sTre$s! part 2

This is a mini-series on stress – how our amazing bodies can rise to meet a challenge and how we can manage stress so that we don’t die from it!

As I mentioned in Part 1, our stress response consists of 3 phases: the alarm, the activating system and recovery. I recently read The Hidden Link between Adrenaline and Stress by Dr. Archibald Hart (Thomas Nelson 1995). He describes the amazing ways we are hard-wired to mobilize to meet a challenge. Every system of the body does its part. However, if we live in a constant state of stress, we will suffer the physical consequences (also described briefly in my first article). I’ll share with you some of the most important insights I gleaned from the book.

“To protect yourself against dying of or suffering ill effects from stress, you must learn how to switch off your production of adrenaline when it is no longer needed, and stop using it for non-emergency life situations (like driving on the freeway)!” (Hart, p. 28)

“Nothing worthwhile can be accomplished without some arousal of the stress response system. It is a biological law that we must work, and even fight, to accomplish a worthwhile goal. Challenge and fulfillment are important to health and well being. The lack of it causes us to atrophy in body and mind. But –  and this point is crucial to my whole argument – challenge and stress must be accompanied by, and work in harmony with, relaxation and rest.” (Hart, p. 42)

“We cannot avoid all arousal, all the time, nor should we even try…What should we do in times like these? It is crucial to plan adequate time for recovery. Sooner or later the crisis will be over, and that is when you must make time for adequate recuperation of your adrenaline system. It is simply a matter of responsible self-management.” (Hart, p. 136)

“The primary and most successful method of adrenaline reduction is conscious physical relaxation. When you relax the body, the mind can’t keep itself in a state of emergency. A relaxed body begins to relax the mind.” (Hart, p. 134)

So, let’s get personal. Here’s what I am doing with the information I read.

  1. I’m getting more sleep! Dr. Hart has a whole chapter on the importance of sleep. One of my new (school) year resolutions is to be in bed by 10:30 pm. This regularity helps me tremendously in the morning. I am a lot less grouchy! Most people I know, especially parents, could use more sleep.
  2. I’m noticing when my stress level is elevated and deciding whether I need the extra adrenaline or not. This consciousness is amazing. I never would have thought that noticing and deciding could be so powerful. I’ve found I really can turn off the adrenaline if I decide I don’t need it. If I need energy to face a challenge, yes I’ll take the adrenaline. If I need more creativity, I’ll do better without the influx of adrenaline.
  3. I’m making time for recovery, unapologetically. I will not pack the schedule too full and perpetuate the chicken-with-her-head-cut-off mode of operation. It’s just not enjoyable.
  4. I’m planning physical relaxation into my schedule. I know, I know, I’m always talking about massage (wink). For me and for many of my clients, massage helps us remember we’re human. What Dr. Hart described on page 134 rings true (see above). And, massage is one way to help flush out the chemical toxins in our bodies produced by the adrenaline response.
  5. I’m appreciating the body. I’m happy to celebrate that my body is designed to rise to incredible challenges and I’m confident it will amaze me when I need it to.

Stay tuned for the third part of this series where Dr. Angel Duncan will teach you a relaxation exercise you can use to increase your physical well being and decrease your stress. I’m also trying to line up an interview with a sleep consultant for you.

Inspired by anything? Want to share a resolution you have? Please use the comments below!

P.S. Somehow I published a draft of part 1 instead of my final version. Wander back to re-read part 1. You’ll see some of the information re-worked.


sTe$s!? part 1

I recently read a great book about stress. How cheerful, you might say. Well, I did it for you, my dear reader. I did, in fact, begin my reading with altruistic motives, wishing to share with you the way stress affects the body and teach you how to manage stress to minimize its negative impact in your life.

Little did I know how much I needed the info myself!

