man holding behind head looking at water

Stress in the body: a manual therapist's perspective

Any practitioner who works in manual therapy can identify the telltale signs of stress on the human body.

By: Jo-Anne Saunders, registered massage therapist, Slow Medicine Company 

Most of the physical symptoms our body creates as a reaction to stress are the products of thousands of years of human adaptation to our innate 'fight or flight' response system. Typically this system was activated for survival during a life or death situation, like our ancestors fighting a saber tooth tiger. Our body had to limit its resources for one purpose: survival. We were either going to stay and fight against a predator or other acute source of danger, or run away for safety.

These innate reactions function off of hormones, namely adrenaline and cortisol. Where these hormonal-led activities developed from quick bursts of stimulation in our ancestral history, living in today’s society means we are constantly inundated with varying levels of stress throughout the day. This keeps a continuous level of adrenaline and cortisol present in our bodies most of the day, causing bodily reactions.

For example, one of the most common signs of stress is elevated (high) shoulders. People continually tell us: "I hold my stress in my shoulders", and we want to say in return: "Exactly, you were built for that function'. In our history as humans, our shoulders would elevate and round to form more of a protective barrier around our vital respiratory organs to keep us safe from injury.

Other signs of stress in the body can include:

  • An increase in muscle tension
  • An increase in perception of pain
  • An increase in heart and breathing rate
  • An increase in blood pressure
  • An increase in inflammation response
  • An increase in digestive issues
  • An increase in fatigue

How to deal with stress
Passive ways of recovering from stress, like watching TV, scrolling through social media, or binge eating, may seem relaxing at the time, but they may increase your stress over the long term. Look for active ways to manage your stress. These choices are more sustainable and productive, and offer long-term health benefits.

Consider some of these stress management strategies:

  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi or massage therapy
  • Keeping a sense of humor
  • Spending time with family and friends
  • Setting aside time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music
  • Reserving adequate time for sleep
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • Putting your phone away for periods of time to stay offline