Understanding the effects of the stress response

Knowledge is power, especially in a crisis. Understanding why you feel the way you do can be very reassuring, especially when you know there are some simple strategies to manage it.

Robyn Gant
Physiotherapist and Director

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Why do I ache or tingle all over?

The stress response, also referred to as the fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.

The muscles that we rely on to act under stress are pictured here and are referred to as the “deep front line” by Tom Myers in his insightful book Anatomy Trains. These muscles and their connective tissues are activated by extreme emotional states, making us feel stiff and sore. Many of these muscles have important nerve trunks passing through them that supply sensation to the skin and power to the muscles. Increased tension in these muscles can cause nerves to become irritated, producing a range of sensations including aching, tingling, burning or sharp shooting pains. Increased muscle tension can also create stiffness and referred pain in areas remote from the muscle.

Reproduced with kind permission from Tom Myers,
Anatomy Trains 3rd edition 2015

When the stress response is activated you may notice your jaw is clenched, your shoulders are elevated, or you are leaning forward in your chair with your legs crossed. It has also been my observation that some people feel tension on only one side of their body. As the emotional centres are in the right side of the brain, which also controls the muscles on the left side of the body, left sided tension can reflect a relationship related stressor. As left-brain thinking is about tasks, order and logistics, and the left side of the brain control muscles on the right side of the body, right sided tension may indicate stressors such high workloads and deadlines.

Another reason for widespread aches and pains is related to the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol acts to mobilise our energy stores for fast action, but it also reduces our body’s ability to cope with inflammation and supresses the immune and digestive systems. I have experienced one rare episode of intense anger that triggered swelling and heat in many of my joints, requiring me I to take the week off work. I could barely get out of the bath and had to settle it with anti-inflammatories!

Why do I feel breathless?

When the stress response is stimulated, it triggers our sympathetic nervous system which causes our breathing to change to a rapid upper chest breathing pattern. There is less volume of air in the upper airways and you will tend to emit more carbon dioxide, which in extreme situations can trigger a panic attack. If this happens, place a cloth or paper bag over your nose and mouth and focus on slowing your breathing down, bringing the breath lower into the lungs where the volume is larger. Slowing your breathing help trigger the parasympathetic nervous system which restores the body to a clam and composed state.

Why am I feeling bloated and puffy?

The lymphatic system is the vehicle for your immune system to move lymphatic fluid around the body to heal infections, viruses and wounds. This system sits on top of the deep front line muscles pictured above. Increased tension in these muscles can cause congestion in the lymphatic system. This can contribute to symptoms including headache and difficulty concentrating, puffiness in the face, legs, feet or hands, insomnia, fatigue and fluid retention with weight gain and gut disturbances. One of my clients after being taught how to use her breathing to turn off her stress response, returned the following week saying she felt immediately better and had to her surprise had lost 3kg in a week (fluid of course)!

Why am I feeling so tired?

A lack of oxygen from an upper chest breathing pattern, lymphatic congestion and the stimulating effects of adrenaline which increases heart rate with the stress response, can all contribute to insomnia. You may be having difficulty getting to sleep; find that you are waking more during the night, and don’t feel refreshed in the morning. Quality sleep is vital for our health and well-being, so a continuing lack of it leaves us chronically exhausted.

Why is my mood and ability to think affected?

The stress response can affect our brain function in a variety of ways. Here’s a handy model of the brain (excuse the pun). The fingertips represent the prefrontal cortex which is where our executive functions reside that enable us to analyse, comprehend, problem solve, feel trust and empathy, access our intuition and moderate our behaviour. These are the things that enable us to do our jobs well and relate to people. The thumb represents the amygdala which fires with the stress response. As these two areas are in direct contact, the firing of the amygdala interferes with our ability to access the pre-frontal cortex, which is why we can read an instruction three times and still not take it in. This also has a negative impact on our ability to communicate, particularly during difficult conversations, which can then escalate an already stressful situation.

Changes also occur in our brain’s neurochemistry when the stress response is triggered. The levels of oxytocin and dopamine, which make us feel positive and engaged with people, may drop. At the same time, cortisol, testosterone and catecholamines, the hormones of fear increase, and close down our prefrontal cortex, making us feel fearful, aggressive, negative and distrustful of others.

Vitamin B reserves are also depleted by sustained periods of stress, which can also contribute to a feeling of “brain fog”. Stress formulas, such as Blackmores Executive B Stress Formula are high in Vitamin B and can help you sharpen your focus.

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Category: Mind