Stress, a word I hear in and out of the treatment room. Stress can present itself in many forms including headaches, difficulty breathing and may possibly lead to panic attacks, tightness in the chest, low energy, irritability and aching muscles and joints. In an age where pressure and expectation are at an all time high, be it at the workplace, in your appearance or relationships and exams, we find ourselves increasing our stress levels in an unhealthy manner which in effect can take a toll on our general health and posture.
Osteopathy can help release the muscles which will facilitate deeper breathing prompting the body to calm down and relax. Using self- help tips such as stretching, dancing and eating- well can further benefit a stress-free life.
Stress has been a factor we have had to tackle and deal with as far back as the stone ages where we had to hunt and kill the food we ate. The fear of possibly being eaten by a larger animal while on a hunt would have produced an associated stress (emergency) response. How did we deal with stress back then?
Today, tribes such as the Masai’s and Zulus are still known to hunt for their food, do they stress about this daily? Many years ago, when I was in the Serengeti I asked a Masai ‘are you not scared of being eaten by a lion?’ He laughed and in response said, ‘You don’t fear the unknown, if you do, the fear will eat you before the lion’. This was an eye opener for me, he didn’t allow the stress of the unknown to consume him. He lived in the moment and once that moment (the stress of a hunt) had passed he left it behind and focused on the present. As I gazed at his posture as he stood tall and upright with his shoulders back and head held high, calm and relaxed with a smile on his face.
I notice a lot of patients suffering with stress tend to come in with their shoulders and chest rounded, their head held down and forward which can cause tight neck and shoulder muscles. The tightness of muscles can further compress the rib-cage, thoracic spine (mid-back) and affect the breathing by causing shortness of breath which further magnifies the stressful situation.
Osteopathy is extremely beneficial as it can help release the muscles and take pressure off the ribcage, diaphragm and help with lung-expansion. During a treatment, I use a mixture of massage, mobilisation techniques, light manipulations and muscle-energy techniques (MET’s) which help facilitate deeper breathing. I teach my patients to take deeper breaths into the diaphragm especially during times of stress. This is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. It instantly sends a message to the brain to calm down and relax which the brain then sends to the body.
One of my favourite breathing exercises which I perform and advise to my patients is to breathe through the diaphragm into the abdomen as oppose to short shallow breaths through the chest. I call this balloon breathing.
Here’s how to do it:
Either sit comfortably or lie down, relax your shoulders and jaw. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your tummy. Now take a deep breath in, which hand moved first? Was it the hand on your chest or the hand on your tummy? If it was the hand on your tummy, you are most likely breathing correctly, however if it was the hand on your chest, we need to make some changes.
Picture an empty balloon inside your tummy, every time you take a deep breath in visualise the balloon being filled with air and getting bigger and so the hand over your tummy should rise. As you breath out, the tummy should deflate and your hand should come back down. Can you do this without the hand over your chest moving at all or as little as possible? Practice 3-5 inhalations/exhalations every night before you sleep or at times of stress as this can help re-sync the way you breathe and form a better breathing habit.
Living in busy London and juggling work life, being a mum, a wife, a friend and having time for me can lead to times of turmoil and stress. Here are a few of my favourite tips on how to cope with stress:
- Stretch your stresses away: Not only does stretching relax the muscles of your body but it also has a calming effect on your mind
- Let’s take a walk: Most types of physical activity can help release endorphins and make you feel better, but walking is my absolute favourite. It is gentle on the joints and great for the mind. I love getting on my walking shoes and heading out for fresh air, be it in the sunshine with the golden rays and warmth against my skin or in the blistering cold winter wrapped up snug and warm with the crisp cold fresh air invigorating and waking me up. Take that first step and mentally leave the stress behind you.
- Sing along: I like to listen to music and although I have the worst voice going (who would have thought I was in the school choir) I sing along. This helps to get the lungs, ribs and diaphragm moving which stops the tension building in the chest allowing deeper breathing and the body to relax.
- Dance like nobody is watching: Move that body! The more you move to music the more the body starts to let go of the muscle tension and releases endorphins (also known as the ‘feel-good’ hormone) which in turn help your stress levels decrease.
- Food for the soul: Do you binge on chocolates, crisps and fast easy to grab foods during times of stress then feel worse after? Well, you are not alone, my first tip here is to keep a stash of what I call ‘good treats’, be it a mixture of nuts with dried fruit, hummous dips with carrot sticks or a handful of berries with some Greek yoghurt. A balanced nutritious diet will uplift you and put you in a calm place. Try to avoid refined sugars, alcohol and caffeine as this can cause spikes in your blood sugar levels leaving you feeling fatigued and irritable making your coping methods intolerable.
- Pop the Kettle on: Drink your way to calmness and relaxation. Chamomile, peppermint, passionflower, oat flower and green tea are known to help with relaxing. One of my favourites for relaxing and being calm before bed time is a night time tea by pukka. It has lavender, oat flower and zesty lime flower which help promote a better night’s sleep. Good sleep and rest are essential during times of stress and allow the body to revive.
- Run a bath: Hot/warm baths and showers are a great way to de-stress. The warmth of the water can help release the muscle tension making the body and mind feel more relaxed. This also improves oxytocin levels which in turn improves your mood and can help lower stress levels. To add a pampering touch, you can add a few drops of essential oils such as lavender, ylang-ylang, bergamot, chamomile or frankincense, to the bath water or if taking a shower massage the oil on your torso and inhale from your hand before getting in. This will leave you feeling like a loving and calming warm hug before even stepping in.
- Yummy natural scents: Breathe in essential oils. This can be done by rubbing a few drops on your hands then bringing them to your face and inhaling deeply 3-4 times. Alternatively, a few drops can be placed in a diffuser. My personal favourite is diffusing lemongrass oil in the treatment room. I find it has a natural uplifting effect on the mind.
- The essential oils I recommend for uplifting include lemongrass, orange, geranium as well as grapefruit as they can help spritz up your energy. I find these are best to take at the start of the day. Oils I recommend for calming and relaxation include lavender, rose, ylang ylang, frankincense and bergamot which are great to inhale or diffuse in your room at the end of the day.
- It’s good to talk: Maybe share what is stressing you out with your friends or family you trust. Be picky with who you speak to as you want the person to be a good listener and give you positive advice during this time as oppose to negativity. If there is nobody on your list maybe seek counselling privately or through your GP. Nothing beats talking about things that are stressing you out, getting peoples input and advice can sometimes help with a situation. As they say a problem shared can be a problem halved.
There may be times in your life when stress will creep in. Remember you are not alone. Try to use the above tips, there will be some that suit you more than others. Remember, a relaxed body helps to create a relaxed mind. I hope my ‘coping with stress tips’ will help you. They may not get rid of the stressful situation, but I truly hope they can help make your bumpy ride a little smoother and allow you to achieve the stress-free life you are looking for.
I hope you have a wonderful day!
Nadia The Osteopat