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Stressed person

I’d say it is safe to say that most people have experienced stress in their lives. The very act of being born is stressful for both mom and baby, no matter the circumstances.

Take a look at the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of stress (as a noun):

  • Pressure or tension exerted on a material object
  • A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances

Can you see how being born for both mom and baby tick both boxes of the definition of stress? Which is why stress is something everyone can relate to. It is something we all have in common, we have all been, and all are, exposed to stress on a daily basis. “Adverse or demanding circumstances” certainly has a negative undertone to it, and a very current ring to it.  Thanks COVID!! So can we assume from these definitions, particularly the second one, that all stress is bad? Thankfully the answer is no (hopefully you picked that clue up from the title of the blog). Sometimes stress is even more than good for us, it is critical for our survival. Like much in life there is not a simple answer as to whether stress is good or bad, it all depends on the context, the duration, the amount etc. So read on dear readers to see which kinds of stresses are the heroes and which are the villains in our daily lives. And more importantly what can we do to manage our stress (note I said manage, we can never eradicate stress from our lives).

Let’s start with definition number 1) and explore how it relates to the body, which is a material object.

We have already given the example of the birth process where large pressure changes and tensions are exerted on both mom and baby. But to keep this blog appropriate for all parties, let’s use the daily examples of gravity and a very common injury such as an ankle sprain.

“Our bodies and minds respond to the stress and pressure they are exposed to. Without stress and pressure there is no robustness or resilience.” Sadly I can’t remember where I read this- somewhere on Instagram no doubt (if it was you please claim it so we can give credit) but this spurred my action into writing this post. That and the recent bout of ankle sprains I have seen the last few weeks as everyone hits those wet, wintery trails.

Ankle sprains and stress: Good, bad or ugly

When we were at school/varsity we were taught this acronym for treating ankle sprains: RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). Thankfully as science progresses and is more accurately able to study the ingeniousness of our human bodies, they have realized that too much rest is in fact detrimental to our healing. Why? Well there are many reasons, I could write a whole blog just on the healing process and another on ankle sprains, but let’s just look at it in terms of stress being applied to the tissue.  One of our phases of healing is the ‘remodelling’ phase- this is where the new collagen is laid down to repair the fibres that were torn. Movement and stress helps the new fibres to align in the direction of the stress, which helps improve the resilience. Without this stress/input the body would just lay these fibres down haphazardly, which can result in scar tissue and would actually reduce the resilience of the ‘new’ fibres, leaving your ankle vulnerable to a resprain. Which explains why the new acronym for management of ankles sprains is POLICE (Protect, Optimal Loading, Ice, Compression, Elevation). The loading is key to successfully rehabilitating an ankle. Not only in the beginning of healing but also end stage. Your ankle needs to be able to respond to the stresses that your lifestyle will place on it. A more sedentary person needs very different kinds of strength to say a keen trail runner/surfer/dancer etc. Which is why we recommend that you see a Physiotherapist– they can assess the extent of your injury and educate you on how the POLICE management applies to your unique ankle sprain. Most importantly though- through a combination of manual techniques and a graded exercise programme- they will ‘stress’ your ankle in all the ways required to help prevent further injury.

Another example that most of us take for granted is the very good stress that gravity places on us (if only we could choose which parts of our body gravity had an effect on!).  Look at the very bad effects that a zero gravity environment has on humans, astronaut humans that is..

  • Loss of muscle mass is ± 20% in just 5-11 days
  • Lose bone mass at a rate of 1.5% in one month vs the 3% per decade (not including bone disease such as osteoporosis)

(Figures taken from: The dangers of zero gravity: Davidson Institute of Science. Feb: 2017)

So while you may not be keen on the sagging skin, be very thankful for the muscle mass and bone density that you have from just being on earth!!

While that is all fascinating, I am sure many of you are reading this with more interest in the 2nd definition.

