Stress of a psychological or emotional nature can produce marked changes in the musculo-skeletal system, profoundly influencing the overall functioning of the body. All emotional changes are mirrored in the soft tissues. Attitudes such as anger or fear, as well as moods such as excitement or depression produce muscular postures and patterns. There is also a close link between habitual posture and psychological attitudes and states.
Many postures and defensive tensions arise from anxiety and stress. If this is continued and repeated, restrictions and alterations will take place in the soft tissues. If unreleased these become self-perpetuating and the source of pain and of more stress. The ability to relax is frequently lost and the consequent drain on nervous energy is marked.
The unique understanding which osteopathy brings to the way in which the body functions helps to clarify the manner in which stresses can produce quite different effects in different people.
Have you ever focused sunlight through a magnifying glass to obtain a pinpoint of heat? If, in this metaphor, stress, in all its myriad forms, is represented by the light of the sun, then the focusing mechanism (the lens) is represented by the nervous system. Our attention must be on both aspects of this phenomenon, the stress factors, and how to avoid or minimize them, and the body systems which deal with stress, and in particular the nervous system, which to a large extent determines how the body will cope with it. No two people react to stress in the same way. Even under identical conditions, reactions and effects will vary. While it is important to know what stress is, and how the body reacts to it in general, more attention should be applied to the individual receiving the stress, the unique characteristics of whom will determine the end result.
Why does one person develop an ulcer, another diabetes and yet another high blood pressure? All these conditions might be the apparent result of similar stress patterns. It is obvious, therefore, that the stress factors do not themselves determine the response of the body. The unique make up and history of the individual is the determining factor in deciding just what aspects of the body will adapt or react in response to any stimulus or stress. Disease in the final analysis is the failure, on the part of the body, to adapt to, or cope with, the demands placed upon it by the total environment in which it lives. This includes demands of a stressful nature, whether internally generated or externally applied.
The 'Fight or Flight' Response
Stress is a word which is glibly used and which is often misused. It does not in fact have a single meaning, for it can encompass any real or potential stimulus, usually (but not always), of a noxious or unpleasant nature, to which the body or mind is subjected. This might include such varied factors as intense heat or cold, negative emotional states, inadequate nutrition, excessive noise, fear, drugs, pollution, pain, etc. Much stress is exogenous, that is it comes from outside the body, but it may often be endogenous, i.e. it is self-generated (hate, envy, fear, jealousy etc). Any stress factor can be the apparent cause of the reactions on the part of the mind/body complex of the individual. Such reactions are often described in terms of the 'fight or flight' response. This describes the primitive response to danger in which immediate preparation is made by the body to defend itself (fight) or run away (flight). The generally accepted reasoning is that since such responses are often socially unacceptable (it is not done to hit out physically or to run away in most stressful situations) the various physiological responses which accompany arousal to fight or flight become, with repetition, the apparent cause of a great deal of physical and mental ill health. A large number of physical changes take place at times of stress induced arousal. These include: the brain and nervous system becomes intensely active, the pupils of the eyes dilate, there is a slowing of the digestive process (which usually stops) the saliva stops and the mouth becomes dry, muscles tense in preparation for activity and the heart pumps blood harder and faster in anticipation of the extra activity; blood pressure rises; breathing becomes faster, to the point of gasping; hormones such as adrenaline are released into the system, as is glucose (from the liver); sweating commences in response to the need to cool the body etc. All this and more is accomplished in a split second under the direction and control of the nervous system.