Stress is the body’s reaction to potentially harmful situations. These can be real or perceived but when we feel threatened, a chemical reaction occurs in our bodies that allows us to act and prevent injury. This reaction is often known as the “fight-or-flight” response. During this time our heart rate increases, breathing quickens and blood pressure rises getting us ready to take action. It also increases our appetite and provides energy to our muscles. After the threat has passed, our hormones return to normal levels and the body calms down. In this way we are designed to handle small doses of stress. However, our bodies are not equipped to handle long-term, chronic stress without both mental and physical consequences.
Stress can affect all aspects of your life, including your emotions, behaviours, thinking ability, and physical health.
Some physical symptoms of stress include:
- Low energy
- Increased weight due to comfort eating and drinking
- Upset stomach, including diarrhoea, constipation, and nausea
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles
- Insomnia or poor sleep quality
- Frequent infections
- Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
If you are suffering physical symptoms of excess stress then massage, in its many forms, may be able to help you. Through touch, massage activates the nerve cell receptors under the skin and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest activation). This generates a calming effect through the release of mood-enhancing chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. It will also reduce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Massage has also been shown to provide the following physical benefits that are of relevance to clients with excess stress:
- Release of muscle tension, including tension headaches
- Decrease in pain from this tension
- Improved blood circulation
- Decreased blood pressure
- Lower resting heart rate· Improved sleep quality and quantity
- Increase in white blood cell count (improved immune system)
Does Stress make you fat?
Some people tend to gain weight when under long term, chronic stress, but the cause of this weight gain is often a mix of hormonal and emotional factors (for example, comfort eating and drinking).
The “stress hormone” cortisol is released in the body during times of stress along with epinephrine and norepinephrine. This is the natural “fight or flight” response to a perceived threat. Following the stressful or threatening event, epinephrine and norepinephrine levels return to normal, but cortisol levels can remain elevated over a longer time period. In fact, cortisol levels can remain persistently elevated in the body when a person is subjected to long term, chronic stress.
Cortisol has many actions in the body but its’ main goal is the provision of energy (for the fight or flight!). Cortisol stimulates the body to convert fat and carbohydrate into Glucose. The end result of this action is an increase in appetite. Therefore, chronic stress, or poorly managed stress, may lead to elevated cortisol levels that stimulate your appetite. If there is no activity to use the extra calories, the end result will be weight gain.
Whether or not your stress levels will result in high cortisol levels and weight gain is not easily predictable. The amount of cortisol secreted in response to stress will vary from person to person, with some individuals being more “reactive” to stressful events.
Experts agree, however, that stress management is a critical part of any weight-loss attempt, particularly in those who have elevated cortisol levels. To effectively reduce cortisol due to stress, lifestyle changes are essential. Many people find that exercise can help with both stress control and using up excess calories. It is known to stimulate the release of endorphins, which have natural stress-fighting properties and can lower cortisol levels. Other useful strategies include: Yoga, Meditation, Massage, Reading and Listening to music.
Please get in touch if you have any questions, or need some general lifestyle advice to help reduce your stress levels.