By Sue Ingebretson
Has this ever happened to you?
You leave your fibromyalgia doctor’s office later than planned. It’s getting dark and you head to the elevator in the parking garage. Suddenly, an unpleasant tingly feeling runs up your spine. You distinctly hear threatening footsteps behind you! Thankfully, you hop into the elevator alone but then realize you can’t remember where your car is parked. In your state of panic, you race (as much as is possible) up and down various levels and aisles for another 30 minutes before you finally find your vehicle.
Safe at last!
Once you fumble for your key fob and get your car door open, you sit behind the wheel, lock all the doors, and release a heavy sigh. You’ve conquered this emergency situation. You don’t see anyone nearby, but yet your heart pounds. You feel nauseous. A splitting headache is beginning to blossom up the back of your head. And, now you must fight rush hour traffic in the dark.
You make the executive decision to skip the post-doctor pharmacy visit and make a beeline for home.
What just happened?
Like a flipped switch, the body’s senses are acutely intensified. Under duress, our senses (smell, sight, sound, and even touch) become like live electrical wires. In this heightened state of fear, the heart beats faster so we can escape danger. The circulatory system pumps more blood to the heart and less to other, non-vital, body functions such as the digestive system. We feel on edge as our thoughts, perceptions, and awareness levels continue on high alert.
You’ve heard of the fight or flight response, right? This common name of the sympathetic response of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for the body’s ability to react quickly. It kicks into overdrive in a fearful, anxious, or threatening situation. This system tells the body to pump out cortisol (the stress response hormone) and prepare for action. It’s like pushing your car’s gas pedal to the floor and getting ready to jet off at warp speed.
Except, we don’t jet off. In contrast, we might not even get off the couch. In today’s culture of high stress living, our body can sense an emergency situation in something as simple as looking for a misplaced item.
We can induce the stress response by worrying over financial troubles, family conflict, health fears, work place discord and more. The list is as endless as our circumstances allow.
In nature, an animal such as a gazelle has its stress response triggered by true danger – a predator. Once the gazelle is safe and the danger is removed, it basks in the sun, chews lazily on a few leaves, and takes the time it needs to recover.
This is the part of the equation most of us are missing.
The problem of chronic stress
We’ve become a culture of stressed out individuals. Instead of going through nature’s cycles of stress and recovery, we simply stay in stress mode. Through repetition (exacerbated by the fibromyalgia body’s compromised ability to recover), we’re vulnerable to this stuck state.
Of course stress happens to us all.
Anyone with fibromyalgia and/or chronic illness challenges is faced with stress at work, in relationships and with caring for an unpredictable body. We know that stress is unavoidable, but what, specifically, does it do to the body?
The following symptoms may represent our physical responses to stress. (1) (2)
- Tight muscles (leading to increased body pain and headaches)
- Lowered tolerance for exercise
- Mental confusion
- Poor cognition and memory
- Poor ability to focus
- Disordered eating (too much/too little/cravings)
- Addictions (food, drugs, alcohol, nicotine, etc.)
- Rapid heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
- Raised blood pressure
- Increased heart rate and stress on the heart
- Increased vulnerability to viruses and the common cold
- Increased vulnerability to infections and diseases
- Slowed healing and recovery times
- Early or premature menopause
- Increased blood sugar levels
- Increased prevalence of heartburn/GERD/Reflux
- Increased pain or discomfort from existing ulcers
- Nausea / vomiting
- Constipation / diarrhea
- Gas, bloating, distention
- Poor circulation – cold/sweaty hands and feet
- Dry eye
- Dry mouth
- Dry skin and hair
- Grinding teeth (bruxism)
These symptoms increase our risk of future health challenges including the following:
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- Increased risk of developing diabetes
- Increased risk of developing arthritis
- Increased risk of developing heart disease
- Increased risk of developing stroke
- Increased risk of developing asthma
- Increased risk of developing skin rashes problems
Is there an antidote to chronic stress?
Believe it or not, there are both positive and negative types of stress. Some stress can be a good thing. It can propel action, create the environment that supports healthy changes, and motivate you to take healthy action.
For more information on this interesting topic, I discuss a “healthy” type of stress called Eustress, in this article – “Feeling Stressed Out? Good!”
But what if the stress isn’t healthy and isn’t creating positive change? In that case, it’s most likely chronic stress. Stress that occurs on a constant, relentless, and persistent basis serves to only further ingrain the sympathetic nervous system response in the body, increasing harmful symptoms.
What’s the missing answer?
We’re missing the switch to move back and forth between stress and relaxation. We know that relaxation (and recovery) is the answer, but do we practice it? Throwing the switch to encourage relaxation is like derailing a train set on a course of disaster.
The parasympathetic nervous system response is the state we need to encourage. It’s the body’s natural answer to the stress response. As opposed to the “fight or flight” response, this is often called the “rest and digest” response. The problem is that while the stress response happens automatically, the relaxation response does not.
