Stress is often perceived as an outside force putting us under mental strain. Such as bills that need to be paid, boss’s pleased and keeping family happy, especially with Christmas around the corner!
The reality is there are too many causes of stress to simply list them all here. But what is stress really? Why does it make us anxious? Why do we get headaches, a sore neck, sore shoulders, and a myriad of other physical symptoms?
Going back to our good old flight or fight response we need to realise that despite our obvious advancements as a human race, our basic framework of anatomy and physiology has not evolved at the same rate as our intellect, which leaves us a little unable to cope with the 21st century stress placed on our bodies. When under acute stress, our brain knows that you are either going to have to fight and kill, or run like the wind. Either way this is going to use a lot of energy, so we are going to need oxygen because without it we’re not going to get far. So in conjunction with that initial burst of adrenaline, we start to breathe differently.
Normally in order to take a breath in, the diaphragm descends, which creates more space in our thorax, which brings air into the lungs. When we need a greater volume of air we need to create a bigger thorax. Which is achieved by employing muscles in the neck and chest which are attached to the upper ribs. Those muscles hoist the upper ribs up and expand the rib cage which gives us more oxygen to work with.
Now when a bear was chasing you, this response was wholly appropriate. However, today it can be problematic. Since we can’t physically fight our bosses (as much as we would like to sometimes), and we can’t run away from bills and other responsibilities, our stress response is now somewhat inappropriate. This means that we never use the energy we are trying to store, and we carry on breathing as if we are about to run away or fight. Therefore those muscles in the neck and chest that are only meant to be used in the short term become tight, shortened and over worked. This can cause neck pain, shoulder tension, headaches, dizziness and lead to more anxiety.
So what can be done about this?
Osteopathy is an excellent approach to combat stress. Because so much of our stress response is so physical, it follows that a hands on treatment would be very effective. By gently working on the neck, shoulders and upper ribs, the built-up tension can be eased. What else? Many people are familiar with the sub-occipital release, with the practitioners fingers strategically placed in the soft-tissue at the base of the skull (feels great). This, and other cranial techniques, can reduce irritation of the vagus nerves, the primary parasympathetic nerves, as they exit the skull to pass to the heart, lungs, and digestive organs.
Work at the sacrum can have a similar effect via the parasympathetic nerves to the pelvic organs. The adrenals live in proximity to the thoracolumbar junction of the spine where the diaphragm and psoas muscle meet. Normalising tensions in those structures and mobilizing the spine can improve adrenal function. I can also teach you some breathing exercises and simple stretches. Giving your body a much better threshold for dealing with stress.
To get you started. A simple breathing exercise is to breath in to the count of 4, hold for 6 and breath out to the count of 6. Cycle through for a few minutes. Give it a go!