Stress and Your Body: Building Awareness

Clinic Director Lynn Batalden recently participated in a multi-disciplinary project for NIU’s STEAM program. This project took a a recent novel,
Quarantine, by Lex Thomas, and brought it to life by playing out some of its dystopian implications with hundreds of high school students. Lynn was interviewed by the NIU team about the effects of stress on the body in order to help students learn how to recognize and cope with stress. We’ve condensed the info she provided for our newsletter/blog.

Lynn Batalden, physical therapist, physical therapy, dekalb, IL
Lynn Batalden, DPT, OCS

Stress impacts our body in many significant ways. We often have to respond to significant stress by being still and confined when in fact our system is designed to have us do just the opposite: RUN!

Our central nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. Within the central nervous system we have a somatic branch that makes up voluntary movement like lifting a box, and our autonomic nervous system, which controls everything in our body that we don’t have to think about.

Our autonomic system is split into two ways of working: one is called sympathetic and the other is parasympathetic. The sympathetic system governs what we’ve heard called our “fight or flight” response: when activated, our sympathetic nervous system tells our body to start fighting or break into a sprint and run away. The paraspympathetic nervous system works the opposite way: it’s more active at rest, after a meal, or while we are just relaxing. Here is a brief comparison of the two systems:

Becoming an observer – Activity-tracking technology like Apple watches or FitBits can monitor your heart rate and breathing rate and provide data on your body’s current state. These devices can be handy, even motivational; however, simply learning to recognize the effects of stress on your body can be an even more powerful tool because you’re learning to become an active observer of yourself. Being able to “check in” with yourself (“How does what I’m experiencing make me feel? How is my body reacting to how I feel?”) is a key concept we try to teach our patients as well as something practiced in activities like yoga and meditation.

Breathing – One important way to begin checking in with yourself is to simply observe your own breathing. Does your chest feel constricted or open? Count while you are inhaling and count while you are exhaling. Notice if your in-breath and out-breath lasts more than 3-5 counts. If it is less than this, your breathing is constricted.

Traumatic experience – If you’ve experienced trauma, check in with yourself a month or two after the incident has passed. Notice if you have less enjoyment of family or friends. Notice if you react to situations with more intensity than you normally would. Seeing a counselor who practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy could help with this.

Sudden Stress vs. Everyday Stress – Stress that is sudden, immediate, and dangerous needs to be handled a little different than everyday stress like an upcoming deadline, worrying about a test, work/family pressures. While the techniques I will tell you about can be used for everyday worry, the techniques you might use for everyday worry won’t work as well for sudden stress. Our classes at Creative Therapeutics are a great way to physically cope with stress, from Total Gym Gravity to Pelvicore Core Strengthening to Yoga and Yoga Nidra, which specifically address stress.

For sudden stress, try these techniques:

Run in place fast and hard for one minute, then lay down flat (or sit down) for one minute. Repeat this cycle 4-10 times and finish by laying as long as you would like.  This alternately stimulates the sympathetic and parasympathetic system and acts like a kind of massage.

Practice yoga for 30-90 minutes. Start out with a faster pace and harder poses that work the big muscles of the legs and shoulders. Then taper down to simpler poses that are on the floor and that stretch your muscles. Finish by laying on your back for 5-10 minutes and then by sitting up and practicing breathing techniques.

Play a game–especially a game that involves some movement. Remember that the body needs to burn off the desire to run away. If you’re able to have fun, that will stimulate the opposite chemicals in the brain that produce stress.

Do an activity that develops some sense of control. Participate in the plan of how to handle the situation, writing it out on paper may help to diffuse some anxiety.

Help another person who is struggling if they would like your help. A sense of community will help.

Be a participant in the activities that best suit you, instead of isolating yourself. Being more social will help to change your brain chemicals.

If you are religious, pray and/or pray with others.

Color or do an art project.

When you feel like the initial adrenaline is starting to wear off, try one of these two breathing techniques: (Both can be done every day, 1-6 times per day!)

  1. Count the length of your inhale and exhale. Increase the length of your exhale by 2-3 counts. Maintain this for 3-10 minutes.

Practice alternate nostril breathing. Use the thumb and the middle finger of one hand. Close off one nostril and breath in. Then close off the other nostril, opening the first one and breathe out. Continue alternating, each time after that make sure you both inhale and exhale out of each nostril. Repeat this cycle 12-24 times.

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