How does stress affect our wellbeing?

Hugh Hayward, Chinese Medicine Practitioner

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The majority of back, neck and shoulder tension, migraines, sleep issues, gut issues and mental health issues that presents itself in clinic is, in my opinion, a result of work related injury. 

The combination of poor posture and long hours at a monogamous soul draining desk job, or the relentless physical exertion of most labour intensive jobs, will leave most healthy individuals with many ailments throughout their working life. Add a small amount of social discomfort, workplace tension, deadline pressure or home-life issues into the equation and the stress factor is enough to throw most people into a break down of physical and mental health imbalance. 

Most people are under the impression that a fair amount of stress, especially when related to work, is perfectly normal. Some of us are so conditioned to feel generally on edge that we won’t even notice until our bodies send us into chaos or we have a mental breakdown. 

So how does stress affect our normal function so dramatically ? 

We could go into detail about the fight or flight response and all of the neurotransmitters, hormones and enzymes involved with the prolonged over-action of the sympathetic nervous system, but, to put it simply, from a Chinese medicine point of view, the busy schedule that we call life, that more often is a struggle and that we cant wait to escape, just lacks breath and good eating habits. 

The two things apart from sleep, which we need without fail and are failing to provide our bodies are the two things that will set us apart from the next workplace compo case. 
We do breathe and we do eat on the job, but work comes first. A patient of mine shared an interesting article regarding a new termed disharmony called ‘email apnoea’. 80% of people were observed to have significantly laboured breathing upon accessing their emails on their computer. One other study also noted sympathetic arousal in uni students while using mobile devices. The increase in sympathetic nervous system activity and the concurrent cessation of diaphragmatic breathing feeds back into further stress. 

Being in a constant state of fight or flight has an impact on our parasympathetic system functions. In short, less energy is diverted to our resting bodily functions such as digestion, sleep, reproduction and repair. When we inhale our food on the run, in the middle of a meeting, in front of the screen or while driving, digestion is compromised and we do not get the most out of our meal. When we take the time to chew and breathe around each mouthful, the liver is massaged by the movement of the diaphragm, the stomach, pancreas and spleen are active, and peristalsis and gut motility increases. 

So the one thing I find myself repeating to clients is that they have simply forgotten how to breathe. The remaining 20% of those observed in the ‘email apnoea’ research did not have breathing issues when using computers. Interestingly they included musicians, dancers, a test pilot, an iron man triathlete and other high performance athletes who had been trained in regulating their breathing. We don’t need to become triathletes to learn how to breathe again, although regularly including some non-work related, outdoor activity and breathing exercises are a good way to begin opening up the lungs and send us flying towards a stress-free existence.