We’re only two weeks away from Christmas, and while it’s meant to be a joyous time of year – for many reasons it also brings a lot of stress to people’s lives. Besides the obvious mental toll that increased stress levels tend to cause, it also has an impact on virtually all systems of your body.
Stress puts our nervous systems on high alert – otherwise known as “fight or flight.” This is a recipe for all sorts of things such as increased blood pressure, shortness of breath, increased muscle tension, increased cortisol production, an unhappy gut, and more neck and back pain. But the good news is that it’s not as difficult as you think to combat stress on your own – and give yourself the stress and injury-free holiday season you deserve.
Here are three of my favorite ways to combat stress during the holidays (or any time of year):
I know this might sound cliche, but breathing is one of your best friends when it comes to quickly reducing and interrupting stress. As little as 30 seconds can make a dramatic difference. When you breathe deeply it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The best part is you can do this anywhere — in the car, at the office, while shopping, even in the bathroom. Although breathing may not eliminate stress permanently, it does interrupt it. And interruption is key when it comes to managing stress — both emotional and musculoskeletal. When you interrupt the ability for the forces of stress to accumulate, you decrease the toll it can have on your body and brain.
Did you know that gratitude helps lower cortisol levels in our bodies by about 23%? Prolonged stress causes elevated cortisol levels, which causes lots of different health problems such as heart disease and high blood pressure. Research shows that when we think about something we appreciate (i.e. practice gratitude), the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming one) is triggered.
Our parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for returning the body to its automatic and natural rhythm. So when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, your heart rate and cortisol levels lower — which is the opposite of what happens when your sympathetic nervous system is activated and you’re stressed out. Your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems can’t both be in charge at the same time – so when you consciously practice gratitude – you actively lower your stress.
Any kind of movement is going to help you control stress for a few reasons. First, it gets your blood flowing which contains endorphins — natural chemicals of the body designed to decrease pain and stress. Second, movement helps to end the “flight or fight” response of your body. In ancient times, our fight or flight response protected us from danger (like a lion chasing us), by triggering us to run away. Running away (movement) would signal the end of the stress cycle caused by fight or flight by letting the brain know we were safe and out of danger. In our modern world, triggers of stress are not as obvious as a lion trying to eat us. The end of the stress cycle is not always clear and can just keep going – one of the ways stress becomes chronic. Therefore, purposeful movement can help decrease stress by physiologically ending your natural fight or flight response. Something as simple as walking can do the trick. But even jumping jacks or dancing in your living room can feel good and get your heart rate up enough to end the fight or flight cycle.
I hope these tips help you feel confident that it is indeed possible to combat stress completely on your own. If you find that you can’t, it’s always a good idea to talk to a professional who can help you. A little bit of stress is normal, but being chronically stressed is not. Give these easy and practical tips a try and see how you do. Cheers to a happy, healthy, stress and injury-free Holiday Season!
Dr. Carrie Jose, Physical Therapist and Pilates expert, owns CJ Physical Therapy & Pilates in Portsmouth and writes for Seacoast Media Group. To get in touch, or get a free copy of her guide to taking care of back or knee pain, email her at [email protected]
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