Stress is a constant presence in most people’s lives that can be both good or bad. Stress can keep us on our toes, in shape, and poised to perform at our best. Too much for too long though and serious health problems can develop.
Too much stress affects practically every aspect of health–every bodily system, every tissue. In this article we will look at the effects of stress on muscle.
Stress and the Muscles
Imagine that you’re trying to finish a project on a tight schedule. Your posture is hunched, shoulder muscles tight, jaws clenched.
These physical exhibitions can all lead to chronic tightening of the muscles, straining, and overcompensation of muscle groups. Eventually pain will develop. This can escalate to persistent pain.
In fact, most muscle pains that fail to respond well to medications and physical therapy are most likely due to chronic stress and tension.
This is often considered anxiety muscle tension. Symptoms include twitching, persistent pain, clamping up, and muscle spasms. The severity of the symptoms varies. One person may experience simple discomforts while another may have severe symptoms to the point of intense pain and disability.
Why Does Stress Manifest Physically?
Stress affects the different tissues in the body in various ways. Generally, stress triggers the body’s fight or flight response, which subsequently triggers the release of stress hormones (cortisol). These hormones are then carried by the blood to target organs where the organs are given a boost as an act in order to preserve life and function. This response includes the muscles as well.
Stress hormones promote more blood supply to the muscles and triggers contractions. Muscles tighten, poised for movement, either for running away or for staying to fight.
This can be very beneficial if the person is facing an emergency since it makes the muscles stronger. However, chronic high stress levels cause the muscles to be hyperstimulated to the point where they start to break down. The contractions as part of the stress response are meant to be temporary. It is meant to last only for a short period, not indefinite and certainly not for days, weeks or even years.
Stress can come from various sources. The negative effects of stress on the muscles are usually caused by both mental and physical stress. Again, go back to the previous example of the need to complete a project on a tight schedule. The thought of having to finish something on time with the deadline seemingly closing in on you is enough to raise your stress levels.
This prolonged stress response takes a toll on the muscles. The norm for the muscles is to contract for some period, and then get the opportunity to relax. During relaxation, the muscles receive better blood flow. This helps clear the muscles of buildup of wastes and lactic acid. It also brings nutrients to help the muscles recover from the strain of contraction.
In the contracted state, there is poor blood flow. Contracted state also limits movements.
In response, the muscles become strained. It becomes less elastic and less able to contract or be stretched during movements. This will lead to overcompensation of adjacent or associated muscles, joints and tendons. This compensation, like the stress response, is meant to exist only for a short period. Prolonged overcompensation can result in injuries, pain and limitation in range of motion.
The list of effects goes on and soon, it will affect all other organs as well.
All these things can happen because of chronic stress.
The Consequences of Chronic Stress
The most common issues that people will deal with in this situation is pain.
Movements become limited and pain starts to become a more frequent presence. Back pains, neck pains and pain over the various joints can get in the way of normal living. Simple movements such as getting up from bed or sitting down become increasingly difficult.
Worse, pain can eventually become unresponsive to medications. Pain starts as simple, temporary discomforts. However, can be easily relieved by rest, change in position, stretching or medications. As stress continue to be present, pain gets worse. Movement limitations also worsen.
What You Can Do to Manage Stress
The best thing to remedy everything is to lower your stress levels. One way is to lower cortisol. This is one of the stress hormones mentioned earlier. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands. It can benefit the body short term because it allows you to deal with the stressful situation but it becomes detrimental when cortisol levels are elevated over a prolonged period of time.
One way to lower cortisol levels is by living a healthier lifestyle. Get enough sleep. It is during sleep that the body resets. Levels go down and the body starts to relax. This is also the time when the body recuperates and heals itself.
2. Eat Healthily
A healthy diet and proper exercise also helps. Certain foods such as berries and dark chocolate can help release feel-good hormones that help lower cortisol and improve how you feel. Certain herbs and supplements can also help as well, we usually recommend a herb called Ashwagandha for this purpose.
3. Massage Therapy
Another way to reduce stress and improve muscular health is massage. Proper stimulation of the muscle tissues can help in promoting relaxation and reduction of the tension caused by physical and mental stress.
How Massage Helps
The majority of negative effects of stress on muscles can be relieved by simple massage. Tactile stimulation of the muscles promotes the release of a few hormones that counter the negative effects of stress.
Examples of these hormones are dopamine and serotonin. These are the body’s natural feel-good hormones. These help relax the muscles and improve overall mood and wellbeing.
These studies showed that a massage session can reduce heart rate and blood pressure levels. It can even lower levels of insulin and cortisol. These effects promote calmness of the mind. The decrease in cortisol gives the muscles an opportunity to relax. The tension created by the contractions is lowered as well. Blood flow to the muscles improves. This can help reduce pain and brings nutrients that nourish the muscles and improve their functioning.
A word of caution when getting a massage from a professional: Not all massages can help. Massage from an inexperienced person may cause more damage than doing good. Improper massage techniques may lead to muscle tears, cramps, and other similar problems. Make sure that massage is performed by someone who has good understanding of massage therapy and how it should be properly performed medically.
Stress is a serious issue. It affects the entire body. Living a healthy lifestyle and eating the right kinds of foods can help lower stress levels and prevent its negative effects. When you do start to feel that it’s too much, it’s time to kick your shoes off and go into relax mode.