Life is sneaky that way, isn’t it? Here I stand, at this beginning of the school year, full of hope and healthy resolutions. The book I read is called The Hidden Link Between Adrenaline and Stress, by Dr. Archibald Hart (Thomas Nelson, 1995). Although it’s not the most recent book on stress, it’s an easy-to-read, inspiring book nonetheless. I’ll share some highlights with you in three parts. In Part 1 I’ll describe the most important insights I gleaned about how our bodies mobilize to meet a challenge. In Part 2 I’ll describe healthy ways to manage stress. Part 3 is a guest post by one of my clients, Dr. Angel Duncan, who will share a relaxation exercise with you.

  • The stress response: The amazing human body is hard-wired with the ability to respond to threats with a complex and efficient system of mobilization. You’ve heard of “fight or flight” I’m sure. Behind this catchy phrase is a whole host of chemical reactions that occur when we are faced with a major challenge:
    • Your eyes dilate, the rate and force of your heart’s contractions increase, and your blood vessels constrict, so your blood pressure rises. Blood is borrowed from the intestinal reservoir and shunted to your major muscles, lungs, heart, and brain, preparing you for battle. Bowel and bladder function shut down temporarily, conserving energy needed to power your muscles, whether you choose to stay and fight or run away. (This efficient summary is from The Wisdom of Menopause by Christiane Northrup, M.D., Bantam Books 2003 p.59.)
    • Here’s a family example: one time my older brother was working on his motorcycle in the garage. It suddenly caught on fire. My brother lifted the motorcycle up and threw it 10 feet out of the garage where he was able to put out the fire safely. This response demonstrated quick decision-making & abnormal strength, 2 hallmarks of an adrenaline response.
  • This system kicks in whether the challenge we face is life-threatening or simply our morning commute! To face our daily challenges, we really don’t need all that, especially the increased blood pressure, wouldn’t you agree?! Dr. Hart describes our activation this way:

“We are mobilized to act. We become physically stronger (which can be dangerous if we are angry) and mentally sharper. Notice I said ‘sharper,’ not ‘more creative or innovative.’” (Hart, p. 66)

I don’t know about you, but most of my challenges could use a greater measure of creativity and less blood pressure. I don’t particularly gain anything when I yell at my kid to hurry up and fall asleep already!

  • The stress response has 3 important steps: alarm, activation, and RECOVERY. In our culture, this third step is often overlooked. I’ll discuss the importance of recovery in Part 2.
  • Humans are incredibly ADAPTABLE. For example, our eyes can adapt from bright outdoor sunshine to dim indoor lighting within a minute or two. Unfortunately, we can also adapt to conditions we shouldn’t adapt to, like high levels of stress. Our adrenaline response has some great short-term features, like a decreased sensation of pain for example. This serves the purpose of helping us continue with a challenge even when we are injured. Imagine the need to carry your child down a mountain after some catastrophe, perhaps a task that would be physically impossible for you unless you knew you were in a life-threatening emergency.
  • The long-term effects of adrenaline on the body are ultimately destructive. Here are a few examples: higher blood pressure, depleted endorphins and therefore an increased sensation of pain, quicker (and less discriminating) activation of a stress response, depletion of the brain’s natural tranquilizers and therefore increased anxiety. The list goes on, but you can see it’s a picture of diminishing returns.

As I said, refreshing my knowledge of how the body acts under stress has been great for me personally. The summer was in some ways a little more relaxed, but also a little stressful trying to balance work and family time. I was looking forward to the school year beginning in a grass-is-greener kind of way. Then I remembered that there’s a lot of hustling hither and thither with the kiddo, part of life I find stress-inducing. Learning to monitor and manage my stress response, which I’ll share with you in the next post, was a great way for me to start the school year. Stay tuned!

And, please, if you have any great stories about how your adrenaline helped you in a real crisis or hindered you in a daily challenge, please share with everyone in the comments below.

little known muscle series – infraspinatus & teres minor

Time for another installment of … the little known muscle series. Today I’ll highlight 2 muscles that work in tandem. They are infraspinatus and teres minor.They are part of the shoulder’s rotator cuff.

Muscle mapquest: These muscles are found on the back of the shoulder blade. They lie at an angle more or less pointing up towards the top of the arm bone.

