are tense both mentally and physically.

Below are a few examples of physical restrictions that can occur due to stress.

Lower Back

When you are stressed your whole body can become tense. If you are sitting at work or sitting in traffic this tension paired with being in the same position for an extended period of time can cause pain.  You may find that this becomes a constant issue as your body has “reset” into this new position. For anyone sitting having to sit for extended periods of time, it is a good idea to break that time up if possible and move around every so often. Performing some stretches too to help alleviate the problem area is a good idea.  

Stomach

For some people stress can cause the stomach to cramp. The result can mean a range of stomach issues including Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Many people find that they can’t eat when they are stressed too or digestion is slow as a result of the tension.  It can be helpful to try and do some meditation or try to relax before you eat.

Face and Jaw

A common response to stress can be to tense up and tighten the jaw.  Some people even end up grinding their teeth in the night. Visiting a dentist, if teeth grinding issue, is important as teeth grinding can lead to a whole host of other issues including headaches.

Dealing with the impact of stress

Stress can often be a catch 22 problem. The more stressed we are, the harder it is to prevent stress or control it and the more susceptible we are to reacting to increasingly small stressors becoming hypersensitive to them. Therefore, it is important to first understand how our nervous system works and reacts to stress and this will help us to ultimately have greater control over the causes of our stress and its impact. One of the first lines of defence for managing stress is breathing control and exercise. Stress results in restricted movement because tension causes pain and to reduce this, we also tend to reduce movement. Such restriction of movement can lead to further damage to our musculoskeletal frame. Therefore, it’s vital that when we become aware of stress, we also ensure that we fight against it by actively seeking to relax our muscles. One of the best ways of doing this is through use of gentle exercise such as the use of swimming along with sauna or steam rooms to relax muscles, yoga and tai chi and a range of deliberate learned movements which we can use at times of stress to relax body and mind. Gentle exercise can also ensure that breathing is much more controlled and regulated which can ultimately reduce the physiological symptoms of stress such as cortisol and adrenalin production. In turn the use of exercise can also reduce the psychological effects of stress. So, taking small and determined steps towards introducing exercise into your daily life can make a huge difference to how your body deals with stress and its negative impacts. Practical steps you can take to improve stress management and improve physical movement

  • Regular short walks of at least 30 minutes per day can reduce blood pressure and increase Stress relief and tolerance
  • Stretching exercises with the use of yoga can improve posture and relieve tension
  • Swimming for 20-30 minutes followed by sauna or steam sessions
  • Tai Chi can help with improving flexibility and muscle tone
  • Use of weights can increase strength and realign your musculoskeletal frame.
  • Cardio vascular exercise can help to counteract the harmful effects of adrenalin, and cortisol

Perhaps most important of all is that we should increase our mindfulness and focus on being present in the moment so we are better prepared to deal with the everyday stresses that come our way before they become unmanageable visit bonanza to unwind.

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