Lessons on the health impacts of stress

My team and I have learned some valuable lessons about the impact of stress on the muscular, nervous and lymphatic systems and their effects on our physical and emotional wellbeing.

By Robyn Gant, Director

Lesson 1

During the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, we had one quiet week followed by an influx of clients with wide ranging symptoms including:

  • aches and pains throughout the body
  • tingling or burning sensations in the arms, legs or feet
  • breathlessness
  • weight gain, bloating and puffiness
  • anxiety and depression
  • emotional distress
  • difficulty concentrating
  • poor sleep
  • fatigue

We had never encountered such a large and sudden influx of clients presenting with widespread and diverse symptoms before. It was not only those who had lost their jobs who were suffering, but also those who retained their jobs but were required to undertake the work of at least two or three people. The employed were suffering from excessive workloads, long hours and job insecurity. The unemployed, suffering financial hardship plus the stress of being without meaningful work, were injuring themselves by undertaking extreme rather than moderate progressive exercise regimes in an attempt to fill the void.

Through our integrated approach, we came to understand that all these symptoms were linked to the stress response and developed some fast and simple ways to help our clients manage their stress through breathing and specific exercise. Recognising these clinical patterns changed the way we practised. There were some days where we would need to address this with almost every client.

During this time, I observed that men tended to become either withdrawn and depressed or overly aggressive, while women were easily reduced to tears for the slightest reason.

Lesson 2

My next lesson came from personal experience after a period of prolonged stress. Because cortisol, the hormone of fear, has a 26 hour shelf life in the body, repeated triggering of the stress response within this time frame can have a cumulative effect resulting in in increasing symptoms over time.

I experienced every one of the symptoms on the list, including tingling sensations affecting my entire body and difficulty concentrating, such as overlooking traffic signs (even flashing ones), which nearly cost me my driver’s licence.

When people experience overall tingling in their bodies, they may begin to suspect they have Multiple Sclerosis. This can result in them having multiple medical screening tests at great expense without any meaningful result, all of which adds to their stress.

Throughout my long career as a physiotherapist, I have always learned from my own injuries and experiences. Unpleasant as these can be, they have provided me with greater insight, validated my approach and enhanced my ability to help others.

Lesson 3

The summer of 2019 was the most stressful ever with the devastating drought and bush fires, resulting in a tragic loss of life, property, livelihoods, bushland, wildlife and dangerously poor air quality. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in concurrent economic and health crises, we have the added stress of social isolation, working from home with children being home schooled, and the risk of contracting the virus with potentially very serious consequences.

We need to ensure those suffering from the cumulative effects of stress, which by now is probably all of us, have some way of helping themselves.