To our forefathers, stress was an essential component of survival. That burst of adrenaline brought on by an encounter with a saber-tooth tiger gave them the speed to flee or the strength to kill the monstrous beast. Today’s challenges might not include facing hungry carnivores, but office politics, news, and dodging minibus taxis make for an equally stressful life, only now, running away is not an option.
Initially, feeling stressed is a positive response that enables us to complete tasks quickly and efficiently. Over time, stress build-up takes its toll on our bodies, usually on those areas that are genetically weak, and can lead to chronic illness. Most, if not all, diseases have their foundations in prolonged and ill-managed stress. This, together with a predisposing genetic defect that determines the weak link in the body, will, for example, lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer, slower recovery after operations and infections, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, asthma, eczema and many other disorders.
Because there are so many different manifestations of stress build-up, stress is often not recognized as the cause of illness. Worse still, once identified, many ignore it, fearing it is a sign of weakness. Stress can be an ever increasing out of control spiral. When we do not remove stress hormones through deliberate relaxation or by using the fight or flight response, our brain takes that to mean that we are not sufficiently prepared for fight of flight. Survival demands that our autonomic system comes to the rescue by pumping more and more stress hormones into our system, until we show signs of fight or flight or deliberate relaxation.
When we are first stressed, the brain signals the release of adrenalin and cortisol. These are hormones that boost our blood sugar and oxygen levels, push more blood to the brain, the result is increased alertness. The average adrenalin rush experienced while in traffic supplies enough glucose to keep one running for a mile. In the short term, stress suppresses the immune system, increasing the risk of infections; slows down the body’s rate of repair; slows down the metabolism; robs the body of vital nutrients. The symptoms can be recurrent headaches, vague aches and pains, dizziness, heartburn, muscle tension, dry mouth, excessive perspiration, pounding heart, insomnia and fatigue.
As we become more and more stressed out, our body begins to adapt to the high level of stress hormones. As a result, we feel increasingly anxious, fatigued and prone to mood swings. Long-term stress promotes rapid ageing, leads to weight gain, and increases the risk of developing osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer and digestive problems. When we find ourselves stuck in the stress response and it is chronic, we become exhausted and depleted of vitamins and minerals. Our energy plummets, and our body’s ability to produce adrenalin decreases. Consequently, our emotions take a dive and we experience anxiety, fear, restlessness, irritability, anger, depression and insecurity, loss of libido, impaired memory and concentration.
We can recover by going with the fight or flight response. Physical exercise 5 times a week will act as the flight or fight response by using the body’s preparation for fight or flight and thereby lowering stress hormones to manageable levels. Regular, deliberate relaxation techniques used to lower or remove stress hormone build up from our systems such a floatation therapy; massage and meditation allow the body to naturally remove stress hormones from the body.
Many headaches are caused by stress. Tension headaches feel like a band tightening around the head. Relaxation, just like tension is a learned response. With regular practice, you can teach your body to relax, and learn what it feels like to be relaxed. The weightless environment of the floatation tank means that you do not have to support your body against gravity. Deep physical and mental relaxation follows.
In Mind-Body Medicine, there is a clear relationship between lower-back pain and stress. Again, relaxation techniques are the answer. In the floatation therapy, you are able to take quality time out, and reach deep relaxation very quickly and without years of training or practice. With regular massage, both the mind and body relaxes. To combat insomnia, breathe deeply and relax your body starting with your toes and working your way up to the top of your head. Take calcium and magnesium supplements before going to bed, and avoid caffeine as much as possible.
The body’s release of adrenaline during stressful events raises the heart rate and blood pressure. Adrenaline also stimulates a release of fat from the fat cells into the blood stream to supply energy for the fight or flight response. If unused, this fat is deposited on inside of the arteries. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that indicates that surges of blood pressure can trigger heart attacks in susceptible people. Repeated elevations of blood pressure over periods of weeks and months accelerate atherosclerosis thereby increasing the risk of heart attacks.
Arthritis is often aggravated by stress. Learning to manage stress can help to relieve pain. Endorphins are the body’s natural pain killer. Massage helps to release the muscles that are tightening up around the body in response to pain, and encourage us to feel good about our bodies again. Sore muscles and pain occur when the muscles contract in response to stressful events, increasing the production of lactic acid and leading to pain. If you are able to deeply relax your muscles with the Epson salts in the water, the body is rid of lactic acid in the muscles, while the endorphins released by the brain help with pain relief.
In a stressful situation, digestive system slows down, freeing body’s energy for fight or flight. The stomach however continues to excrete acid, and ulcers may develop. Using relaxation techniques goes a long way in preventing the onset of stress-related illnesses. High levels of stress hormones dampen the functioning of the autoimmune system, leaving one more likely to catch whatever is floating around.