How to Reduce Stress and Stress-Related Health Problems at Christmas - Freedom Physiotherapy & Pilates
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How to Reduce Stress and Stress-Related Health Problems at Christmas

Hey, everybody. We're sliding sideways into December. We're coming into the silly season, the festive season. And I thought in today's chat we'd talk about what we see in the practice this time of year. So, we've got the year 12s, year 11s, private schools and whatnot, they're all winding up, the kids are finishing up for school, people are starting to wonder what they're gonna do for Christmas, they're thinking about the holidays. So, there's a lot of change going on and a lot of expectations. So, what that adds up to for us is a huge increase in the number of patients coming in with stress-related aches and pains. So, it's my opinion that the biggest driver of neck pain and neck-related headache is physical and psychological stress. And certainly, December brings that on in spades.

So, we've got teenagers running around, finishing up school. We also have a lot of work functions coming up, and we are winding ourselves up, no end. We're probably gonna start consuming too much alcohol. We're gonna drop our good habits. We're gonna get too busy to exercise. So, all in all, it's very, very good for business, for any practice that's dealing with physical pain. So, the topic today really is looking at dispelling a couple of myths about spinal pain, particularly neck pain, but I'll put back pain in this category, too, because I believe that a lot of back pain that I see this time of year has a strong correlation to people's higher levels of stress. So, how does stress cause physical pain?

Well, when you're all worked up, you're pushed for time, you're under the pump, and you've got to go Christmas shopping, you've got to get to these office parties and whatnot, your body starts to do a number of things. And one is your heart rate will increase, your breathing becomes more rapid, somewhat shallow, and your body produces stress hormones, namely cortisol and adrenaline. And what these hormones do is they actually make you more prone to physical pain, they make your nerve endings more sensitive, they cause muscle tension, your muscles produce lactic acid, and that bathes the nerve endings in inflammatory by-product, therefore, produces pain. So, when we're under the pump and we're stressed, we tend to breathe shallow up here, and neck muscles get tense, so shoulders get tense, and we get neck pain. And if you're really lucky, you'll get some headache to go with the neck pain. So, there you go. That's your tension headache.

So, we see a lot of stress-related neck pain and headache this time of year, but that same mechanism also increases the risk of back pain exactly the same way. The stress hormones increase, your back muscles get tense. And if you're not moving enough, you could find yourself with a lot of back pain and stiffness. So, December is a wonderful month for ill health, because not only do you get stress-related tension and musculoskeletal pain, you also get immunosuppression. So, persistent stress will have an effect on your immune system. It becomes less effective, and you are more prone to coughs and colds and whatnot. So, if you've ever realised that coming into a holiday or you've just finished exams, for example, you fall in a heap, and you get the flu or you catch a cold, that's immunosuppression due to stress. So, stress is our enemy. It also causes other things, too.

You might realise that around about Christmas time, the hospitals see a spike in cardiac events and in strokes. That's due to a lot of things. It's complicated. That's not just stress from work-related issues, but also it's family. Christmas is a reminder for some people of family-related stress, loneliness, that sort of thing. So, there's a lot of reasons for our health to try and combat the effects of stress. So, probably my advice is to make sure you're getting plenty of exercise. Walking or swimming, cycling, going to the gym blows off those stress hormones and changes your chemical profile. So, you must keep up with your exercise or start exercising. You need to get proper sleep. None of us sleep enough, and you need to make sure you go to bed early, you stay hydrated, that you're drinking enough water, particularly as the weather gets warmer. Try and go easy on the alcohol, because when you're coming off alcohol or a hangover the next day, anxiety can be a problem.

So, the things that we do in December aren't always great for our health. So, the wheelbarrow I'll push with all this is exercise more, exercise regularly. Don't sweat the small stuff, and try to not overload yourself with commitments, try and look after yourself a little bit better. And the take-home message here is that most pain I see in clinical practice for the whole year has its roots in the lack of exercise and too much stress, but December seems to amplify that effect. So, stress-related illness, stress-related pain is a huge problem for all of us, and we've got to try and combat that, and exercise is a huge part of it as is just relaxing and taking some time out and just try and develop some good habits. So, there you have it. December is a great month for pain clinics, but not really that great for our health. Thank you.

Joshua Hayter, MAPA, B.Physio
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