People worry about troubling symptoms such as headaches, neck tension, upset stomach and trouble sleeping. A well-meaning friend, family member or even primary health care provider may assure them, “It’s just stress”. However, we’re often not directed as to what to do about stress and its impact on our body. We would do well to understand the stress response, its life-saving function in our body, and how too much of it can cause us real trouble.
Stress is costly. Job-related stress costs the Canadian economy $16 billion annually. Job-related stress claims are responsible for 19% of absenteeism, 40% of employee turnover and consume 55% of employee benefits. Thirty percent of short-term and long-term disability costs correlate with job-related stress, and at least 10% of drug plan costs are psychotherapeutic.*
It’s actually not stress that causes us harm…it’s our response to it. In Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s book Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, he describes most mammals are designed for “3 minutes of screaming terror” as they are pursued by a predator, or chasing prey as the desperately hungry predator themselves.
The stress response liberates available energy and delivers it along with blood and oxygen to the brain and muscles, shuts down long-term projects (growth, digestion, reproduction), boosts clotting factor and blunts pain sensation (anticipating injury) and focuses the mind for learning and recall. Our survival depends on the stress response. “After the 3 minutes of screaming terror,” Sapolsky summarizes “it’s over…or it’s over for you”.
Short-term stress as described above we can handle…it’s the chronic stress that kills us. Humans anticipate threat — real or perceived — in the deadline, the obligation or appointment we’re regretting, fear of failure or success, worried we will be disappointed or rejected. We can generate chronic stress through our own imaginings which, as Sapolsky puts it, lead to “anxiety, neurosis, hostility and paranoia”. Of illness, Sapolsky says “Stress is not a causative factor, stress is an exacerbative factor. It makes pre-existing disease worse”.
This is an important distinction – the chronic stress response becomes more damaging than the stressor itself! Zebras don’t get ulcers because they don’t worry themselves over whether a threat will come along. They handle it as it arises. Humans however worry constantly, and their chronic stress response does them more harm than the stressor itself.
You can interrupt the cascade of harmful chronic stress reactions with self-awareness techniques such as controlled breathing and meditation or prayer, taking a physical break and using various cognitive techniques to monitor your thoughts and feelings. When stress is insidious and overwhelming, stronger interventions like psychotherapy, prescription drugs and body awareness therapies may be helpful. Massage therapy can be very helpful in ameliorating the physical effects of chronic stress response, and is even helpful psychologically. Moore et (2002) found people treated with massage therapy showed a decrease in trait anxiety and subclinical depression while Diego et al (2001) hypothesized massage therapy promotes parasympathetic activity in the body – reducing stress hormone levels and promoting feelings of calmness and well-being. Field et al (1996) studied the effects massage therapy had on office workers and noted an alleviation of anxiety and improvement in mental alertness.
At Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa, our registered massage therapists are highly trained and well-educated to understand the impact of chronic stress, and to provide remedy for stress’s ravaging effects. Make massage therapy part of your health strategy against the effects of chronic stress response.
By Don Dillon, RMT