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How stress impacts your physical health (and how PT can help!)

stressed out

In our busy and at times chaotic world, many of us find ourselves suffering from stress. We all know that stress can make us feel anxious, but did you know it also affects our physical health?

In this blog post we will discuss what exactly is stress and how stress can impact our neuromuscular, cardiovascular, immune, and gastrointestinal (GI) systems. Lastly, we will examine how physical therapy (PT) can help you manage your stress and decrease these physical and mental effects.

What is stress anyways?

Stress is your body’s response to a potential threat. Your autonomic nervous system is comprised of your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (SANS and PANS, respectively). When your body perceives a potential threat, your SANS becomes activated. This causes you to have what’s known as a “flight or fight” response: your body starts gearing up to either try to flee the threat or fight it face on.

Stress and your neuromuscular system:

When stress activates your SANS, this sends your body into protective mode. Your muscles automatically tense up to guard you against potential danger. The release of certain inflammatory stress hormones can actually break down muscle proteins and overtime can decease muscle strength.

In terms of brain health, chronic stress has been show to lead to structural changes in the brain, particularly in an area of the brain called the hippocampus which plays a major role in memory. Chronic stress also increases your risk of developing mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, etc.

Stress and your cardiovascular system:

Stress increases your heart rate and blood pressure due to increased vasoconstriction. Over time, these changes can increase your risk of developing a cardiovascular disease/event, including but not limited to: arrhythmias, heart attack, stroke, etc.

Stress and your immune system:

When you’re under chronic stress, your body’s immune system is diminished due to prolonged exposure to those inflammatory hormones released by the SANS. Therefore, you might find yourself more prone to illnesses and potentially more susceptible to developing autoimmune dysfunction.

Stress and your GI system:

Stress can impact the GI system in multiple ways. It can diminish nutrient absorption as well as decrease GI motility. It has also been shown to increase GI inflammation, which can lead to feeling bloated, stomach aches, and even inflammatory bowel disease.

How can PT help you manage your stress?   

Suffice it to say, stress can impact your physical health in multiple ways. Thankfully, PT is here to help! Evidence supports the use of regular exercise to decrease stress and help promote emotional resilience in response to stress. Your physical therapist will work with you to create an individualized exercise plan as well as help you learn ways to utilize relaxation and deep breathing techniques to help manage your stress.


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