We keep hearing the word “stress” but what is stress and what really causes us stress? In this article we dive into the effects that a build up of stress can have on the body and ways to release it.
What is stress?
Stress is a response to everyday pressure, a constant state of worry and tension, it is the way our mind and body reacts to difficult situations. Chronic stress can alter the way our mind and body works, especially the way our body feels. Uncoped stress/ trauma can get stored in your body and cause tension in your body. Worry not, in this article we shall explore ways of how to release this stored stress and cope with it effectively.
What causes a build up of stress and tension in the body?
Stress can be caused by multiple factors: work, relationship, personal goals etc. To put it in perspective, anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful. This makes stress subjective, however, the way our body reacts to stress is the same for anyone and everyone: You go into a mode of survival. Your body either chooses a fight, flight or freeze response. This mechanism is governed by a series of connections in our mind and body called the sympathetic nervous system.
Let us look into how these systems work: The SNS (sympathetic nervous system) is responsible for arousal, including the fight, flight or freeze response. It moves blood to the muscles for a quick action and triggers the adrenal gland to rush adrenaline in our body which causes instant increase in our heart rate and blood pressure. It prepares your body for some action. The mind suspects stress, and the body prepares for stress.
But what happens once a stressful situation is over? Here comes the role of the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) which promotes self preservation. It releases acetylcholine to put a brake on this fight and flight, it slows down the heart rate, it slows our blood pressure, relaxes muscles and calms us down when a stressful situation is over.
When we do not signal the parasympathetic nervous system, we remain in a constant state of fight or flight, and when this does not workout we decline into the last resort – the reptilian brain, and we freeze. Slowly stress builds and builds in our body and our resources to deal with it deplete. Gradually, it becomes a part of muscle memory as we start to store this stress reaction in our body.
Symptoms of stress in the body
Chronic stress can be felt physically in the form of:
- Aches and pains in specific areas of your body like hip area, back, shoulders etc
- Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing.
- Exhaustion or trouble sleeping.
- Headaches, dizziness or shaking.
- High blood pressure.
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching.
- Stomach or digestive problems.
- Weak immunity
What are the long-term effects of stress on the body?
Stress that isn’t dealt with may become stored in your unconscious, and may even affect your body and cause physical pain that may not have any physiological origin. For instance, your body posture changes when you feel confident vs stressed and anxious. this change in posture can result in aches and pains.
Where is stress stored in the body?
Different areas in your body store different types of stress:
- The stress of responsibilities are often stored in the neck and shoulders
- Trauma, abandonment, lack of financial and/or emotional support is carried in the hips and lower back
- Sorrow, loss, loneliness, and pain lingers in the heart centre
- Anxiety, fear and anticipation causes tightness in the chest and stomach
The stress and tension we store in our body can lead to long term health concerns like hypertension, risk of heart attack, diabetes, sleep issues, gastric issues and more. However, there are ways we can kickstart our PNS and slowly make efforts to restore our body balance to help the stress response switch off.
5 ways to release stress and tension from the body
Let us look into how we can break this cycle and learn to relax our body and mind.
A quick body scan can help you feel the way your body is communicating to you, recognizing when you’re feeling stressed. Take a moment to identify tight areas in your body, does it feel tight near the neck or shoulders etc?
Just simply regularly adjusting your posture throughout the day to prevent build up. Since stress and anxiety affects the way our posture feels, a quick adjustment could fill you with positivity and bring in awareness to relax and let go.
2. Yoga poses to release stress
Yoga helps in developing self-regulation. All yoga programs consist of a combination of breathing exercises (pranayama), stretches and body postures (asanas) and meditation. A combination of these 3 helps us focus inwards rather than outwards, helping you to listen to your body and that it wants to say. Different poses help in releasing tension from different areas of the body. Here are 5 yoga poses that help with stress:
Child pose: This pose is very grounding, allowing your neck and shoulders get a gentle stretch and tension release.
Resting Pigeon pose: Another great grounding posture and a gentle hip opener that helps you release tension from hip and back area.
Cobra Pose: This pose helps release tension in your lower back and chest area, opening that heart and letting go of all stress.
Lying down spinal twist: A great way to gently release tension from the entire spine. You might hear a little pop!
3. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
PMR is a relaxation technique that involves isolating each body part and tensing and relaxing them. Usually, a person begins with the feet and works their way up the body, taking deep, slow breaths throughout the exercise.
By focusing on tensing and relaxing muscles one by one, a person becomes focused on the present moment. If their attention wanders, they can refocus again on how their body feels as they work their way through the exercise. This encourages mindfulness and helps to kick start our PNS.
4. Breathing exercises
There is a simple way to experience these two systems SNS and PNS for yourself. Whenever you take a deep breath, you activate your sympathetic nervous system and when you exhale it activates the parasympathetic nervous system which slows you down. When stressed for long periods of time we even change the way we breathe, we take quick inhales and exhales which makes us stay in a state of constant alertness. Breathing is a great way to see our body becoming prepared and relaxing, just like we need fight/flight but we also need to relax and let our body restore. You can find a number of guided meditations and breathing exercises available in the WYSA app.
Stress over time really stiffens our body, posture and muscles. When we move, we release this stored tension which in turn help us relax. Exercise such as walking, dance, or tai chi can help us to feel fluid in movement and allow us to let go of stored stress. Manipulated movement, such as that from a professional massage can help to remove muscle knots that form over time due to stress.
Remember, there will always be new and recurring triggers that cause us stress in our day to day lives; this is why we must develop practices to release such worries, stress and tension. The more we ignore our body and mind, the deeper we bury the worries, stress and tension and the more damage it causes. With these simple and relaxing techniques, you allow stress to move through the body and can begin to heal yourself from the effects of stored stress and trauma in the body.
If you would like more personalized 1-1 support, why not reach out to a Wysa coach via the app. You will be paired with a trained professional dedicated to helping you through your worries and struggles. Find out more about Wysa’s 1-1 human coaching.