January 24, 2018

Your Body Is the Map to Managing Stress

Anxiety & Depression

Every person is confronted with a number of stressors on a daily basis. Whether it is through work, school, relationships, or past negative experiences, we all find ourselves having to manage external and internal stressors. Sometimes we have so many stressors active throughout our day that we find it hard to return to a state of rest. There is a physiological reason for this experience.

The Somatic Nervous System is responsible for transporting information from the Central Nervous System (the brain and spinal cord) to the skeletal muscles, skin, and sensory organs. Therefore, when your mind is confronted with a stressor your body is the first to respond. Put simply, our bodies feel stress, sometimes even before stress registers in our minds. And when our minds are stressed, they take it out on our bodies.

When you are confronted with a stressor, your brain warns your body that it needs to respond, causing physical symptoms such as quickened breathing, an increased heart rate, a rush of adrenaline, or a number of other possible responses. These are all appropriate responses from your body as it does everything it can to keep you safe. Ever heard of flight or fight response? That is what your body is doing to prepare you to take on the threat, or run away as fast as possible!

After the stressor is gone, your mind and body are free to restore themselves to a restful state. This can happen within a few minutes or it can take a little while. With repeated and prolonged stressors, people can have increased difficulty returning to the relaxed state within their minds and bodies. With each stressor that you face in a day, your mind and body are activated to respond and even if you are able to move past the stressor mentally, you may feel residual effects such as muscle pain, an unsettled stomach, or maybe you feel exhausted and depleted of your energy. Research shows that ongoing emotional stress can lead to digestive issues, headaches, physical muscle pain, or even chronic pain.

Here are some ways to engage your body when faced with continuous stressors:

  1. Implement exercise. Exercise helps initiate blood flow throughout the body, flushing the released stress-response hormones. This can be a little or as much as walking a couple times a day to promote blood flow. It will also return anxious breathing to a normal rhythm and baseline.
  2. Practice body-aware mindfulness. When you become accustomed to the amount of stressors you experience, it is possible that your mind respond to the stressors without you even realizing you are responding. In this case your body can be the indicator that something is wrong. If you are feeling muscle tension or an unsettled stomach, maybe your brain is sending your body a signal that there is a stressful situation that needs to be confronted. Spending 10-15 minutes a day attuning yourself to your physical body experiences can help you learn where your body needs attention as your return to a restful state. Body sensations can be a guide back to understanding what is stressing you out.
  3. Get a massage. Like deep breathing indicates you don’t need to run anywhere, relaxed muscles indicate that its okay to come down. Massages are helpful for pushing out the stored up tension that is held in your body as you respond to our everyday stressors.
  4. Find a Therapist. If you find that you continue to feel muscle tension, an unsettled stomach, or physical pain, your body may be telling you that you have stored up emotional stress that needs to be dealt with. Our bodies and minds are intricately connected. A therapist can help you develop an awareness of the mind-body connection and use specific interventions to help you process through emotions caused by present or past negative experiences.

Everybody experiences stress, so know you aren’t alone! Learning to manage and handle stress is possible. Practice these strategies to combat your stress from a bodily perspective, and reach out today to schedule a session if you’re needing some help overcoming stress.

Written by therapist Keri Sawyer

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