Tis’ The Stressful Season!

Post by Brian Yee PT, DPT, MPhty, OCS, FAAOMPT

How many of you feel this underlying tension or anxiety during this time of season? So when you say to someone Happy Holidays!!! – with a sense of cheer, peace and joy there’s also this funny vibe in you that says “ohhhh man…ever since Thanksgiving I am so stressed because I have end of the year things to take care of at work, at home, my kids’ school, getting ready for family coming over, buying gifts, dealing with traffic..and now I or my loved one has a winter cold. All at the same time! Ahhhhhhh!!!!!!!”

Perhaps you do not think that at all..and that’s simply just me.

Even if it is just me, I have to remind myself that the overabundant things to take care of in the next few weeks leads to a greater chance of unneeded stress and anxiety. This stress can be felt in my shoulders and I feel more tense, my stomach a bit more tight, and actually my muscles and joints feel a bit more sore.

Did you know that stress and anxiety, in itself, can actually make you more sensitive to having more physical pain such as neck or back pain?

I won’t write a dissertation how that physiologically occurs, but you should simply know that stress and anxiety (even depression for those that may experience it during this time of season), can make the chemical/physiology of your nervous system to be more sensitive to experience pain. So lets say you already have some neck or back pain going on for the last couple months. Have you noticed that your pain during this season is a bit more irritable? Basically anxiety and stress can act like lighter fluid to a campfire, making your pain fibers in your body more ‘lit up’ and makes your pain more real and problematic.

There’s a great book that was introduced to me by an up and coming Physical Therapy student at Emory University – Aaron Knott. The book is written by Robert Sapolsky called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers“. It is getting a lot of buzz in the health professional community as well as general community. Basically it talks about how people now in first world/westernized countries do not die from diseases such as influenza which use to kill a large amount of people and was a pandemic in the early 1900’s. Dr. Sapolsky points to the fact that we are now dying more from diseases related to stress such as blood pressure or cholesterol level problems that are results of fast paced lifestyles that make us choose certain things that may not be as good for our bodies such as our diet or lack of exercise and play. Stress can then alter anything from our immune systems, our temperamants, and our pain states. I would recommend reading this book about how stress affects our lives, our health and how to help manage our stress levels.

I think the first step in this stressful season is to simply realize that you may actually may be a bit more stressed or anxious about things than you normally are. Find strategies to pace yourself and not let things build up so much that you are not thinking straight. As Pastor Andy Stanley from Northpoint Church says  “we now have too many ‘Rich People Problems'”. Meaning the stress we place on ourselves and on things that do not have eternal implications are something ‘Rich People’ (anyone not in poverty) stresses about for no real reason.

From a Physical Therapy perspective, realize that the undue stress you place on yourself may be adding to your current physical pains or setting you up to have a future pain if your stress levels continue to persist. Basically, your back pain may not only be due to a structural problem in your back itself but, just as importantly, from your brain itself and how you not only perceive your pain but how you view life as a whole.

And with that note…..Happy Holidays!!! 🙂

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