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Bridge to Health Blog
Bridge to Health Blog

The effects of stress and worry on the body

Written by Sian Smith   Posted in:Osteopathy   June 22, 2020

The effects of stress and worry on the body
If you are one of life’s worriers, then the wave of fear and uncertainty that the recent pandemic has brought has likely not quelled these tendencies. The areas of life that it has affected are myriad; from the health of yourself and loved ones, finances, job security, kid’s education, juggling work and home schooling, to the fact that you cannot get to a hairdresser! It is little wonder there are concerns about a mental health crisis.

Whilst we know a little bit of worry can be good for us, persistently high levels of worry can trigger a chronic stress response within the body, affecting us both mentally and physically. Prolonged episodes of worry can cause the sympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for the fight or flight response) to become overactive and releases the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol into the blood stream.  

It is these constant levels of stress hormones circulating within the body that cause us to respond with symptoms of the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Psychological effects of anxiety are relatively well-known, and it is particularly important to talk to a professional therapist who can help you address anxiety triggers and develop coping strategies to prevent long-term anxiety negatively affecting your health (there are studies linking anxiety disorders with increased heart disease and stroke).

However, anxiety can also manifest as physical symptoms within the body. Here we will touch on the 3 main physical symptoms of anxiety and the ways in which a visit to your osteopath can alleviate them. 
  1. Headaches. High levels of stress hormones cause the muscles to become overly tense – most commonly affected are the trapezius (upper shoulders), scalene and suboccipital (neck and back of skull) muscles. This increased tension limits blood flow to the muscles causing them to become fibrous and ‘knotted’, making you feel stiff and limiting mobility of the upper back and neck joints. Two types of headaches often result from this; tension headaches which cause pain at the back of the head and a tight ‘band-like’ feeling at the temples, and cervicogenic headaches which tend to travel from one side of the neck to the back of the eye of the same side. Osteopathy focuses on improving blood flow to the muscles using deep tissue techniques to reduce knots and manipulation to re-align the spine and improve mobility.
  2. Chest tightness. The stress response increases heart and breathing rates. In this state the body does less deep abdominal breathing and instead recruits the ‘accessory respiratory’ muscles, located at the neck, upper chest and back. This contributes to a panicky feeling of breathlessness and can cause chest pain and tightness. An osteopath can work through deep breathing exercises with the patient, encouraging use of the diaphragm, and help to stretch and relax the tense muscles around the neck and chest.
  3. Insomnia. Overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system can make it difficult to switch off, exacerbating any feelings of anxiety. The sympathetic nervous system is located either side of the thoracic spine (middle back), so an osteopath will look for any dysfunctional areas here, which may present as a block of restricted joints or an area of spasmed muscle, and will work to rebalance the problem. Additionally, techniques to encourage activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (located in the brain and lower back) are used to promote a slower heart and breathing rate, lowering blood pressure and encouraging feeling s of relaxation.

Recent times have brought many new things for us to feel anxious about and it is ok to feel this way. However, if you are noticing that you these worries are taking a toll either mentally or physically it is important to recognise this and seek help. Treatment from a professional will likely help ease the burden immediately and provide you with tools to manage physical and emotional stress on a day to day basis.

If you have any further questions regarding treatment for both the physical manifestations of anxiety, contact Sian Smith at sian@bridgetohealth.co.uk, or for help with psychological symptoms then contact our councillors Deborah Kerr at Deborah@bridgetohealth.co.uk or Valerie Lemeteyer at valerieL@bridgetohealth.co.uk.

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