We must intentionally put it into action.
Here are the first three vital steps that you may be missing in this critical relaxation process.
- Recognize the physical symptoms of stress.
Oftentimes, we’re so used to being in stress that we don’t even notice the elevated heart rate, impaired digestion, and other negative symptoms of chronic stress.
- Put a relaxation method into practice.
This step takes some planning in advance. It takes setting an intention beforehand. What relaxation methods work for you? What ones have you tried? What ones are you willing to try?
- Create a habit to throw the switch.
Making the switch from stress to relaxation takes practice. It takes conscious thought at first. Upon repetition, it can easily become habit and is worth the investment of time.
Relaxation methods to try.
- Full body relaxation through guided imagery – listen to meditative recordings, find a relaxation practitioner, create meditations of your own to practice.
- Prayer and meditation – probably the easiest and most overlooked methods of relaxation. The need to connect to our higher source and higher selves is a vital part of the healing process.
- Getting out in nature – walking, sitting, bicycling, golfing, hiking, swimming or any activity that can get you outside provides an opportunity for God’s natural healing.
- Massage – allow your body to fall into a deeply relaxed state by finding a massage therapist who meets your needs. It may take some research and a willingness to try someone new, but it’s well worth the effort.
- Healing hypnosis – while this may be a new idea, achieving relaxation through hypnosis is similar to guided imagery. In many cases, it’s the very same thing. Hypnosis provides the added kick of positive suggestions and encouragements. A healing hypnotic state can be induced by a practitioner or on your own with self-hypnosis. A hypnotic state can be achieved through body movement, meditation, prayer, and any number of meditative methods.
- Deep breathing – here’s another often overlooked and simple way to induce a relaxed state. Deep breathing practices are simple and easy to follow. Check out this “Fibromyalgia Stress Reset” article for more information.
- EFT Tapping – this may also be new to you, but in the scientific world of stress management, tapping is gaining a lot of notoriety. Check out these ProHealth articles for tips, methods, and an exact script you can use for your own healing benefit: “Tapping Into Healing Success for Fibromyalgia with EFT” and “Practical Guide to EFT Tapping for Fibromyalgia.”
- Fitness and body movement – moving your body in healthy ways provides healing (and relaxation!) benefits. To find a fitness activity that works best for you, check out this article, “What Fitness Training Works Best with Fibromyalgia?”
- Fresh, whole, real, nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods – whole, healthy foods help the body to create a sense of well-being and balance. Look for the phytonutrients your body needs for restoration in this article, “Phytonutrients Fighting for Fibromyalgia Recovery.”
- Whole body meditative practices such as tai chi and yoga – can be powerfully healing when done on a regular basis. I’ve practiced (meaning I’m NO expert!) tai chi for more than a decade and host a weekly class in my home. Yoga and tai chi practices are also healthy ways to avoid and deal with symptom flares. Check out this article that applies at any time of year – “How to Stop a Fibro Flare.”
- Music concerts, watching a comedy, laughter with friends – there are many therapeutic benefits to laughter and making healthy social connections. Improved social connections can even help your risk of health challenges that affect your future health and longevity. For more information, check out this article – “Is Fibromyalgia at Fault for This Longevity Risk Factor?”
- A comforting warm mug of tea – here’s another overlooked method of relaxation. Grasping, touching, or holding something warm has a soothing and comforting effect on the body. Pair this with a good book and you’ve got a winning combination. Want added warmth? Soak in an Epsom salt bath and grab even more benefits.
There are many more options to choose from, but these should give you great ideas on how and where to begin.
What benefits can you expect to experience with relaxation?
Here are just a few of the many physical improvements you can achieve when the switch is made to implement healthy, healing relaxation modalities. (3)
- A healthier immune system
- Resistance to tumors and viruses
- Improved heart health
- Lowered/regulated blood pressure
- Elevated mood and reduced depression
- Improved mental clarity and cognition
- Improved memory
- Improved blood flow
- Improved fertility and PMS relief
- Improved IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) symptoms
- Improved sleep and ability to stay asleep
These benefits are just the beginning for anyone willing to apply them. Which practices do you already implement? Which ones do you want to add or try next?
Sue Ingebretson is the Natural Healing Editor for ProHealth.com as well as a frequent contributor to ProHealth’s Fibromyalgia site. She’s an Amazon best-selling author, speaker, and workshop leader. Additionally, Sue is an Integrative Nutrition & Health Coach, a Certified Nutritional Therapist, a Master NLP Practitioner, and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. You can find out more and contact Sue at www.RebuildingWellness.com.
Would you like to find out more about the effects of STRESS on your body? Download Sue’s free Is Stress Making You Sick? guide and discover your own Stress Profile by taking the surveys provided in this detailed 23-page report.