Unpacking Stress: Our Physical & Mental Thresholds

Words: Dr Marcus Bernini, Osteopath
Photos: Shopify





When it comes to stress, how do we compare to other species?
We are the most adaptable creature on this planet, physically, mentally or psychologically, allowing our body systems to absorb enormous amounts of stress. Most other creatures are very specifically evolved to an environment: the moment they step out of that environment, stress cannot be absorbed for long before it takes a physical toll. 

We, on the other hand, can adapt, due to our larger "pool of compensation". This is an important concept: it is the body’s ability to redirect stress from an overloaded area. As the expression goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. To maintain good health, this pool should be as full as possible to allow for optimum body function. We each have a large pool but recognising when it is emptying can be slow, subtle and less easy to spot. It’s often only when we experience intense pain, disease, anxiety (and more) that we decide to act and replenish that pool. It’s not necessarily too late, but you could argue that we’ve just added another stress in our lives. 

So, what is stress exactly? 
In a nutshell, it is our survival mechanism responding to an immediate danger that triggers neurological mechanisms and chemical release - namely adrenalin and cortisol - enhancing our bodies to be faster, stronger, more perceptive and responsive. It keeps us safe.

If it keeps us safe, then why does it have so many negative effects on the body? 
The issue is that our system is designed for short bursts of stress, be it seconds, minutes or hours. We now live in a world that throws prolonged triggers of stress at us for days, weeks, months or years. Our ‘stress system’ is outdated and hasn’t evolved to cope with the stresses that comes with modern city life. The ruling factor in good health - physical or mental - is good blood circulation to every cell in your body. The stress response restricts circulation of the blood – the heart rate goes up but blood vessels get narrower, blood gets stickier (in an attempt to minimise potential blood loss). Moreover, this means restriction of the vital components blood it, as well as the disposal of toxins from around the body, and waste from cells themselves. Without good blood flow, cells simply cannot function at their optimum.

  • Stressed cells = stressed body.

Most discussions on stress focus on the ‘mental’ affecting ‘physical’ pathway but this can work in the opposite direction, too. Having poor posture, dysfunctional and compensatory movement, as well as lack of movement, can create prolonged stressful effects experienced by the body and in turn the mind. The physical-to-mental-to-physical pathway of stress can be triggered in a vicious cycle.

I will use one of my patients as an example of how physical stress can cause systemic body pain as well as a chronic anxiety: A high-level athlete from early youth, my patient acquired multiple injuries from overtraining [and some accidents]. Our joints and muscles are designed to function and move in certain ways, although we do have a reasonable amount of ‘play’ to allow for unexpected movements (hence why there has never been a robot built to mimic our movements convincingly). In my experience of treating both athletes and the general population, the majority of injuries and pain are caused by excessive poor mechanical use of the body.

So, our athlete, while young, had an enormous ‘pool of compensation’ redirecting stress from injuries so she could continue training. As she got older, she accumulated more injuries but never had them resolved with proper treatment. Her 'pool' was slowly draining but she was still able to perform at a high level. However, in adulthood, her lower back finally said, “Enough! There is no more compensation, I can't take the strain anymore!” and entered a protective defence mode i.e. muscular spasms to protect the body from incurring any further injury. By this time, her ‘pool’ was empty and she was in chronic pain. 

Some basic treatment on the back replenished the pool slightly, so she returned to her sport. But as the pool emptied again her back reverted to defence mode and she was caught in a treat-repeat battle. Her livelihood is physically based, so imagine the frustration and anxiety at not being able to work comfortably. Together with the mechanical stress, healthy blood flow is diminished. As a result, the prolonged chemical release of stress chemicals was not able to be effectively flushed out and what is known as chronic “hyperarousal” develops due to a continuous mental-physical defence cycle. Unfortunately, the aforementioned example is not exclusively an athlete’s problem – it can happen to anyone.

Yes, even to self-proclaimed couch potatoes and sedentary workers who seemingly aren’t using up their ‘pools’ and should be pain free for the rest of their life – they are not spared at all. Let's put it this way: if you left a car in a garage without use for a year, is it going to run well when you attempt to take it out for a spin? In all probability, it’s unlikely to even start! The body systems are stimulated by movement, especially the circulatory system and the synovial fluid (lubrication) in the joints. With lack of movement for prolonged periods of time, we become stagnant, stiff, misaligned and pained.