This is the more commonly spoken of the definition of stress. The quick answer is that in this case acute/short bouts of stress can be really good for us. It is the long term/chronic stress where we head into the bad and even the ugly. To understand the difference we need to quickly give you some anatomy and physiology, which I will try to do in layman’s terms.

Our nervous system is divided into two parts the Central Nervous System(CNS) and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS). Central is brain and spinal cord, and Peripheral is the nerves outside of the CNS. The PNS is further divided into the Somatic/Voluntary and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS can be further divided (stay with me, we are nearly there) into the Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic nervous systems. The ANS is always activated and its ideal state would be to be balanced between the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The ANS is for the most part not under our control, breathing is the only action controlled by our ANS that we can alter using our voluntary control.

Here it is in a practical example. You are walking through the Lowveld and a lion appears. Now you need to decide if you are going to stay and fight this lion, or if you are going to take flight/run away. Either way, you need your Sympathetic system(often called “fight/flight’’) to come to the party, and quickly.

Let’s say you wisely choose option b and you take flight. When you get back to the safety of your camp, your Parasympathetic (often called the ‘’rest and digest’’) will kick in. And hopefully your ANS will come back to the desired homeostasis of being in balance.

That would be an acute state of stress and you can see how it would be necessary for your survival. In the fight/flight state adrenalin is released which increases heart and breathing rate, and shunts blood to areas like muscles while reducing flow to your digestive organs- digesting breakfast takes a back seat to maximizing your lung and muscle capacity when faced with a lion or other life threatening situation. The huge surges of adrenalin often allow for almost superhuman feats, it is common to hear stories of people climbing impossibly high walls or lifting extremely heavy objects when their lives or lives of loved ones depend on it.

While thankfully many of us are not out walking in the Lowveld, we encounter our own “lions” in our daily urban lives- constant exposure to crime, work deadlines, school drop offs, illness, loss of loved ones etc. This relentless exposure to stress requires our body to not only release adrenalin, like it does for an acute episode, but it also starts to release the hormone cortisol to help booster the body. Short term effects of cortisol, like adrenalin are our heroes, helping bolster us through the tough times. But if our cortisol levels remain high for a prolonged period of time it is often associated with digestive issues, weight gain, disrupted sleep, immune-suppression and decreased ability to concentrate/focus, to name just a few.

There is so much information on this topic that to really do it justice you need to read a book and not a blog. Thankfully, Richard Sutton has done just that. He is the author of The Stress Code, and even better he is South African, so by buying his book you are supporting local (I promise I am not getting any commission from him, I just really rate his book). He has taken thousands and thousands of scientific papers/studies and put it all into an amazingly easy to read (think summaries at the end of every chapter) book which I personally think should be prescribed reading material for anyone experiencing stress……

Here is his list (taken from chapter 3 summary) as to how to increase vagal activation and tone:

(Quick side note: The Vagus nerve (often called the wandering nerve as it appears to wander nearly all over the body) is best known for it’s role in calming the body following the fight-or-flight state induced by adrenalin. This should happen on an automatic feedback loop in the body, however the longer we have been exposed to stress/in a chronic state of stress the longer it takes for this feedback loop to kick in. By treating the vagal nerve we can undo/prevent some of the ugly symptoms related to chronic stress.)

  • Visceral manipulation
  • Massage therapy
  • Controlled breathing exercises
  • Swimming
  • Facial immersion
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Music

I would love to go into more detail on each of these but they literally could each have their own blog. Lucky for you, I already have a video on a controlled breathing technique, which you can go check out on our Instagram/Facebook pages- if you want more details on that. Plus I’m hoping to post a video on “What is Visceral Manipulation” in the next few weeks so follow us on Instagram/Facebook if you interested in seeing that one. Take home message from this post. Acute stress is really good for us, especially if you perceive it as such. It is good to be challenged and to test our boundaries, and it is often needed as part of our healing process. So embrace those situations. Long term stress- is detrimental to our healing/health but sadly it is also often unavoidable in today’s fast paced life. So be sure to manage your stress by implementing some, if not all, of the tools listed above.

As always thanks for reading to the end.