And What Can We Do About It?
What a year this has been! For everyone, this has been a challenge, to say the least. As a clinician I’m seeing the impact of this year on the patients I’m treating right now. There are some slightly more obvious relationships between lockdown and our wellbeing but some perhaps less obvious so I thought I would share.
For those of us old enough to remember The Wombles, they were right! “Exercise is good for you, Idleness is not!” (for those who have no idea what I am talking about I promise you will LOVE looking up The Wombles).
How movement and lack thereof, affects our bodies
Many of us have become more sedentary this year. Working from home, inability to go out and exercise to the same degree or in the same sports as in the past. During the 1st lockdown, there were many people suddenly undertaking an exercise in the home and that’s great although, as ever, people were going too fast and too strong into this with resultant injuries which I was thankfully able to help and treat mostly on Zoom.
Some, however, had injuries they sat on for months and their issues were MUCH harder to treat and have taken a lot longer to repair/resolve subsequently. We also found sadly we had to turn patients away when we opened up last summer as the volume of people who had been waiting with injuries was huge. The issues we were seeing were often more difficult and took longer to treat. Such a shame but it could not be helped.
I am therefore so grateful that we have been allowed to be open this time and would urge anyone with aches and niggles or more serious injuries to consider getting early intervention and calling us to get treatment. You may suffer far less pain and recover quicker and save yourself financially too! PLEASE DON’T PUT OFF COMING IN FOR TREATMENT IF YOU FEEL SAFE TO DO SO. We are here and we have well-versed measures in place to ensure you are as safe as can be.
People are also tending to work in less ergonomically appropriate conditions and for more hours than they would traditionally have done. Coupled with homeschooling and logging back on again in the evenings – all this has built up to a health time bomb. I am now seeing that, overall, people are really struggling with their physical and mental wellbeing. Those of you who know me well will likely be aware that I have increasing belief and clinical understanding of the huge connection of mind and body. Stress when long-term, affects almost every part of our body quite apart from the emotional hardship.
Ways in which stress and lack of movement might manifest in our bodies
- Immune system suppression (the last thing we need during a viral pandemic is reduced immunity).
- Increased muscle tension and joint stiffness with resultant musculoskeletal pain.
- Altered breathing patterns which in turn create tension in the neck, chest and upper back and shoulders and may result in headaches and migraines.
- Altered nervous system chemistry with serotonin and adrenalin and this altered pain modulation rendering us more likely to register pain than under healthier circumstances.
- Digestive issues (due either to lack of physically moving around of the internal organs or due to altered nervous system control).
- Inflammatory conditions – this can literally affect anything in the body. When the autonomic nervous system goes out of balance and into the sympathetic drive
The Autonomic Nervous System
Our nervous system can be divided up into:
So what are these? Motor and sensory are pretty self-explanatory I imagine. The autonomic nervous system governs “automatic” actions in the body. Your pupils constrict and dilate of their own accord, gut activity, rate, and depth of breathing and heart rate etc are all under the control of this autonomic nervous system or ANS.
Of particular interest in current research is part of the ANS called the Vagus nerve which supplies almost all of the internal organs and registers the state of our internal sense of safety. This will clearly be an issue this past year for many of us with the pressures and concerns affecting all of us. (If interested then speak to me or see the work of Stephen Porges and Micheal Shea).
The ANS can be divided into:
- Sympathetic (excitatory)
- Parasympathetic (sedation or calming)
The ANS maintains balance in the body and allows us to react to our environment. When we need to run away from a lion (which of course happens all the time these days doesn’t it?) then the sympathetic system takes over and diverts blood to the heart lungs and muscles and away from the gut and so on. We are intent on getting oxygen to the muscles to help us fight, or run (take flight).
When we have evaded the lion (PHEW) we can rest and the parasympathetic system takes the balance back over to rest, internal digestion, dealing with any repair and healing to our muscles, etc from injuries sustained whilst evading said lion! Joking apart, an excellent book by Robert Sapolsky was entitled “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”.
