Is Stress Slowing Down Your Recovery?


Jessica Sullivan

Recovering from an injury or physical ailment can be a huge source of stress.

We often give in to the stress, dealing with the emotional and physical symptoms – the tension headaches, fatigue, mood swings…

But, let’s take a look at how stress really effects our body.

According to the American Psychological Association, stress has a physical effect on several systems in our body –  a few of which can specifically effect your physical recovery and progress in physical therapy.

The Musculoskeletal System

Muscle tension is a reflex reaction to stress – the body’s way of protecting against injury and pain.

With sudden stress, the muscles can tense up then will release once the body returns to a normal state, without stress. Yet, in chronic stress, which many of us suffer from, the muscles are in a constant state of protectiveness, preventing relaxation.

In order for effective recovery from injury or pain, your body must be able to allow for muscle relaxation. Being in a constant or recurrent stressful state can prevent this and slow your progress.

The Respiratory System

Stress makes it more difficult for us to breathe properly.

Being in a heightened state can cause rapid or shallow breathing. This can contribute to or worsen musculoskeletal symptoms in the neck and shoulders by increasing tension.

Learning the skill of diaphragmatic breathing can help your body to relax and allow therapeutic techniques to be more effective and long-lasting.

Diaphragmatic breathing can also help combat the stress response, helping us to return to a parasympathetic state and keep our bodies in balance, promoting health and healing.

The Gastrointestinal System

Stress has a strong influence on our overall digestive process.

It can cause increased or decreased appetite, dietary changes, diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, nausea, and “butterflies” – all of which can wreak havoc on our GI system.

When stress effects digestion, our intestines may not be able to absorb necessary nutrients from our foods, therefore depriving us of key nutritional components which are needed for recovery.

Ways to Help

Learning to properly manage our stress response can require a lot of practice. To start, here are a few things that can make a big difference to help with your recovery:

Practice diaphragmatic breathing before bed – This will help your body become more accustom to the process and better able to maintain normal breathing patterns when you encounter stress. Practicing before bed will also help the body relax and sleep better, which promotes healing.

Let your Physio know if you are experiencing an increase in stress symptoms – While it’s not necessary to disclose the source of your stress, informing your Physio of your physical or emotional symptoms can help them better understand the current state of your body and adjust your treatment plan accordingly.

Take care of yourself – Try to avoid getting sucked inside the downward spiral of stress by engaging in positive practices. Eat healthy, do activities which you enjoy, get enough rest, and spend time with friends and family… Oh, and do your Physio homework! :)

If you are still struggling with stress symptoms, talking to a mental health professional can be a pro-active decision to help you in reaching your emotional and physical goals.

Here’s to taking back some control over your recovery!

Jes Caruso, LMSW, SFG



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