Stress, burnout and low energy
We live in a fast-paced world, full of stress, pressure, and rushing around. In itself, stress is not a bad thing; it’s a physiological response that helps us meet a challenging situation. But it’s supposed to be short-lived, and when the situation is over, our bodily systems should return back to normal. Many of us live, however, in a state of chronic stress, feeling overwhelmed by and unable to meet the challenges, and also unable to relax and wind down afterwards: with terrible consequences for our well-being. This can lead to exhaustion, burnout, sleep disturbance, as well as raise the chances of digestive problems (eg. IBS) and a range of other effects. Through body-psych coaching, I teach you to become aware of your particular response to situations that are stressful for you, and to change that response within the situation, learning to release stress that you’ve held in your body.
Stress in your body
Stress is a physiological system through which we respond to challenging situations. The stress response is known as the HPA axis because it involves molecular signals from the hypothalamus (H) in your brain, to the pituitary (P) gland, and finally the adrenal glands (A), which ends up in higher levels of the hormones cortisol and adrenalin. This system is exquisitely designed to meet challenges: it generates more energy to focus us on the source of stress, and get you active. It triggers the breakdown of fat and protein and release of stored glucose to provide more energy, and causes a higher level of muscle tension in the body. It also puts other bodily systems on hold while the challenge is being dealt with: it puts the brakes on your digestive system, immune system, capacity to learn, and ability to relax. This system is excellent, but it is designed to be short-lived, and once the source of stress has been dealt with, hormone levels should return to homeostasis.
When we stay stressed for extended periods, our systems are not designed to deal with that. We can become desensitised to those hormonal signals, ending up in a burn-out state. Or we can end up tired-and-wired, unable to get to sleep at night because we’re so switched on. It also plays havoc with various of our internal processes, like the digestive and immune systems, not to mention the muscles that are continually signalled to be on a higher level of tension.
As well as the HPA axis, stress or challenged trigger the active branch of our autonomic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is sometimes known as the fight-or-flight part of the nervous system, since it is triggered when we are under threat and has similar effects to the HPA axis. It’s a doubly effective system, because survival is that important. But the SNS is not only active under threat. It works continually in conjunction with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) so regulate our organ function: lungs, heart, digestion, immune system – you name it. The two systems are supposed to work antagonistically, which means when one goes up, the other goes down.
But if we are continually stressed, then the SNS can remain continually “up”. Like with the stress response, this has a dramatic effect on our entire internal systems. This is why stress is linked to so many physical and physiological symptoms. Studies have shown its connection to raised blood pressure, and to disturbed digestive activity, leading to conditions like IBS and leaky gut syndrome. Recently, research has also linked stress to interrupted immune system activity, leading to increased levels of inflammation, which is at the core of many conditions, including asthma and allergies.
Changing your stress
I work with you on a physical as well as psychological level, teaching you to become aware of the ways that stress manifests in your body. It’s a bit like learning to track your HPA axis and sympathetic nervous system! Since you can’t sense your hormone levels and neural activity, sensing things like muscle tension and posture is the way in. We work backwards along the chain of command, if you like. I guide you to notice the physical state that is connected to your stress, and I use exercises in body attention, breathing, movement and touch to help you shift out of that state. You’re learning to deactivate the stress response, to shift out of the SNS into the PNS.
Part of this involves learning how to relax long-held muscles. When you can relax the places that have been held tense, it’s like retraining the nerves were sending them the signal to be switched on. Since our deeper, unconscious brains continually monitor and respond to our internal levels of tension and posture, this helps drive a positive feedback system that allows us to relax. It’s like giving those parts of our brains the signal: “everything is okay!” The alarm systems can be turned down, the levels of cortisol can sink, and your whole system can return back to its balanced state. Being able to relax is a really essential part of being human! It doesn’t mean losing your drive or becoming unproductive; it means being able to rest well in between being active.
As well as the automatic physiological responses, your own way of being stressed is also very particular to you. Your particular ways of tensing and holding your body are connected to patterns of thoughts and feelings. Maybe you’re stressed by the idea that others might think you’re stupid, or by feeling that others don’t listen or understand you, or by the lack of control that comes from working with others, or by the feeling you won’t manage, or by taking decisions. Maybe you react to those stresses by becoming frustrated and angry, by over-thinking, or by trying to impress others, by trying to control, or trying to be very nice and adaptable. These reactions all come with particular body postures or tensions, which I guide you to notice.
One of the key muscles that is tensed when we are stress is the psoas muscle, connecting the middle/lower part of your back to your legs, by running across the lower part of your abdomen. It is responsible for lifting your legs up towards your body, and automatically tenses when we are stressed or under threat, since it helps prepare us for any action we need to take. When we are under sustained stress – or equally when we spend a lot of time sitting down – the psoas ends up shortened and permanently under too much tension. This can be the root of all sorts of symptoms, especially lower back and knee pain. Since a lot of the nerves of the vast nervous system supplying our digestive systems are also embedded in the psoas, high levels of tension there may also interfere with that system. Below are links to articles I’ve written exploring the role of releasing the psoas in reducing stress, and also on the links between stress and the “second brain” in our guts.