Robert was a neuroendocrinologist who studied hormones and their effect on the nervous system. The title of his book beautifully summarises that when we have short term stress we cope well. We switch over to our relaxed and safe state (parasympathetic drive). When we are able to do this our bodies are quite healthy and well.
Our issue as humans – especially at tough times such as these – is the drip drip drip of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline on our body. With chronic long-term worries, pressures, and lack of normal sleep, etc. we are permanently in a limbo state with too many stress chemicals and this has widespread damaging effects on our bodies.
Our digestive system can be affected by IBS or stomach ulcers or indigestion. Our blood pressure remains higher than need be. Headaches and migraines may ensue. The skin may inflame or rashes appear. The list goes on. One of the main things from a physical point of view is INFLAMMATION. The body releases inflammatory chemicals when the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated. Researchers believe this is likely to assist with anticipated repair after our fight or flight.
Now having such high levels of inflammatory chemicals in the body for long periods of time – maybe months in this last year – is definitely too much of a good thing. (A little like my relationship with chocolate at times over the past year!) Joint inflammation, muscle pain, even inflammation of arteries and internal organs like the gut and digestive system can all arise from being out of balance within our nervous system.
I apologise if this is too heavy for some readers but hope to have tried to simplify and explain how stress affects our bodies. With this and the generalised muscle and joint stiffness which comes from sustained postures, lack of movement, we can see our bodies have really had a rough ride this year.
Steps you can take to help yourself
- Move more – especially large amplitude movements of the body like yoga, tai chi, or dance
- Move regularly – take breaks from sitting in the same positions where you can. Do stretches and movements at your desk if you cannot get up. Watch out for a short video exercise series coming soon from us with desk-based exercises to help. You can also take a look at our youtube channel where you will find a wide range of exercises you might try.
- Increase sport and exercise gradually – Many people this year have had to come for therapy having gone headlong into activities. While I totally applaud your efforts, please increase gradually and maybe even start slower or do less if you have had a break from the activity. We are not even getting the normal flexibility granted to us from walking to the train station or the car or to the office in many cases. Bodies are stiff. Listen to your body and go gently.
- Try your best to address home working ergonomics and poor habits and long hours. Try to avoid sitting on the sofa with your laptop, consider standing desks, try to use a decent desk chair and not a dining chair, set screen heights correctly (top level with your eyes), Use a separate keyboard and mouse if using laptops.
- I fully appreciate the pressures of homeschooling and working from home. We all need this to end soon! Try your best to find some time for you.
- Try to remain as social as you can. Stay within the guidelines but get creative with Zoom and family activities.
- Address stress and bring your nervous system into balance as best you can:
- Practice breathing control.
- Meditation techniques.
- Movement and exercise are of course hugely beneficial in managing stress.
- Creative pursuits such as art, dance, music, writing.
- Have compassion for yourself and others. There is a great deal of interesting research now on the science of compassion. Its biological effect is huge. Especially on the heart.
- – Interact socially where permitted.
- Try to get good sleep – exercise and movement therapies and mindful/meditative pursuits are proved to help with sleep.
- Tai chi, dance, yoga or other similar mindful movement disciplines.
- Get in touch with nature – science is finally catching up with what ancients have known for years – our biology is benefitted profoundly by being in mature – trees, open spaces and the sea and have an effect on us.
- Seek hands-on therapy like craniosacral treatments or light tough therapies I offer which are proved to help reset the nervous system to a healthier balance.
There is so much we can offer whether you are injured, just achy, suffering headaches, certain digestive upsets or just feel the need for help in settling your body’s stress. Give us a call and let us help you. And remember what the Wombles told us – MOVE!
Take care everyone and PLEASE COMMENT BELOW. Was this useful, interesting? What stories do you have from this year about how youve been affected. If youre unsure if we might be able to ehlp – just ask.