What do they do? As part of the rotator cuff, they work to stabilize the arm in the shoulder joint. Our shoulder joint is designed to allow for maximum range of motion. The trade-off is decreased stability. In addition to ligaments, there are 4 main muscles serving to stabilize the joint. Infraspinatus and teres minor partner with supraspinatus and subscapularis to accomplish this stability. Each of these muscles has its own action. Infraspinatus and teres minor laterally rotate the arm bone (humerus) in the shoulder joint. They also adduct, extend and horizontally abduct the arm. **Anatomy nerds see below for more detail on these fascinating actions.

The other main function of infraspinatus and teres minor is to act as brakes. Other muscles that move the arm are much bigger and stronger, like the pectoralis major, a big chest muscle. Pectoralis major is an antagonist to our subject muscles, as well as latissimus dorsi and teres major (in rotation). An antagonist in anatomy terms is a muscle that does the opposite action. To understand this important braking action, imagine a baseball pitcher throwing a 90-mile-an-hour fastball. It’s a wonder his arm doesn’t just fly out of the socket right behind the ball. Well, this demonstrates the action of the infraspinatus and teres minor. They stomp on the brakes so as to prevent dislocation, tears and sprains. At least they try to!

Why they are sore: Because these muscles are smaller in relation to their bigger antagonists and because they are typically weaker and less developed than the big guns, it’s not uncommon for them to be sore upon palpation (touching them) or massage. They can also be overwhelmed by sudden loads or overexertion. They are sore on most people I see for massage. And most people are surprised. “What’s that?” they ask. I don’t massage any MLB pitchers, so why are they sore on the average person? They are sore on most people because everything we do is in front of us: driving, working at the computer, doing the dishes, holding kids, etc. Our forward activities cause us to curl inward in our posture and this puts these small muscles in a constant stretch position. This makes them cranky. Weak, underdeveloped muscles tend to be sore because they are overpowered by their antagonists. Here’s what we can do to make them happier –

Loosen them: Massage is great for loosening up these muscles and for simply drawing our attention to them. If we don’t know a muscle is sore, we probably won’t pay any attention to it. Between professional massages, you can massage these muscles yourself at home. All you need is a tennis ball and a wall. Stand with your back against a wall. Place the tennis ball between you and the wall with the ball positioned where your shoulder blade is. Push your weight into the ball and roll it around until you find a spot that feels sore. This is a great way to massage your back in general. To find this infraspinatus and teres minor spot, I find it helpful to raise my arm to the side so it’s parallel with the floor. I scoot the ball over so that it’s at the edge of the shoulder blade along the border. When I find a “hurt so good” spot, I move my body so the ball massages the spot in a circular motion. Limit your tennis ball massage time to a short amount, like a minute or two. You can repeat it throughout the day, but keep it short each time otherwise you’ll make yourself really sore. Trust me – respect the tennis ball!

Strengthen them: A healthy shoulder has equally strong and developed rotator cuff muscles that stabilize the arm in the joint. If you participate in a sport or hobby that is shoulder- or arm-intensive, it would be smart to make sure you develop strength in all the rotator cuff muscles. A good trainer, physical therapist or even massage therapist can help you figure out what exercises you can do to strengthen what’s weak. You can also spend some time learning about medial and lateral rotation, abduction and adduction, flexion and extension, etc. and put together a regimen that addresses each action. Most men I know are interested in developing a super-burly looking chest by developing pectoralis major, and neglect these important stabilizer muscles. Don’t be like most men! Be smarter.

Comments? Questions? I hope this is helpful. Now go enjoy this amazing range of motion you’ve been given!

** Anatomy nerds: To understand rotation of the arm stand with arms hanging at your sides. When you laterally rotate your arms you rotate them so that your thumbs turn away from your body. The opposite would be medial rotation (rotate them so that the backs of your hands turn in toward your legs). Adduction is seen when you start with arms straight out to the sides at 90 degrees. Bring the arms down to the body. Extention is the action of moving the arms behind your body from a starting position of arms hanging at your sides. To see horizontal abduction, start with straight arms out to your sides at 90 degrees. Move the arms back behind the body in the same plane. Get the picture?