- Karen Stoner, LMT
Massage Tips and Trivia: Stress is responsible for 80-90% of illness
"Stress is responsible for 80-90% of illness"
Stress is all around us in many forms. Some stress is actually good in that it can motivate us, force us to become more creative, or protect us. Other kinds of stress can cause more problems than it creates. When stress is chronic, or always hitting us in some way, and it doesn't let up, this can cause many problems for our health and well-being. Some stress is completely out of our control, so the best we can do is learn how to manage it's effects, and other kinds of stress we can recognize and work with prevention or coping techniques to limit how it effects us.
So what happens to us when we are stressed? When an external stress hits us, our body releases multiple hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, along with other things that makes some body functions increase to manage and take care of the stress. The stuff that gets increased is meant to help the body handle the stress, but it is not usually meant to linger in our systems for a long period of time. So if stress causes an issue, our bodies react, and then it should be over, and everything settles down. Unfortunately when we are hit by stress after stress, and the stuff that is supposed to give us a temporary boost sticks around and keeps getting released more and more, it can ultimately cause problems because it isn't supposed to be there that long and tat much. Likewise, the body thrives on homeostasis - which means everything is balanced and works together. So if something in the body increases or has to work harder, that means something else in the body needs to decrease and work less. (Think of a pitcher used to pour water into a glass: the water in the glass increases, but the water in the pitcher decreases.)
So, in less general terms: When we are hit with stress, our bodies releases adrenaline and cortisol which raises our blood pressure, make our hearts beat faster, sharpens our minds and reflexes, and lets us be ready to take on the thing causing us stress. However, as our "fight or flight" system is increased, something else gets suppressed - and one of those things can be our immune system. It's like the body is thinking: "Why worry about fighting germs, when we are being attacked by a bear? Get away from the bear, then we can go back to fighting germs!" But if the bear never goes away and we are fighting it constantly, that increased adrenaline and cortisol (among other things)n can have a negative effect on the body because it isn't meant to stick around. Since there is more of the stuff in the system, it can cause high blood pressure, make other organs work less so metabolism and digestion can be affected, leading to obesity and other issues. Likewise, increased stuff that make you need to fight can change the mental state as well. Scattered thoughts, inability to focus beyond the thing causing stress, and an increase of the hormones that make you want to "fight or flight" can bring on insomnia, restlessness, bad appetite or food choices, depression, and more. So stress can truly affect the whole body in every way.
So what can be done? Some stress is unavoidable - trouble at work, issues with family members, genetic illnesses you can't avoid, the idiot who cuts you off in traffic, etc. Some is unavoidable, but manageable. It all depends on how you choose to manage the stress, and if the stress in unmanageable, you can manage how you care for yourself with that stress. Everyone says that the key to managing stress is taking time for self-care, but those are usually the people who consider a stressful situation as their local coffee shop using Columbian vs. Ethiopian beans for their coffee that day. Self care for stress should be tailored to the situations that are causing the stress. If an idiot cuts you off in traffic, slowing the car down, and taking a few deep breaths and re-centering yourself, and allowing yourself to let it go may help calm you down and let the incident pass. If the stress is more long-term like a job, you may have to get more creative and put some dedication into how you manage the stress. If you job is rough, and having a drink with friends after work helps remove the stress, by all means go for it, as long as the drinks or atmosphere doesn't become a problem in itself. Meditation or exercise is great for clearing the mind and re-centering your intentions, but often finding the time to do these things can almost cause more stress. Even massage - it can help shut down the nasty hormones and increase the good ones, helping the body to return to homeostasis, but if the communication between you and your therapist isn't good, you may not get the relaxation or whatever it is you need from the massage which can leave you more frustrated.
The point is that no stress-relief technique is 100% the "magic pill" for everyone. And sometimes what works for some stress, may not always work for all stress, even over time. If you pick something to relieve the stress, but it only masks that day's issues without actually making you feel better, you may need to change it up. Go out for drinks, but only do it one or two days instead of every day - exercise during that time the other days. Get a massage that fits your time - a 15-minute chair massage here and there during your lunch break on a really bad day, and a longer one once every 3-6 weeks - and don't be afraid to open your communication with your therapist more, or even change therapists so you can get the treatments that will help you most. (most therapists are willing to change up their techniques to suit what you need each appointment, as long as there is good communication.)
Bottom line, stress isn't good for you. It can cause lots of problems, big or small. How you manage that stress helps keep you healthy in a lot more ways than you may think. Everything is like a chain reaction - a little stress can turn into a lot of stress due to what it does to the body. They key to stopping stress from turning into illness is to manage it as best you can. Sometimes managing it is a mental thing, sometimes it may require a whole lifestyle change, or somewhere in between. Whatever it is that is needed to manage stress, start small and celebrate any small results, then go from there. Little things can make a big change in your overall health.