Stress. Is it really that bad?

by Caroline von Fluegge-Chen

Stress. Is it really that bad?

I have a confession to make: I am more of a stress management doctor than a back doctor. Sure, feel free to lump me into that catch-all group of chiropractors whose main focus is to fix backs. Yep, backs I fix. And necks. And knees. And whatever else seems to be aching, creaking, pinching or generally stuck. Quite often, I’m the last resort for people who have been let down by drugs that merely mask symptoms temporarily; physical therapists who can zap you with electrodes, marinate you in Biofreeze, and stretch you like taffy, yet weeks later you’re still out of whack; or orthopedists who will tell you not to run if running bothers your back, give you more meds, and suggest surgery down the road as an ominous warning. Yes, pills, PTs and MDs all have merit as there is a time and place for everything. At certain times in my life, I have relied on experts in crisis care and I am grateful to them.

But here is what I’m really looking at: What is the cause of the problem and how can we fix it so you’ll stay active, happy, productive and balanced for the rest of your life? I see health history forms all day long. What’s checked off? Headaches, TMJ, back pain, shoulder tension – the usual chiropractic stuff for the usual kind of chiropractor to examine. “Let’s see, how did this happen?” I wonder. Could these issues be the result of birth trauma from a forceps delivery, being clobbered by siblings as a young tyke, injuries from ramming your head into someone else’s skull while playing football, sitting hunched like a caveman in front of a computer all day long, carrying babies on hips, car accidents, sitting in traffic and carpool lines for hours a day, painting your house/wacking weeds/digging holes for fence posts one fine weekend in the name of spring cleaning…the causes of physical trauma to the spine are endless. Like layers of an onion, they pile on, one layer at a time, from the day you were born.

One elderly patient asked me how long it will take until she feels better. Years ago, when I was a pup and new in practice, I might have given her a very technical answer riddled with big words of the neurology, biomechanics, orthopedics, and physics lexicon. Wow…did I sound smart! Yet everything I said would have gone right over her head, judging by her glazed eyes looking at me quizzically. This time around, I simply replied, “I have no idea how long it will take to get better. You’re asking me to unravel 70-years worth of spinal damage. That’s a tall and impossible order. I’ll do the best with what I have to work with. Keep on going to the Y for exercise like you have been, eat healthy food, drink plenty of water, get enough sleep and stick to your chiropractic treatment plan. Those who show up will get results.” The patient was relieved that I did not pull out the text book guns, she followed my plan of action, and she’s doing a whole lot better. It’s that simple. Just do it, says Nike. Brilliant.

I’m evaluating health history forms from another perspective, namely, what ELSE is going on with your health besides the usual muscle-bone-nerve mischief? Let me tell you what I see day in and day out: People who look bright and shiny on the outside, but when the truth is told without fear of judgment, they admit to having a tough time coping on the inside. Here’s a rundown: strained marital relationships, financial worries, not spending enough time with family, job dissatisfaction, loneliness, adjusting to having a newborn, feeling overcommitted in the quest to be the perfect mom or dad, caring for aging parents, uncertainty about the future, death in the family, kids who are (pick a few) sick, angry, anxious, belligerent…the list gets longer and longer as we try our hardest to meet the challenges this journey called LIFE presents. No wonder you feel lousy…you’re firing on all cylinders and burning more rocket fuel than you have in your tank. Tires are screeching and smoke is blowing, but you keep on churning along, hoping to get ahead faster and further.

Simply put, you are stressed. Big time. Otherwise your body wouldn’t be shutting down on you. Let me put stress in perspective: Stress is not the enemy. Physiologically speaking, stress is simply a natural signal from your nerve system telling your body how to react in order to maintain homeostasis. Shiver if you are too cold; sweat if you are too hot; vomit to eliminate toxins from food poisoning; feel thirsty when dehydrated; scratch when you itch; elevate body temperature to kill  bacteria in the case of fever; cough and sneeze to remove foreign particles from the nose and throat; feel hungry when your blood sugar level drops. You see, your body is constantly responding to internal and external stress by means of your nerve system, that internet connection that controls every muscle, tissue and gland all day and every day.

Too MUCH of a good thing causes havoc. Back in the day, a tiger in the jungle might pose a momentary threat to your family. QUICK! Run and hide in your cave. Phew. Problem solved.  In our crazy hurried lifestyle, stressful situations – whether real or perceived – simply don’t go away in a matter of minutes. We are dealing with them all day, every day consciously while awake and processing them while asleep. Stress over a prolonged period of time causes increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, diabetes, insomnia, anxiety, depression, weight gain, impaired immune function, infertility, pain, arterial hardening, hyperactivity, attention deficit, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, muscle tension, respiratory difficulties, and constipation, to name just a few symptoms. And when we’re stressed, the usual tendency is to eat poorly, stop exercising, skip chiropractic adjustments, quit communicating with family, numb our mind…and run around like wildcats expecting to maintain optimal levels of productivity, health, happiness, and fulfillment. Crazy, huh?

As our inborn wisdom would have it, and with incredible brilliance, the body is super capable.

The brain can keep on going and going, pushing us to be, do and have 24/7, yet the body eventually says, “look dude, I’m shutting you down for a while before you totally blow a gasket and destroy me altogether.” So you get sick and you’re stuck in bed to recuperate. Or you survive a heart attack and decide the NOW time has come to change your lifestyle. Or you injure your back preventing you from running and squashing your discs to a pulp – old spinal injuries that never healed right have finally caught up with you. Interestingly, the body whispers to us and warns us gently for years when something is going awry that calls for attention. Yet we tend not to listen until there is a crisis.

You know what chiropractic is REALLY about – at least in the way I practice? I’m not just moving around wayward gone bones to relieve back pain. Instead, I’m trying to clear your nerve system from the decades of physical, emotional and chemical stress that have piled on year after year. The more off center the pendulum of balance swings, the more time and work is going to be required to get both mind and body back to a state of well-being. How long will this take? I don’t know. It depends on how damaged your nerve system is, your genetic makeup, how healthful your lifestyle habits are and whether or not you follow the suggested recommendations.

Sometimes I am asked by patients when they can stop chiropractic care. Often they’re astounded when I say, “Right now if you want.” We can also stop mowing the lawn, cutting our toe nails, eating healthful foods, maintaining our cars and homes, cleaning the kitchen, washing our faces, exercising our bodies or deepening relationships with loved ones. But rest assured, there are consequences to neglecting mind and body in the name of being busy, busy, busy.  I see the effects in your health history forms, in talking to you, and by looking in your eyes to see what is really there.

It comes down to how well you want your quality of life to be. Take care of your well-being, take pride in who you are, point your compass with the intention of creating a fulfilling future, and I guarantee you will handle stress effectively, have more energy, save on medical bills, and enjoy your life happily.