Editor's note: This article is the third in a series of four articles about stress management. Part 1 of this series was published June 10th.
One morning last spring, I woke up with severe shooting pains in my neck and shoulders. It was so painful that I could barely turn my head or lift my arms. The debilitating pain lasted for about a week, a week in which I also came down with a cold. In retrospect, I realize that during the months preceding the incident, I had not set aside time in my stressful, busy life to exercise or to do a few simple stretches. The combination of physical tension caused by stress and lack of exercise weakened my body and immune system. The incident was a harsh reminder of how physical activity plays an important role in relieving stress and strengthening the body's systems.
Physical activity has long been credited with numerous benefits, including increased bone strength, reduced risk of chronic diseases, plus increased energy, improved cholesterol, and more balanced blood sugar levels. Regular physical activity also offers many stress-relieving benefits such as enhanced mood and mental alertness along with decreased feelings of depression and anxiety.
In his book, "Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Well-Being," stress management expert Dr. Brian Luke Seaward explains that "the body's natural inclination, when confronted with stress, is to move, be active, or exercise." According to Seaward, aerobic exercise burns off stress hormones by directing them toward their intended metabolic functions, rather than allowing them to linger in the body. Inactivity, on the other hand, allows these stress hormones to circulate through the body and strain internal systems.
At the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium in Juneau, physical therapist Anne Whitis observes the connection between stress and physical symptoms, such as shoulder pain, lower back pain, and headaches.
"Bad posture and tension go together. When stressed, people adopt a tense and painful posture. The shoulders rise, the head shifts forward, and the neck tightens," she said.
This is a natural physical reaction as the body's muscles tense in preparation for the "fight or flight" response mentioned in previous articles of this series. Chronic pain develops in the places where we hold tension if this defensive posture is not interrupted with stretching or movement.
Light physical activity can help relieve pain and reduce stress. Whitis emphasizes that any movement is better than none. The next time you start to notice tension in your arms or shoulders, Whitis recommends simple exercises such as shoulder rolls, neck stretches and arm stretches to help correct posture and relieve physical tension. It is important to note that if you have a diagnosed chronic condition or symptoms of pain, pressure, or dizziness, consult a health care provider or certified personal trainer before beginning any exercise program.
To start, try these gentle movements from SEARHC's Wise at Every Size curriculum that can be done seated or standing. Remember to breathe deeply during the movements:
Neck stretch. Sitting up straight with arms and shoulders relaxed and feet comfortably on the ground, slowly turn your head to the left to look over your left shoulder. Slowly turn your head to the right to look over your right shoulder. Repeat two times.
Arm stretch no. 1. Take both arms over head and stretch upwards towards the ceiling and bring arms back down. Repeat four times.
Arm stretch no. 2. Bring both of your hands together at chest level, interlock your fingers from both hands, then turn your hands and arms facing away from your body and push out. Repeat four times.
Shoulder rolls. Bring hands to your sides then gently push your shoulders up to your ears, then roll your shoulders back and bring your hands back down. Repeat four times.
Beyond basic stretches to relieve tension, aerobic exercise and moderate physical activity are also valuable. Finding ways to stay physically active can be a challenge for many of us. Fortunately, it is never too late to start. The final article in this series on stress management will highlight ways of finding joy in movement and how to fit physical activity into our lives. In the meanwhile, continue to take time from your busy day to do a few gentle stretches, relieve tension and relax.
Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer living in Juneau.