Written by Jan Müller
We often tend to think that stress has something to do with the high-speed and the overwhelming nature of modern life. After all, this is a justified belief in a Western society where almost everyone, from young children to elderly adults, somehow feels that they “just don’t have the time”.
But talking with people during this strange period in which most of us happen to have more time on our hands actually shows us there is not less tension or stress in our lives. In reality, the inner pressure is still there, even though our external conditions are rather different.
Let’s put some light on this topic and start by understanding what stress really is.
The difference between acute and chronic stress responses
Stress can have many triggers, such as: a long to-do list, a phone call from the bank, a strong emotional reaction that puts us off balance… But the truth is that the most detrimental effects of stress actually come from chronic stress, which has no immediate trigger.
In both acute and chronic stress responses two areas of the brain are significantly involved: the amygdala (an emotional centre of the brain) and the hypothalamus (the command centre of the brain).
In an acute stress response, the amygdala and hypothalamus work together to essentially release adrenaline into the system and to activate the sympathetic part of our nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is an autonomous part of our nervous system whose job is to put our body into a state of alarm and prepare it to either fight or flee. Adrenaline, together with this powerful response from the nervous system, causes a higher breathing rate, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, channelling blood away from the organs and towards the muscles, cumulatively preparing the body to do everything needed for its survival.
This primary response is natural and does not cause any lasting harm. However, after this acute response, a secondary mechanism can start, known as chronic stress. Contrary to acute stress, chronic stress has proven severe implications for us, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Just like in the case of acute stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, putting us in survival mode. In order to support this process our brain sends signals to the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, a hormone which keeps the body alert and holds the whole system in a prolonged state of stress. It does that by raising our blood sugar, narrowing the perception of our mind, lowering digestive processes and by holding back repair processes; all these, in the long run, lead to a weakening of our body. In short: Cortisol is great at mobilizing energy reserves, but in the long run it wears out our structures by limiting the supply of much needed nutrients and slowing down repair processes.
Numerous diseases have been linked to chronic stress: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, depression and anxiety, to name just a few. Apart from the already described detrimental effects on our body and our mind, our emotions are also profoundly affected. In fact, recent research has shown that under chronic stress nerve cells in the limbic system (the part of the brain responsible for our emotions) start to shrink and lose connection to their neighbouring cells. This could also be one physical reason for changed emotional behaviour in people suffering from chronic stress.
The role of chiropractic
When thinking about stress, chiropractic is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. However, chiropractic is a powerful tool for aligning our system in a deep and effective way. Among a vast variety of techniques to treat muscles, joints and nerves, its focus lies on adjusting the spine. This special emphasis on spinal health is unique to chiropractic, enabling it to influence a vast range of conditions, many of which are stress-related.
The two sides of chiropractic
In order to dive deeper into the effects of chiropractic, let us distinguish between two types of effects. Certainly, this is an oversimplification of the matter, but for our purposes it is best to divide between neuromuscular-skeletal effects (conditions related to the muscles, joints or nerves) and effects that happen beyond the neuromuscular-skeletal level.
For instance, when you have a sprained ankle and see a chiropractor who works with the joints and muscles to ease them off, he is primarily operating on the muscular-skeletal level. However, when you see a chiropractor for conditions like dizziness, chronic pain or other, more complex clinical problems, this goes beyond the neuromuscular-skeletal level.
Working mechanisms of chiropractic
The effects of chiropractic are vast and demand a multi-layered understanding of the processes involved.
On the basic level, chiropractic adjustments have a direct effect on the joints by loosening them up and restoring their normal range of motion. As a result, our body can move more harmoniously and does not need to put more strain on other joints to make up for the loss of motion.
From the joint the information about the freed range of motion travels to our spinal cord, where it is being processed. From here positive effects take place: the muscles surrounding the treated joint can relax and pain can be greatly reduced at this moment during the process.
From the spinal cord information gets sent to the brain. The brain as our control centre is in charge of regulating nearly all our bodily systems. When the information arrives here it can have profound effects on our emotional state, the muscular tension in the entire body and, also very important, on our perceived levels of pain.
In the innermost part of our brain we also find the most essential hormonal gland, which is at the heart of the production of all hormones in our body. Being given the right information, the production of hormones, including the production of the major stress hormone cortisol, can be significantly influenced.
How chiropractic affects stress
As you can see, the physical structures conducting chronic stress vastly overlap with the structures carrying out the treatment effect of chiropractic. Both chronic stress and chiropractic treatment affect our hormonal system and our autonomous nervous system, which together determine whether we are stressed or calm. Both activate areas in our brain responsible for emotions and pain.
This shared structure makes it possible for chiropractic to reduce the effects of stress, such as increased muscle tension and heightened cortisol levels. Also, the activation pattern of our brain can be reset to better deal with chronic stress.
In the clinic, most of my patients suffer under direct chronic stress, or are indirectly affected by their lifestyle, which they have adapted to the constant needs and wishes of our contemporary society. Treatment can help alleviate the temporary effects of stress and release some of the pressures attached to it. I would like to encourage all readers and patients to enjoy these times of felt freedom, and at the same time to use these breaks efficiently and reflect on their inner reactions to outer pressures, and also on the lifestyle and every day choices they make and repeat. That treatment will lead to realisation and holistic change in our life.