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The Effects of Stress on our Physical and Mental Wellbeing

We all experience some form of stress at some point in our lives. Whether it’s pressure from work, personal relationships, or financial worries, stress can take a toll on both our mental and physical wellbeing. One physical manifestation of stress is Musculoskeletal (MSK) pain – discomfort or pain affecting the muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons and nerves. Understanding the complex relationship between stress and pain is key to effectively managing both aspects of our health.

How do our bodies respond to stress?

When we experience stress, our bodies respond by releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response. Whilst this response is essential for survival, prolonged or chronic stress can lead to a constant state of tension in our muscles. This tension can manifest as tightness, stiffness or even pain in various parts of the body, particularly in areas like the neck, shoulders, and lower back.

Stress can also contribute to the exacerbation of some MSK conditions such as tension headaches, temporomandibular joint (jaw) pain, fibromyalgia and other forms of chronic or persistent pain.
In addition, stress can interfere with our sleep quality, dietary habits and ability to engage in regular exercise – all of which play a crucial role in maintaining MSK health. Poor sleep can exacerbate pain sensitivity and decrease our pain tolerance. Fatigue through poor sleep can lead to decreased motivation, making it more difficult for us to participate in physical activity, which is essential for both physical and mental health. It’s a vicious circle that’s hard to break.

Top ten stress relievers

To effectively address MSK pain that is either associated with or worsened by stress, it’s essential to adopt a holistic approach that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of the problem. As health professionals, we recommend the following top ten strategies:

  1. Stress management techniques: include stress reducing practices as part of your daily routine, such as mindfulness, breathing exercises and yoga.
    Regular exercise: engage in regular exercises to improve your overall wellbeing. Choose activities that are accessible for you and that you enjoy, whether it’s walking, swimming, cycling, dancing or attending a gym. Exercise releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain relief and mood booster.
  2. Healthy lifestyle habits: prioritise healthy habits such as maintaining a balanced diet, adequate sleep and hydration. These factors play a significant role in supporting your overall health.
  3. Take control: If you think you’re unable to do anything about your problem, your stress can get worse. That feeling of loss of control is one of the main causes of stress and lack of wellbeing. The act of taking control can be empowering, and it’s crucial to finding a solution that works for you.
  4. Connect with people: A good support network of colleagues, friends and family can ease your work troubles and help you see things in a different way. The activities we do with friends and family can help us relax and relieve stress. Talking things through with a friend may also help you find solutions to your problems.
  5. Have some ‘me time’: Many of us work long hours, meaning we often don’t spend enough time doing the things we enjoy. It is important to take some time out to socialise, exercise or relax. You could try setting some time aside each week for some quality ‘me time’.
  6. Challenge yourself: Setting goals and challenges, weather at work or outside, such as learning a new skill or setting some exercise goals can help build confidence. This may also help with stress.
    Avoid unhealthy habits: Don’t rely on alcohol, smoking and caffeine as ways of coping with stress. They might provide temporary relief, but in the long term these crutches can be detrimental for your health and wellbeing.
  7. Give back: Evidence shows that people who help others, through activities such as volunteering or community work, often become more resilient. If you don’t have time to volunteer, try to do something positive to help someone occasionally. It could be as small as helping someone across the road or making someone a drink.
  8. Think positively: Look for the positives in life, and the things for which you’re grateful. Try writing down three things that went well today and for which you are grateful.

How physiotherapy can help manage pain

Remember to listen to your body, prioritise self-care and a healthy lifestyle and seek support when needed. With the right approach, you can minimise the impact of stress on your physical health and enjoy greater wellbeing. If, however, you continue to experience persistent pain and discomfort, it’s worth seeking help from a healthcare professional such as the experienced physiotherapists at Novus Health. Anyone living in Wakefield can ask their GP to refer them to Novus Health MSK physiotherapy, or if you prefer, you can refer yourself for a free physiotherapy assessment by calling 01924 224497 or visiting Adult MSK Physiotherapy Self-Referral Information – Novus Health.

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