In my clinic, stress is one of many reasons clients complain of ongoing pain, tension and physical issues. I often get asked: “Can stress actually cause this much disease?” To answer that, we first have to understand stress and its effect on human function.
Stress can be anything from exercise, change in routine, illness, caretaking, emergency handling, or increased energy output during busy seasons like seeding, calving or harvest. Our function — from how we move to how we digest — is directed by the nervous system. In the autonomic nervous system (which is the master director for our general function) we have two settings: parasympathetic (rest and digest) and sympathetic (fight, flight, freeze). Parasympathetic states are where we want to be for the majority of time. This is a relaxed, responsive state where the body can rest, digest, and generally enjoy life.
The contrasting sympathetic state has equal importance, when used appropriately. The sympathetic switch turns on when we are faced with stress or perceived threats to our survival (emotionally and physically, real or perceived). For example, if you are walking through your yard and a wolf emerges from the bushes, you’ll likely experience your nervous system shifting into its reactive state: your breath will catch and then quicken, your movement will pause before either preparing to fight or flee, your digestion will halt, heart rate and breathing rate will rise, and you will experience hyper-focused arousal meant to keep you alive in the moments that follow your initial reaction.
We all need the ability to flow between these two states as we move through life. The sympathetic state is valuable during times of intensity, but must be counterbalanced with time spent in the parasympathetic state. Unfortunately, many humans lose the ability to switch between the two. This can occur after traumatic or stressful events where we are not able to move through a completed cycle of fighting, fleeing, where the nervous system feels trapped and freezes in time.
Ideally, every time we experience stress that puts us into a sympathetic state we are able to recognize safety after our initial reaction and release the pent-up energy raised to protect us. This is sometimes why exercise can feel so good. We initiate the stress response and have a clear outcome, allowing us to release nervous system energy and return to parasympathetic mode.
In our busy lives we often leave little room to take it easy. By not allowing appropriate rest or being stuck in old cycles of stress and trauma, the switch gets stuck in survival mode and our body chronically lives in a stressed, reactive state.
Because sympathetic mode is designed to stall “non-emergent” functions like digestion and raise things like heart rate, cognitive function and sensation, it’s easy to see that digestion issues can be connected to chronic stress or trauma, as can chronic pain, tension, addictions, mental health injuries and anxiety/depression. If your nervous system is existing in a hyper-aware state for long periods of time, it also makes sense that your body won’t really like the idea of you getting long, restful sleeps or enjoying simple moments in life. Sympathetic functioning wants you to be hyper aware, ready to predict any and all threats.
Stress used in healthy ways, (new experiences, appropriate exercise, etc.) in the short term can help to improve resilience, adaptability and overall well-being. However, it also must allow for the ability to switch into parasympathetic mode.
There are some simple ways to begin “resetting” the nervous system from reactive to relaxed. One of the most powerful is the use of breath, as breathing is a direct way to connect to the nervous system. When reacting to a threat or stressor, one of the first things to change is the breath pattern, so this is something we can consciously control to reverse the nervous system’s reaction.
Try this: Sit comfortably and let the eyes close. Pay attention to your inhale and exhale, and over a few moments deepen the inhale for four to six seconds, breathing as deeply as possible, downwards into your belly and out into the bottom of your ribs. As you exhale, lengthen the exhale to six-plus seconds. Pause before your next inhale and then repeat this process five to 10 rounds (or more). Set a timer for two to 10 minutes so that you can focus in on following the breath for a set period of time. Notice how you feel after a few rounds of this and how your body’s sensations shift and change throughout.
If you are experiencing ongoing pain, tension, or other stress-related symptoms, beginning with the breath is my No. 1 suggestion! I also recommend connecting with your local health and wellness professional for resources to help manage stress and chronic stress long term.