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Holistic Health Clinic

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Understanding stress and how massage can help

Posted on January 22, 2012 at 12:02 PM
Understanding Stress

Symptoms, Signs, Causes, and Effects   Modern life is full of hassles, deadlines, frustrations, and demands. For many people, stress is so commonplace that it has become a way of life. Stress isn’t always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price.  

If you frequently find yourself feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, it’s time to take action to bring your nervous system back into balance. You can protect yourself by learning how to recognise the signs and symptoms of stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.  

What is Stress? 

Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger – whether it’s real or imagined – the body's defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response

The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life – giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. 

The stress response also helps you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you'd rather be watching TV. But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life. 

The Body’s Stress Response 

When you perceive a threat, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenalin. These hormones rouse the body for instant action in response to the expected threat. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response which is a survival tactic of the body. Muscles tense to ensure optimum performance, the heart and lungs work extra hard to speed up the flow of blood and oxygen to the muscles and to the brain, breathing speeds up, blood pressure and pulse rate rise, and the bladder and bowels empty to make the body as light as possible.

In primitive times the ‘fight or flight’ response worked perfectly: once the body discharged the increased energy supplies through fighting or fleeing, the person relaxed and normal functions were restored. However, in modern times, although the stresses are more psychological, the body will still respond in this way. Unless we have the opportunity to reduce these stress hormones in physical activity- which, with an increasingly sedentary, ‘screen-based’ lifestyle is often difficult- they build up and can cause you to live a level of ‘crisis’ for days, months, or even years.

How do you respond to stress? 

It’s important to learn how to recognise when your stress levels are out of control. The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feels familiar even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll. 

The signs and symptoms of stress overload can be almost anything. Stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways, and everyone experiences stress differently. 

Signs and Symptoms of Stress- Overload

Stress Warning Signs and Symptoms  
The following table lists some of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress. The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload. 

Cognitive Symptoms
Memory problems, Inability to concentrate, Poor judgement, Seeing only the negative, Anxious or racing thoughts, Constant worrying#

Emotional Symptoms
Moodiness, Irritability or short temper, Agitation, inability to relax,  Feeling overwhelmed,  Sense of loneliness and isolation, Depression or general unhappiness
Physical Symptoms
Aches and pains, Diarrhoea or constipation, Nausea, dizziness, Chest pain, rapid heartbeat,  Loss of sex drive, Frequent colds

Behavioural Symptoms
Eating more or less, Sleeping too much or too little, Isolating yourself from others,  Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax

How much stress is too much?

Because of the widespread damage stress can cause, it’s important to know your own limit. But just how much stress is “too much” differs from person to person. Some people roll with the punches, while others crumble at the slightest obstacle or frustration. Some people even seem to thrive on the excitement and challenge of a high-stress lifestyle. Your ability to tolerate stress depends on many factors, including the quality of your relationships, your general outlook on life, your emotional intelligence, and genetics.   

Things that influence your stress tolerance levels  

Your support network – A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against life’s stressors. On the flip side, the more lonely and isolated you are, the greater your vulnerability to stress.   

Your sense of control – If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to take stress in stride. People who are vulnerable to stress tend to feel like things are out of their control.   

Your attitude and outlook – Stress-hardy people have an optimistic attitude. They tend to embrace challenges, have a strong sense of humor, accept that change is a part of life, and believe in a higher power or purpose.   

Your ability to deal with your emotions – You’re extremely vulnerable to stress if you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or afraid. The ability to bring your emotions into balance helps you bounce back from adversity. 

Your knowledge and preparation – The more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it is to cope. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less traumatic than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.   

Causes of Stress 

The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you or forces you to adjust can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion. 

What causes stress depends, at least in part, on your perception of it. Something that's stressful to you may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it. For example, your morning commute may make you anxious and tense because you worry that traffic will make you late. Others, however, may find the trip relaxing because they allow more than enough time and enjoy listening to music while they drive.  

