It’s something that can bubble up in our daily lives, juggling deadlines at work, keeping on top of running a family or holding things together as you process an emotional or traumatic event in another part of life.
But what really is stress and how does it show up in our body on a physiological level?
Stress is rooted in the nervous system, and it is the nervous system that regulates our behaviour, our perception and our health. It specifically relates to the autonomic nervous system, the part which regulates the automatic processes, such as the regulation of digestion, hormone levels, sleep patterns and many other key body functions.
There are three main states of the nervous system:
- At rest
- Fight and flight
At rest, we are in our “normal” full-functioning mode, with good digestion, at ease and feel relaxed to laugh and interact easily with others (i.e. relaxed for social engagement and connection).
When the stress increases, our body first shifts into the “Fight and Flight” mode. If we imagine coming across a tiger in the wild, this is the first survival response, and with it, our heart begins to race, the stress hormone (cortisol) increases and adrenaline is increased. The body begins to shut down functions such as digestion, reproduction, and regular sleep function as these are not needed to run or fight. Instead, it increases heart rate and circulation to the muscles to optimise the survival response. Whether the stress event is being confronted with a tiger or facing a vital deadline at work, our body response is the same.
In a short burst in a work or creative environment, this extra buzz can be an asset, as it produces sharp focus & high-speed responses, but if the body is held at this stress level long-term, it can create serious health issues. It produces symptoms such as IBS, nausea, irritability & anger issues, lack of sleep and low libido, and affects the body’s natural ability to regulate.
In certain stress events, especially if there is no way to fight or run, our body will step into a “freeze” survival response, where we dissociate and disconnect from the immediate situation. In some ways, this inactivity can seem almost opposite to the “fight and flight” response, but it is another form of system shut down.
When in one of these elevated levels of stress, it is hard for our body to access natural states of rest or balanced regulation of body processes. You may find that you want to rest and sleep, and yet even when lying down, your body can’t seem to “let go” and relax.
It is the state of the nervous system and its layer of activation which determines your body’s regulation.
re-setting the nervous system and returning to rest
Craniosacral therapy is a light-touch approach centred on rest and re-regulation. It is well-known as being highly effective as a therapy for newborn babies as the light contact releases tension at the cranial bones following birth and any trauma or stress experienced by the baby in the birth process can also be processed.
For adults, it is equally effective, working in a subtle way the light contact and stillness of the treatment allows for a deep settling. Any specific tension patterns from injury or stress show up on a physical level and are released and re-integrated.
Working in this way, over a number of sessions, the layers of stress causing the elevated nervous system response slowly dissolve, allowing the natural rhythms of the body to re-establish.
Craniosacral Therapy Sessions are available on Tuesdays at Breathe Wellbeing Waterloo, Colombo Centre, SE1 8DP.