By: Kimberly Sumner, Partner, Physical Therapist and Clinic Director
Life during a global pandemic is stressful. Our schedules have been interrupted, we have challenges at home and at work, and many of us are carrying additional stressors and anxieties with us.
Our bodies are designed to handle small amounts of stress, but we are not equipped to handle long-term, chronic stress (like that experienced from the pandemic) without incurring some negative consequences. The “new normal” for many people has become close to “survival mode” and that extra stress and anxiety can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds.
Whether you are currently suffering from the physical and emotional tolls of stress, or are looking to combat the consequences and maintain a healthy lifestyle, here are three areas you can focus on to help regulate stress and preserve a healthy body and mind.
1. Engage in cardio and movement.
Regular cardiovascular exercise helps prevent and manage many health problems and concerns, including stress.
When we perform activities that involve repetitive movements of large muscle groups (such as walking, jogging or cycling), our body releases endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals that the brain naturally releases during times of pain or stress. Endorphins bind to receptor sites on our nerve endings to block pain receptor sites in both the peripheral (extremities) and central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). The side effect of this blocking in the central nervous system also signals the release of another chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for feeling pleasure and happiness.
Takeaway: A simple routine of 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise 4 to 5 times a week can have a significant impact on not only replacing feelings of stress with happiness, but can also help manage pain!
2. Get good sleep.
During the REM stage of sleep the brain’s stress chemicals shut down while the mind processes the day’s emotional experiences.
While we sleep, our body works on many things including repairing tissues, and consolidating memory. Poor sleep, or loss of sleep, leads to elevated levels of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that is produced in response to stress, both good and bad. Cortisol helps to reduce inflammation, regulate metabolism, and helps with the formation of memory. Ideally, cortisol levels should be neither too high nor too low. Sleep drops cortisol to healthy levels.
When you don’t get enough sleep, your body continues to produce more cortisol causing you to wake up feeling more stressed. This can make it more difficult to sleep the next night and so on. For those of you who are parents of young children, think about how cranky your baby or toddler can get when they are overly tired and therefore have an even more difficult time getting to sleep. Adults are no different. The result may not be crying and clinging to our mothers, but our loved ones often take the brunt of our high cortisol levels in other ways.
There are many things you can do throughout your day and before bed to help improve your sleep patterns. See our best tips on improving sleep hygiene here.
Takeaway: Work to get 8 hours of sleep every night.
3. Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a relaxation technique that aims to help people get out of their head and become more aware of the present moment.
The goal is to acknowledge all the thoughts, feelings, and sensations happening within and outside the body without reacting to them. Spending too much time planning, problem-solving, daydreaming, or thinking about negative thoughts can be draining. It can also make you more likely to experience stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression.
Practicing mindfulness exercises can help you direct your attention away from this kind of thinking and engage with the world around you. Recent research has shown that the neurological connection in the “fight or flight” part of your brain weakens while the area of your brain associated with attention and concentration actually gets stronger during mindfulness activities.
With practice, you can downregulate the stress-producing part of your brain while upregulating higher level brain activity. There are many ways to practice mindfulness:
- Take a mindful walk
- Observe your breathing
- Connect with your senses
- And many more
Takeaway: Find a mindfulness technique that resonates with you and practice it for 5-10 minutes every day.
Seek Help for Aches and Pains
As a physical therapist, I have to point out that physical therapy can be an incredible resource in fighting stress. When stress starts to manifest as aches and pains, a physical therapist can guide you through a program to help your body fight stress. But cardio, sleep and mindfulness are additional tools for an integrated approach to combat our chronic stressors.
About the Author: Kimberly Sumner
Kimberly Sumner is a Partner, physical therapist and Clinic Director at ARC Physical Therapy+. She specializes in outpatient orthopedics, sports rehabilitation, spinal rehabilitation and manual therapy. Kimberly is a Certified Spinal Manual Therapist and has completed extensive training and education in pain neuroscience education.
Contact Us to Learn More
Contact ARC Physical Therapy+ at 844-755-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more or schedule a PT appointment.