The escalating COVID-19 health crisis has put many of us in an elevated state of stress and anxiety. The stress of uncertainty influences our nervous system and can even make us question our safety. Depending on how we perceive the world around us, the stress uncertainty brings can affect different people in different ways. When our stress response is activated, physical symptoms can accompany the intense feelings of anxiety.
Here is a brief explanation of how stress can generate physical symptoms and some ways to relax and alleviate the physical symptoms.
As mentioned in a previous MyWellbeing article, anxiety has a biological function of alerting us to potential threats. The nervous system responds with “fight,” “flight” or “freeze.” These are biological functions that serve to keep us safe in the face of danger.
When we are facing a threat, the nervous system sends signals to activate physical changes in the body. Whether that threat is real or perceived does not affect the way our bodies respond. The physical symptoms you feel from a work deadline can feel like the anxiety that comes from being chased by a bear in the forest.
When our nervous system is activated, our fear response can cause our prefrontal cortex to go “offline” to quickly deal with the perceived danger. Our prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that is associated with cognition, and our sense of being present in a given moment. This is why practices that engage our 5 senses are so important – they help to get our prefrontal cortex back online so that we can be present and determine if we really need the fear response to be activated.
There are predictable physical symptoms associated with stress and an overactive nervous system.
These changes happen as we move towards a sympathetic or parasympathetic state. For example, when our sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response is triggered, our heart rate speeds up, digestion shuts down, and muscles tense up to prepare for an incoming threat. Alternatively, when our parasympathetic nervous system’s “freeze” response is triggered, we feel shut down or fatigued. This helps explain how stress can lead to heart palpitations, digestive issues, chronic pain, and muscle tightness.
Below are 5 things you can do alleviate physical symptoms of stress. Each seeks to promote rest and recovery by helping the brain relax and be less sensitive to stressful situations.
I often recommend meditation and deep breathing exercises to my patients. Deep breathing has been shown to activate the vagus nerve (which influences the parasympathetic nervous system and promotes a state of relaxation).
Meditation can be as simple as setting a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and practicing breathing exercises. Try counting the number of breaths you take with deep exhalations. When you get to 10, start counting over. Repeat until the timer runs out.
Alternatively, try inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 6 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds without counting the number of breaths.
These methods work by focusing your mind on the present moment (by counting breaths or counting seconds of each phase of the breath) to keep you grounded in the present moment. The deep exhalations are important since they help activate the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve has been found to help modulate communication between the brain and gastrointestinal tract (the “brain-gut axis”). It helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system. This balances the sympathetic, or “fight or flight” part of the nervous system. The brain-gut connection helps explain how digestive issues can be related to an overactive nervous system.
Meditation can also be helpful for chronic pain and emotional regulation. Studies have shown that meditation can be as effective as medication for some people suffering from chronic pain. Other studies have shown that it can make lasting changes in the brain that help reduce pain and our sensitivity to intense emotional stimuli. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has compiled information related to meditation on their website.
Exercise helps promote blood flow and a sense of connecting to the body. A review on physical activity and stress found that, “those who exercise have lesser rates of depression, negative affectivity, and anxiety.” The review also found a reciprocal relationship that showed that people who are more stressed have more trouble maintaining regular exercise.
A recent study found that high and low exercise intensities affected different areas of the brain. High-intensity exercise activates brain networks related to emotional processing while low intensity exercise triggers cognitive and attention processing area of the brain.
There are many ways to exercise, including going to a gym, going for a run, downloading a home exercise app, or working with a private personal trainer.
With the recent social distancing and work from home movement, many gyms and trainers are offering workouts online with minimal equipment, which makes it easier to work out at home.
Acupuncture and Chinese medicine are the primary ways that I treat stress and anxiety. The most common reasons people in the U.S. seek acupuncture treatments are for pain and stress. Acupuncture works by activating parts of the brain that relax the nervous system and reduce pain, by helping the body regulate physiological processes, and by reducing areas of soft tissue constriction to relax the body.
Acupuncture helps reduce pain and stress in several ways.
One is by releasing neurotransmitters and endorphins to relieve pain and regulate the nervous system. In this way acupuncture regulates our autonomic response and influences our perception of pain. This also helps reduce physical symptoms associated with an activated nervous system response and stress like digestive issues, insomnia, and headaches.
Acupuncture also works by physically releasing areas of muscle tightness, which helps alleviate the muscle tightness and chronic pain that are often associated with stress and anxiety. When myofascial trigger points form from stress, they can cause predictable pain patterns like headaches from tight upper back and neck muscles. Releasing these areas of constriction with acupuncture alleviates pain and sends signals to the brain that it’s ok to relax.
You can find a nationally board certified acupuncturist in your area on the NCCAOM website.
In addition to meditation, I often recommend Qi Gong to my patients. Qi Gong is a Chinese movement meditation exercise similar to Tai Chi. The exercises focus on synchronizing your movement to your breath and reducing areas of construction in the body. It is a very gentle exercise form and can be used by anyone.
Here is a quick, 10-minute video you can do anytime during the day. Try it first thing in the morning, before bed, or in times of acute stress.
A good night of sleep can go a long way. Sleep helps regulate stress hormones, improves immune function, and reduces irritability. Try to get an extra hour or two each night if you’ve been struggling to get enough rest during these stressful times.
Practice good sleep hygiene by getting away from any electronic devices at least an hour before bed and consider adding meditation or Qi Gong to your pre-sleep routine.
Addressing the underlying reasons you’re not getting enough sleep through acupuncture or psychotherapy can also be helpful.
Finally, it’s important to support and be there for others in need during difficult times. Technology has made it easier than ever to maintain connections with people, even when we are physically isolated. Reconnect with family and friends, be compassionate towards other people, and understand that others may be struggling even more than you are.
We are all in this together and need to stick together.
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Theodore Levarda is a licensed and nationally board certified acupuncturist and herbalist at Morningside Acupuncture in New York City. He specializes in treating pain (acute, chronic, and sports injuries) and stress related disorders (anxiety, depression, insomnia, headaches, fatigue, digestive issues).
Theodore strives to create a safe and affirmative therapeutic space that recognizes the connection between the mind and body. He works with patients to understand their unique needs by individualizing each treatment using various aspects of Chinese medicine. These tools include three styles of acupuncture, dry needling, trigger point release, electroacupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, gua sha, mindfulness exercises, and recommendations for Chinese herbs as needed.