The vast majority of my massage clients, and I'd be willing to bet the vast majority of people who are reading this, suffer from very similar pain/discomfort patterns in their/your bodies. Tight neck, tight shoulders, headaches, shooting pains down the arms, maybe a bit of numbness for a dash of excitement with a side of teeth grinding for added flavor. Now what do all of you have in common? Stress, computer work and more stress.
You've all heard, read and been told that we all need to move more for a variety of reasons, lose weight, lower your blood pressure etc etc, but what rarely gets talked about is how the mix of sedentary lifestyle. technology and the modern world being a much more trauma filled, soul sucking, scary and unstable place to be affects your brain chemistry, and it's your brain chemistry that affects everything else.
So let's meet a chemical that used to serve a wonderful purpose for us, was intrinsic for our overall survival and now, thanks to our way of life, has become overworked, cranky and who is expressing it's displeasure about it in a myriad of ways. Say hello to cortisol.
Cortisol is "a life sustaining adrenal hormone essential to the maintenance of homeostasis. Called “the stress hormone,” cortisol influences, regulates or modulates many of the changes that occur in the body in response to stress including, but not limited to:
So, basically, it kicks in when we get stressed and gets everything clipping along at the required pace to deal with stress. Which is great for when you have to run away, fight, hunt or, in general, do anything that requires maximum effort for a short period of time. The idea being after we get away, kill dinner or win the fight we relax, reset, maybe enjoy the fruits of our labors and take a break. Only problem is that doesn't really happen anymore.
These days it's get up, commute, try not to road rage, get to work, stress for x amount of hours, either get off that job to go to another one or get off work and pick up kids, run around at full speed with said kids, put them to bed, either work more or stress about bills that you can't pay, try to sleep, get back up and repeat. We get no downtime, no time to enjoy anything that we do and, in general, are always at a high level of stress.
Well cortisol, not understanding what the hell is going on, keeps doing it's job, making our heart race, pumping through our bodies to keep us awake, help us survive but after awhile the body, and cortisol, start going "Hey, um human? Hey, we can't keep this up. Oh, you want to keep going? Well, fine, but you're going to feel like shit." And then it begins.
Fatigue, pain, headaches, back aches, upset stomachs, phantom pains, tight muscles, jaw grinding, eating badly, cancer, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, pretty much you name it, all start kicking in, because cortisol, and it's friends in the adrenal system, are trying to get you to listen while attempting to live up to the demands you put on them.
Here is a very long and excellent article about stress and how it kills. Remember, back in the stone ages of the 80s when Japanese businessmen were dying at super young ages? Yup, stress did that.
"The consequences of chronic stress can be devastating. A chilling example is stress cardiomyopathy, a spontaneous weakening of the heart that predisposes victims to arrhythmia and even sudden cardiac death. While the mechanism is not clearly understood, it is thought that chronic stress-induced elevations in epinephrine (adrenaline) over-stimulate the cardiac muscle, altering its function and causing atrial remodeling (Sakihara 2007; Korlakunta 2005).
Another striking example is a condition the Japanese refer to as Karoshi (death from overworking); this condition was recognized in post-World War II Japan. Overworked and severely emotionally and physically stressed Japanese high level executives suffered strokes and heart attacks at alarming rates at relatively young ages. Researchers discovered that the death of these otherwise healthy men was due to chronic, unremitting stress. Government estimates in 1990 put the number of men dying each year from Karoshi at over 10,000 (Kondo 2010; Saleeby 2006).
Prolonged stress has been linked with elevated circulating markers of inflammation, and increased intima media thickness, a measure of atherosclerosis progression (Gouin 2011; Roepke 2011). Chronic stress considerably increases the risk of anxiety and depression by causing structural and functional changes in the brain as well (McEwen 2004; Liu 2010). "
How do we fix this? Or at least stop the destructive feedback loop? Well, short of winning the lottery, the next best thing is making self care a priority. No, I am not talking about putting pressure on yourself to go to the gym, which isn't a bad thing, but for most of us, it's just another added stressor because the majority of us never get around to it. There's a simple, free, easy way to give cortisol a break, it doesn't require a membership, equipment or anything more than what you already have. It's called...wait for it...breathing.
"Say whaaatt?" I hear you ask. Yup, breathing. Breathing deep, breathing like you mean it and breathing for your health, beyond the fact that you need oxygen to, you know, live.
Take deep, slow, counted breaths, do it every day when you wake up, when you feel stressed and before you go to sleep. It's a built in calming mechanism and I'm a firm believer that companies should allow breathing breaks, not just smoking breaks.
Breathing deep, focusing on the breath and nothing else for even just sixty seconds, will calm your brain down, make you feel better, and acts as an auto reset for your nervous system. Start with breathing, making sure you use your belly to take in some deep breaths, then maybe work your way up to a regular monthly massage, which does a whole list of wonderful things for you, which I will go into later. Then, maybe, just maybe try some chanting, some meditation or some yoga, but the most important thing to do is start breathing.
Kat is a LMT in AZ with close to a half decade of experience. She likes to talk to ppl about their health, make them feel better and get them to realize they have so much power to control their own health. Snarky yet informative, that's Kat in a nutshell. She's also available for personalized, targeted therapeutic massages, please see the scheduling page if you live in the Phoenix AZ area.