How much stress do you carry? Most of us don’t realize it, but stress can have a greater impact on pain that we think.
Stress shuts down the systems in our body that needed for long-term health. That prevents our bodies from healing and curing our pain.
The stress response shuts down the functions you need to reduce pain. Stress decreases circulation, shuts down your digestion, shuts down your immune system, and focuses your brain really tightly on what it thinks is a life-threatening threat.
It affects how you breathe. We tend to breathe very shallowly when we’re stressed and our heart rate speeds right up. Our stress system really deprives our tissues of oxygen.
Is it just a bad day, or is there a tiger coming after you? The body can’t tell the difference between a life-threatening stress or just regular, everyday stress. The biochemical stress response of the body is the same. It also worsens our beat-to-beat variability, the time between heartbeats, which we know is crucial for health.
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Interviewer: We talked to a lot of doctors about this, but can you explain how stress is a factor when it comes to pain or even just our mental health?
Dr. Heather Tick: Sure. The stress system is our adrenal system – it’s the adrenal hypothalamic pituitary access – but the adrenal glands are kind of the poster child for stress. And then there’s the anti-stress side, the parasympathetic system. So the stress side has two facets. One is cortisol and corticosteroids. The other is epinephrine and norepinephrine, or adrenaline noradrenaline depending on which side of the ocean you’re on.
The stress system decreases circulation, shuts down your digestion, shuts down your immune system, and focuses your brain really tightly on what it thinks is a life-threatening threat. The body can’t tell the difference between a life-threatening stress or just regular, everyday stress. The biochemical stress response of the body is the same.
And it shuts down the reproductive hormone system as well. So the stress system shuts down a lot of the very key systems we need for an ongoing long-term health. It also vasoconstricts – it shuts down little blood vessels, especially in muscles it doesn’t view as essential for running away from a saber-tooth tiger. Our stress system really deprives our tissues of oxygen and shuts down many key functions we need to reduce our pain naturally.
Stress also affects how we breathe. We tend to breathe very shallowly when we’re stressed. The stress system also affects our heart rate. We tend to have a very rapid heart rate.
There’s also something called beat-to-beat variability. For example, if you have a heart rate of 60, your heart does not beat once a second. The length of time between each beat is slightly variable so it’s 0.9, 0.98, 1.25 and it’s that rate of change that tells us a lot about our overall health.
We recognized this first in newborns and then in the elderly. In newborns, nurseries recognized early on that babies with good beat variability are much more likely to survive. They found the same was true in nursing homes and ICU’s and the elderly. If they have good beat-to-beat variability they’re more likely to survive whatever crisis they’re facing. Now we know it’s the same for us, for all of us.
Beat-to-beat variability is very important. Our stress system affects it. That shows the balance between the stress system and our anti-stress system, or parasympathetic system. If we take steps to control stress, that’s one way we can heal ourselves.