Common external causes of Stress 

Major life changes,  Work, Relationship difficulties, Financial problems, Being too busy,  Children and family   

Common internal causes of Stress 

Inability to accept uncertainty, Pessimism, Negative self-talk, Unrealistic expectations,  Perfectionism, Lack of assertiveness

Effects of chronic Stress 

The body doesn’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats. When you’re stressed over a busy schedule, an argument with a friend, a traffic jam, or a mountain of bills, your body reacts just as strongly as if you were facing a life-or-death situation. If you have a lot of responsibilities and worries, your emergency stress response may be “on” most of the time. 

Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. Long-term release of adrenalin and cortisol causes the body tissue to tense up, which can lead to long-term muscle tensions or imbalances in the internal organs, raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.   

Dealing with stress and its symptoms 

Learn how to manage stress 

You may feel like the stress in your life is out of your control, but you can always control the way you respond. Managing stress is all about taking charge: taking charge of your thoughts, your emotions, your schedule, your environment, and the way you deal with problems. Stress management involves changing the stressful situation when you can, changing your reaction when you can’t, taking care of yourself, and making time for rest and relaxation. 

Learn how to relax

You can’t completely eliminate stress from your life, but you can control how much it affects you. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness practice, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the opposite of the stress response. When practiced regularly, these activities lead to a reduction in your everyday stress levels and a boost in your feelings of joy and serenity. They also increase your ability to stay calm and collected under pressure. 

Learn quick stress relief 

Everybody has the power to reduce the impact of stress as it’s happening in that moment. With practice, you can learn to spot stressors and stay in control when the pressure builds. Sensory stress-busting techniques give you a powerful tool for staying clear-headed and in control in the middle of stressful situations. They give you the confidence to face challenges, knowing that you have the ability to rapidly bring yourself back into balance.

Massage, it’s Role in Management of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression 

Massage is one of the oldest healing techniques used to help us overcome psychological and physical health problems. It has probably been used since the dawn of human evolution and has been found to have been used in countries all over the world and in the early part of this century was still used in orthodox medical hospitals and clinics, but fell out of favour when high tech. medicine began to dominate our health care system. 

Beneficial Biochemical Effects of Regular Massage 

Research shows that massage can be of value in helping reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Massage causes the body to release many therapeutic mood and health enhancing chemicals; it increases dopamine and serotonin and reduces the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. It increases the relaxation alpha brain waves and also increases pain relieving and muscle relaxing levels of endorphins. Massage lowers noradrenaline and lowers the stress hormone ACTH (Adrenocorticotrophic hormone). Massage boosts the immune system, stabilises blood sugar levels, improves lung function and peak air flow, it generally reduces the number of visits to the doctor whilst increasing work productivity. 

Massage and Anxiety

Regular massage can help to reduce our anxiety levels. Research by Tiffany Fields, at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine in the USA looked into the therapeutic value of massage in reducing anxiety and depression. The data from this study indicated that massage produced marked reductions in anxiety and depression in people who were massaged, but not in a control group who were not massaged. Mood and sleep patterns also improved they slept more soundly and for longer periods of time. The subjects massaged were found to have lower levels of cortisol stress hormone in their saliva and depressed people also had lower levels of urinary cortisol and noradrenaline which increase in times of stress. 

Other studies have confirmed this research. Adults with chronic anxiety problems, people with muscle tension, aches and pains etc, who did not improve after being given anti-anxiety medication/antidepressants, muscle relaxants and relaxation training, were given a course of massage. Afterwards most reported less tension, pain and need for medication. 

Massage and Depression

Andrew Vickers, a researcher formerly with the Research Council for Complementary Medicine who carried out research into the value of complementary medicine's in psychological health problems which was published in the journal "Psychiatry in Practice", said it's far too simplistic to say massage can cure depression or other diseases, but it can help us to cope better and improve the quality of life. 

How Massage Works 

Our skin is full of many millions of nerve receptors that are linked to our nervous system. When the skin is massaged it causes stimulation and release of chemicals in the brain like serotonin and endorphins that help not only to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, but also give a sense of well-being.

It's known that the skin and nervous system are intimately connected. 

Massage has been shown to be beneficial in many physical and psychological health problems such as Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Anaemia, Pain, Back Pain, Insomnia, Pregnancy, High Blood Pressure, Asthma, Infertility, Eating Disorders, Diabetes, to name but a few. 

Categories: Understanding Stress

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