This is a guest blog-post by Herman & Wallace faculty member Jennafer Vande Vegte, MSPT, BCIA-PMB, PRPC
Stress. We all have it. We all deal with it in one way or another. Sometimes stress comes and goes quickly while at other times it lasts and lasts. Research shows that at times, short bouts of stress can be good, even helpful. The surge of adrenalin and cortisol we get staying up past midnight to finish that assignment before it is due the next morning can power our brains to accomplish a task about which we procrastinated because it seemed burdensome or boring. We are very grateful for the extra burst of speed we feel in our legs as we run to catch our naughty three year old as they run off into a busy street. After these stressful events are over, our bodies recover but chronic stress can affect our bodies in negative ways and our bodies may need help finding a way to cope.
Research shows one main pathway that stress takes in the body is the Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal Axis or HPA axis for short. In the HPA axis there is a systematic release of chemical messengers that create a cascade of effects in our bodies. The HPA axis governs our response to stress and also affects our energy levels, digestion, sexual functioning, immune system and other body processes. We don't even need the research to tell us this because we have all experienced it firsthand.
Unfortunately when stress in any form does not go away, our bodies may not find the way back to homeostasis and chronic issues can develop. Research also points out that the function of our HPA axis could have been impaired during our development. Maternal stress can affect a developing baby in utero, and trauma or stress in infancy or early childhood can influence the function of our stress response into adulthood.
Interestingly, there are also gender differences in how stress influences behavior. In their article on the female response to stress, authors Taylor et al. describe the effects of oxytocin on the HPA axis. Oxytocin is released during nurturing behaviors and helps to decrease the activity in the HPA axis. The authors postulate that estrogen may be one reason women cope and respond to stress differently than men. Mothers comfort their babies when they cry and help sooth them. This action is beneficial to both mom and baby. Friends offer comfort with a listening ear, a hug, and emotional support. John Gray in his book Venus on Fire Mars on Ice also notes that oxytocin is released when we feel loved, appreciated and heard. As physical therapists working one-on-one with our patients we are also in a position to listen to and validate our patients which may aid in combating their stress response. Joining a support group may also be of benefit.
How do you respond to stress in your life? Dartmouth researchers found their students drink more caffeine, sleep less, and consume more alcohol. Exactly the WRONG responses when you look at the physiological effects on the HPA axis.. According to the article, "Leproult et al. found that plasma cortisol levels were elevated by up to 45 percent after sleep deprivation, an increase that has implications including immune compromise, cognitive impairment, and metabolic disruption." Caffeine and alcohol also increase cortisol release.