Many patients ask me if I can feel how stressed out they are and immediately think of the Vulcan (Star Trek) mind meld, the ability to feel a persons experiences, travails and pain. I do have that ability (in a way), but instead of putting my hand on the person’s face, I just feel the level of tension in there muscles, most notably the muscles in their neck and shoulders. Why the muscles at the base of the neck and across the shoulders? Because that is how we are wired. Think about this; when a dog is feeling threatened or aggressive the hair at the base of there neck and along their spine stands up and their muscles are primed for fight or flight. This response is initialed by the nervous system. If we had fur on our spine it would stand up too, but our muscles do react in the same way. Periodic reactions to stress such as described above are only natural. However, when one is in a protracted state of being threatened, aggressive or just chronically mentally engaged, it very definitely affects our health in an adverse way.
Emotional stress really exists whenever there are changes in our mental or emotional lives, good or bad. So, any change forces the body to adapt. And those adaptations occur in our body on many levels and should be a realistic response given the significance of the perceived threat. In the nervous system there is a heightened state of alertness, our special senses become more acute, pupils widen, nostrils flare, gastrointestinal secretions and motility decreases, blood is shunted away from our organ sysytems to the muscles, muscles become more tense, fine motor control is reduced, respiration quickens, breathing becomes deeper, heart rate, stroke volume and blood pressure rises, the blood viscosity thickens, blood sugar increases, adrenaline increases, the body’s natural pain killers are engaged. This is a series of the body’s autonomic responses. These autonomic responses are orchestrated by the autonomic nervous system, the division of the nervous system responsible for the actions that your body takes automatically without any thought.
We all know people who get stressed out at the littlest thing and on the other end we know those that are totally unflappable. Then again there are those that just cannot come down from off the ceiling. They are jacked up all of the time. So, it is important that we perceive, respond to and recover from stressful situations in a measured fashion. It is the job of certain portions of our brains and certain neurotransmitters (chemicals in the nervous system that transmit messages between nerve cells) to modulate our response to stress. The part of the brain responsible for this is the mesencephalic (mid brain) portion of the brain and the neurotransmitter GABA. People with low GABA do not modulate their stress response very well. Research has pointed to inflammation of the body and brain and the rest of the nervous system (spine included) as being a primary culprit.
The primary method of medicine to handle emotional stress and anxiety has been to prescribe anti –anxiety or other psychotropic medications. This approach stems from very narrow and linear thinking. Talk therapy and life counseling may also be advised which has some usefulness so long as it addresses the root of the patient’s ongoing mental and emotional concerns. The question is never raised though as to why the body has not risen to the occasion on its own and adapted appropriately.
In situations where there is a strong emotional component, I like to gather some in depth information with regards to relationships, present time problems, unresolved problems, what the person is hitting up against, who in their life is putting them down and whether or not the person has plans and goals. I also assess a person’s inflammatory state to establish how this may be affecting the persons higher brain functioning. Hormone assessments may also be necessary as the endocrine an nervous systems are inextricably linked. Chiropractic adjustments to reduce the amount of spinal nerve irritation is also part of the equation. In other words, it is necessary to look at the whole panoramic view and not just the close-up view. With some guidance derived from my own life experiences and nutritional recommendations, the person often finds themselves much more able to cope with and react appropriately to stress.
Without intervention, the body just becomes more and more worn down, ultimately leaving the individual in a very weak and precarious health situation. The opposite reaction to the fight or flight response is the feed and breed response and it is not healthy to get stuck in that mode either!