We have all just had a sudden dump of fear, uncertainty and stress on our lives. Our day-to-day lives look remarkably different to just a short time ago, and we have all had to adjust to what this now means for us, as an individual and as a community. As we come into this new period of stress, let us dive into what stress does to our body and how we can best manage it. 

The first step toward change is awareness and knowledge, so understanding what our nervous system does during periods of stress is the key to helping manage its effect on us. Our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the part of our autonomic nervous system that responds to the stress that we put under it. We can have numerous different external stimuli affecting our nervous system, but the response to each is fairly similar. For example, we could be at the end of a running race and have a similar response from our nervous system to work stress. The SNS signals the release of hormones epinephrine and cortisol, which together with the actions of the autonomic nerves, cause heart rate to increase, breathing to quicken, blood vessels in the arms and legs to dilate, changes in digestion and an increase in blood sugar levels to help the body deal with the emergency that it has recognised.

On the other side of things, we have our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS returns the body to the relaxed state, once the emergency that triggered the stress response is resolved. The PNS plays an important role in the body’s physiological responses such as recovery and immune function. 

With the world’s currently changing landscape, we envisage that this will be a more stressful time for everyone. Here are a few things you can try to help keep your body balanced and in a healthy way:

– Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. Check out Sports Lab physio Becky’s blog about breathing( https://sportslab.net.nz/breathe/) This is a great way to help calm your autonomic nervous system when your body is feeling more stressed. 

– Add the idea of ‘play’ into your daily routine. Brene Brown has introduced the idea of play and how play, as an adult, can be beneficial to increasing ones happiness. This idea is formulated around how our lives have become so structured, down to the minute. This era of ‘busyness’ contributes to burn-out, negatively impacting our mental health and heightening our stress response. Brene Brown suggests that, as adults, we need to relearn how to play. The idea of play can be defined as getting yourself lost in the moment and losing the concept of time. An example of this is playing backyard cricket, where time passes without recollection of what is going around externally. In contrast to this, playing a game of 20/20 cricket doesn’t have the same impact as it has a defined start and finish. So, let’s become intentional about creating space for play and see how this impacts our stress levels and mental health.  

– Light touch: Try to very gently rub your hand over your skin. This is something we innately do to children when they are feeling unwell or overwhelmed and is often lost as we grow older. This action has the ability to release a hormone called oxytocin which is secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland. Oxytocin is commonly referred to as the cuddle hormone and plays a role in social bonding. Amoung the numerous functions that oxytocin plays a role in it, it can help manage stress and anxiety. 

– Mindfulness: this is a similar idea to the one of play but it is primarily geared to being focused and engaged with one task. Mindfulness is the quality of being able to hone in on one task, rather than getting overwhelmed by multiple tasks and thoughts. A few ideas of this are: Running, walking, cycling, gardening, baking, yoga, meditation just to name a few. It is important to note that all of these might not necessarily resonate with everyone, try one out and see if it works for you. 

– Setting goals: Goal setting is important for humans to have a sense of moving forward. While many of us have big goals that we want to achieve, we understand that things are a bit uncertain at the moment. Your upcoming race may have been cancelled, your work goals may have drastically had to change, or you may just be having to prioritise other things currently. But we want to encourage you to reframe what a goal is and what it can look like. Maybe instead of aiming for a marathon, you can focus on enjoying different aspects of your training, work on your biomechanics, work with a physio to get on top of that nagging injury. 

There is plenty of things we can do to help manage stress and the effect it has on our body. If you would like some advice on what you can do in this space, feel free to get in contact with the Sports Lab team. We can help guide you in the different things that might be worthwhile to focus on to help you in the long term. Keep an eye out for Monday’s blog too- where we discuss a way to objectively measure the impact of stress on your body. There’s some exciting things happening in this space for the Lab!

Luke McCallum is a Sports Lab Massage Therapist. He is passionate about recovery and how effective recovery can improve performance- whatever performance looks like to each of his clients.