I have been meaning to put a "blog" on this website for a while... like a couple of years... but better late than never, right?
Anyway, it came to my attention that today, November 4, is National Stress Awareness Day. Stress is a fickle, fickle creature that manifests in almost every way possible and affects every facet of our lives. There are two types of general, "external" stressors I'll call them: ones that make us less productive and ones that make us more or optimally productive. The less productive stressors are either not stressful enough so that we cannot be motivated to get things done (like, avoiding putting clean clothes away for several days even know you know it needs to be done but cannot be bothered), or they are overwhelmingly stressful and make it so we shut down and go into "ostrich mode". But everyone has an optimal stress level that makes them the most productive, like paying bills at 11:59pm before they are considered "late" or cramming for tests or taking on a lot of extracurriculars to keep the schedule full and organized at the same time. While the optimal stress is actually a good thing, and the un-motivating stressors are more of a self-starting issue and don't do immediate harm (unless they turn into a overwhelming stressor), it's the overwhelming stressors that are doing us the most damage.
Follow me down to the cellular level. Stress is something we interpret in the brain. The brain then sends a signal in high stress situations - fight or flight, experiencing/re-experiencing trauma, heightened anxiety - to release the hormone cortisol. In small doses, cortisol is very affective; think cortisone shots to treat injuries. It allows the body to respond to whatever is happening to it in a effective way. Over time, however, prolonged exposure to cortisol can damage the tissues and cells and make the body ineffective at dealing with stress. Did you know that over a person's lifetime they are only supposed to receive two cortisone shots in a single area? Many medical professionals will not give more than one. Makes you wonder how all of the pro-athletes get around it...
Stress is also a positive-feedback cycle. This means that when we are experiencing stress, we tend to focus on that feeling and the thing causing us to feel stressed, thus creating more stress, so on and so forth. And because every person deals with stress differently it can show up in a multitude of ways combining some, all, or acting alone in any of these ways and more: sleep disruption, night terrors, digestive issues, appetite disruption, increases in self-destructive behavior (drugs, self-inflicted harm, etc.), skin problems (acne, hives), depression, anxiety, blood pressure, hyperventilation, inflammation, and PAIN. So you can see how this singular hormone plays a critical role in affecting the release and balance of other regulating hormones in the body. Hormones control literally everything we do from telling us when it's time to eat to optimizing our physical performance in an event to bonding with partners to regulating our body temperature. If any one is out of balance for too long and the body cannot autocorrect, the whole system can be temporarily damaged; and if left unchecked long-term or permanent damage is a real risk. The stress felt throughout the body also has a memory attached to it, sort of like PTSD, where if we are about to be in a situation that has caused us physical/emotional/mental stress before, our body starts to pre-emptively respond before that situation even occurs. These memories lead to tension-holding patterns in the body, and that's where I come in
So, now that you know how pervasive "stress" is on the body, what can you do to manage it? Exercise? Meditation? Therapy? Ramping up? Scaling back? Diet cleanse? The common denominator in all of these comes down to self-awareness. What do YOU, does your BODY, need? Our body is telling us stuff all the time, but I would say more often than not over time we have learned to turn down the volume, if not totally mute it. If we aren't aware of the signals our body is sending us, how can we expect to feel much less identify the trigger of what is causing us stress? I feel like the best way to get in touch with your body is to have it actually be touched by someone else. And I don't mean a romantic partner, although positive touch from anyone in a non-sexual way could be very helpful in its own right. Feeling the body respond to touch, if any referral patterns happen, is a highly informative experience. It allows the person being touched to experience their body, and what goes on in their mind and body at the same time. There isn't another scenario where both the mind and body are consciously online at the same time, co-processing external stimuli.
A massage therapist can help relieve the physical tension in the body. The tension-holding patterns I mentioned earlier can be un-leaned. We literally have to retrain our bodies how process stress differently and not hold on to it. This is by no means an easy or quick process, but for those who consider themselves "high stress", adding bodywork into their routine may prove to be very helpful in stress management and prevention.