Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Filtering by Tag: stress management

Eustress, I stress, We All Stress- And We Adapt To It

Last Tuesday, I delved into psychological stress and mechanical stress- two very different words that actually come up in my life a lot, but mean somewhat different things.  Today, let's look at adaptation, and how we respond to stress over time.

We all know that there are good stresses that might result in great joys (getting married, buying a home, job project deadlines, collegiate projects, etc) and there are negative stresses (divorce, death, impossible deadlines, health issues, unemployment, etc.).  Hans Selye coined the term, "Eustress" to refer to constructive stress, and used the word "Distress" to refer to negative stress.  (Side note: I think Eustress would be an excellent name for a cat, much like my preferrred Renaissance composer cat names Machaut, Claudio, Josquin, and of course my favorite, Gesualdo)

With these concepts of positive and destructive stress, there are a few variants of a graph tracking peak performance and stress, in which a certain amount of stress is essential for optimal performance, but too much causes breakdown.  This makes sense as musicians, because we've experienced auditions or performances where we've played optimally with a certain amount of stress and most of us have also played poorly under extremely stressful conditions. 

Hans Selye also came up with a theory on how the body responds to stress, known as the General Adaptation Syndrome, which works in three steps (sometimes 4, depending on who is writing about it).

1. Alarm Stage: This is the body's immediate reaction to the stressor, whether it's environmental, internal, external, etc.  This would mean an activation of the nervous system and the fight or flight response, HPA axis for hormonal secretion, and the resultant changes in the body that occur as part of the fight or flight response (pupils dilate, digestion stops/slows, immune response decreased, blood pressure increases, etc.)

2. Resistance: After the initial bodily response to stress, in most cases, the stress will be eradicated and the body will return to homeostasis and activating the parasympathetic nervous system.  In other cases, the stressor will continue and the body begins to adapt to the perpetual stress.  Immune function will begin to weaken and the body will begin to have reduced energy sources for managing the stressor.

3.  Exhaustion: If stress has perpetuated, burnout will occur, putting the body at high risk for many stress related illnesses.  This is an example of chronic stress, and how the body gives outover time.  Symptoms could include high blood pressure issues, digestive issues, IBS, low energy, decreased metabolism, diminished sleep, low athletic performance, etc.  

What does this all mean?  It means that we can be aware of the stressors in our life, how they affects us, and how we respond to them.  Not all stress is negative, but chronic and perpetual stress can be detrimental to the body.  What are the stresses in your life, and how do you respond to them?

We're Going to Vagus!

This picture is from the Cranial Intelligence blog, with Ged Sumner and Steve Haines.  I wish that I had the photoshop skills to create this image.  The blog is also excellent! 

This picture is from the Cranial Intelligence blog, with Ged Sumner and Steve Haines.  I wish that I had the photoshop skills to create this image.  The blog is also excellent! 

If you follow health and wellness blogs, even if only halfheartedly, you've probably heard of the Vagus nerve (pronounced like Vegas).  The Vagus nerve pair is the largest of our cranial nerves in the somato-sensory system, running directly into the body,  acting as the leader of our parasympathetic nervous system.  They connect to the stomach, heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, ureter, spleen, lungs, female reproductive organs, neck, ears, and tongue (and probably more things I've forgotten).  Our sympathetic nervous system is our "fight or flight system," priming our body to take action under pressure, and our parasympathetic nervous system is our "rest and digest system," encouraging the body to return to normal functions while decreasing heart rate, blood pressure, and encouraging digestive processes (and many other physiological processes). 

Image from  AutismCoach , in regards to an interesting article about the Vagus nerve and autism.

Image from AutismCoach, in regards to an interesting article about the Vagus nerve and autism.

You may have also heard that the vagus nerve can be low functioning, "low vagal tone,"or working optimally, "high vagal tone."

Low vagal tone is correlated with such health conditions as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, and epilepsy.
— Angela Wilson, Institute for Extraordinary Living at Kripalu

Because of its many connections to vital organs, the Vagus plays a significant role in digestion by increasing stomach acidity and increasing histamine production, affects heart rate and blood pressure, regulates glucose balance, affects female fertility, as well as play a role in the mind body connection.   Now back to a low functioning vagus- how does one improve vagal tone?  Although there are many ways of contacting the vagal nerve, there is research to support meditation, massage, restorative yoga, and deep breathing as part of maintaining vagal tone.  I've also read a wide range of other possibilities for contacting the vagus, from chanting, singing, splashing cold water on your face, lovingkindness meditation, positive social relationships, and regular movement and exercise.  What does it mean for you right now?  Downregulation is ESSENTIAL self-care for your nervous system, whether that means a mind-body practice, meditation, getting a massage (or regular self-massage!), walks, or social interactions.  Living in a place of constant stress taxes your nervous system, and affects all of your body's vital functions.

To read more on the study about yoga and the vagus, click here.

To read more about the Vagus nerve and autism, click here.

Adrenal Fatigue 101

As I prepare to lead a workshop on the consequences of chronic stress, something called "adrenal fatigue" comes up as a question.  What is it?  Is it real?  And more importantly, do I have it? 

A quick google session will show tons of conflicting advice, from doctors explaining that it's a false diagnosis to extensive resources listing symptoms and solutions.  Let's start with where the adrenal glands are, first of all.  Located above the kidneys, the adrenals:

And more relevantly, produce the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline as part of the sympathetic nervous system (cortisol is also produced in your adrenals).  Epinephrine (or adrenaline) responds to stress by increasing blood flow to the body and brain (as well as other things) and Norepinephrine (noradrenaline) also supports the sympathetic nervous system by narrowing blood vessels, resulting in an increase in blood pressure.

Back to adrenal fatigue- we have all experienced the physical consequences of being perpetually stressed and unable to manage our stress, whether it was in result to personal health, family events, auditions, concerts, relationships, or our job.  Symptoms might include irritability, high blood pressure, weight gain, low energy, frequent illness, insomnia, digestive issues, and a need for caffeine and sugar.  As there are conflicting views as to whether adrenal fatigue even exists, it's difficult to decisively say that all of the above symptoms are a result of a weakenedadrenal system.  Yet, having experienced these symptoms in my life, I can say that I felt terrible during that time, and my levels of cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline were extremely high when tested.  I experienced most of these symptoms four years ago, and I was initially under the impression that I was experiencing them in response to stress- these turned out to just be symptoms of my pituitary adenoma.  Conversely, I have friends who have received adrenal fatigue as their sole diagnosis, have made significant lifestyle changes to address it, and have seen huge health benefits without having other hormonal or health diagnoses.   The best solution would to be to look at your life, your current energy, diet, sleep, digestion, and stress management, and see how you can make improvements and if you do perpetually have some of these symptoms, consult different medical professionals and therapies for opinions (or see if you have a larger health issue).  When I first saw a doctor four years ago, I received many conflicting diagnoses (from thyroid disorder to possible PCOS), and found a combination of lifestyle changes, allopathic treament, and integrative treatments (acupuncture helped significantly) to be the best way to manage my symptoms. 

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