We spoke last time about the new stresses that we have to deal with since the pandemic outbreak. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, the human being in all of us thrives under a sense of security, consistency and order. Sheltering in place, closing of businesses and schools, uncertainty about when this will end and the impact it will have on all our lives creates the "perfect storm" of insecurity, uncertainty and disorder. These are "perceived" stresses, meaning that we are not necessarily in any immediate mortal danger; there is no real tiger coming to attack us.
However, the anxiety and tension we feel is VERY real. And so are the physical symptoms associated with those stressors.
The problem with perceived stress and the resultant tension and anxiety is that the physical symptoms we experience (pain, shortness of breath, palpitations, digestive disorders, etc.) are very very real.
So what do we do? Naturally, we go to the doctor and get tested. We hope to find a "medical" reason for what we are experiencing. It's almost like we want a legitimate diagnosis to validate what we are feeling is real. But more often than not, our test results come back completely normal; EKG, blood test, chest x-ray all normal.
Am I going crazy?
No. You are completely sane and your bodies reactions are very "normal." In fact, it's what our bodies have evolved to do over millennia.
A normal stress response stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers our "fight or flight" response. This response is punctuated by physical responses:
increased heart rate
increased blood pressure
increased muscle tension
increased respiration (faster breathing)
You can see how prolonged stimulation of the stress response can lead to some very real and very scary symptoms.
This is not just theoretical. It affects real people. A lot of them.
"I can't sleep, I am waking up every hour. I'm having trouble breathing and chest pain."
After doing "okay" for the first few weeks of "staying at home," this person began to notice some significant physical symptoms. He went to see his medical doctor and got chest x-rays, blood tests, an EKG and insisted on getting tested for Covid-19. All the tests were negative.
"There must be some test they missed," he insisted.
He began to think he was depressed. He was not functioning well at home and had begun to disconnect with his family. "What do you think it is?", he asked.
When we examined him it was clear that he was suffering from anxiety resultant from the stress and it was manifesting in the physical symptoms:
increased muscle tension in his back and shoulders- had gotten so bad that touching his back radiated pain into the chest area making him believe it was chest pain.
rapid breathing- made him feel that he was having trouble breathing because he was not taking deep breaths. (After slowing down his breathing, he was able to notice that his breathing was back to normal).
increased heart rate- made him think he was having trouble with his heart.
Prolonged stress can lead to anxiety disorders and depression.
Sometimes the hardest thing to admit is that we need help. Especially when tests show that nothing is wrong with you.
We adjusted him for the back and shoulder pain and then referred him to a clinical psychiatrist to help him with the stress and anxiety he was experiencing.
"Something is wrong with my heart. I feel pain and palpitations."
This patient admitted that there was stress but of course it was "normal" in times like this so didn't believe that was causing her symptoms. But this is not normal. In fact, it's something we have never had to deal with in our lifetime. Remember the last pandemic of this magnitude was over 100 years ago.
Anyway, after our exam, again, there was significant muscle spasm in the areas of the mid back and along the ribcage area.
(Part of the stress response is muscle tension and increased inflammation. This process can create tender/trigger points that have a classic referral pain pattern. The muscles in the mid/upper back and rib cage area can refer pain into the chest area).
When we recreated the pain by pressing on the trigger points, it was confirmation enough for her to believe it was actually muscle tension and not her heart. Upon deeper discovery what she shared was that she had been grieving the loss of a dear family member whom she relied on to talk to in times of stress. She had not realized that her support system in times of stress was no longer there and she did not have a replacement. She was just "powering through it."
Having to cope with these stresses on top of grieving a loved one can be a heavy load.
My intention in sharing these stories is to help people understand we are all going through it. Maybe your symptoms are not as acute or severe but we are all experiencing something; upset stomach, irritability, poor sleep, the list goes on. I always try to end our blog posts with "Stay healthy. Be Kind. Take care of each other."
Sometimes we need to start by being kind to ourselves. Give yourself a break. Pause and really see what you are experiencing and be okay with the fact that this is a lot to deal with.
My expertise is in chiropractic and stress. The "solutions" are often the same because there are only so many scientifically validated measures. But our wellbeing is a team effort. You take a proactive role in your lifestyle but you need a team of providers and support staff that you can lean on in times of crisis, whether its massage, psychiatry, acupuncture or just a friend to talk to and share a virtual hug.
I have listed below the interventions (in the references section) that we mentioned on the last post because they have not changed. Again, if you find any of this information helpful, please share with others.
Stay healthy. Be kind. Take care of each other.
1. Support turning down the sympathetic nervous system (our stress response system):
Now, being a chiropractor, one of the best things is getting a chiropractic adjustment to reduce sympathetic overload, enhance parasympathetic response (relaxation part of our nervous system) and reduce pain and inflammation.
Breathing- slow, deep breaths help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. It manually slows down your heart-rate, reduces blood pressure and increases oxygen flow to your brain and body. I personally like 4 second inhales followed by 6 second exhales.
Exercise- initially, exercise will increase sympathetic response by driving blood and nutrients to the extremities but afterwards, your body goes into parasympathetic response and you feel a deeper relaxation.
Talk it out- there is no better time than now to call someone on the phone and connect. If you need professional help and are in the greater Seattle area, reach out to us and we can recommend some great people.
Natural supplement support:
St. Johns Wort
I am a big fan of Standard Process and their products. If you are interested you can find them here: https://www.standardprocess.com
-sympathetic response symptoms: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542195/
-chronic stress and anxiety leading to depression: https://www.jscimedcentral.com/Psychiatry/psychiatry-5-1091.pdf