We all deal with stress of a varying degree. Light stresses that occur every day such as getting out the house on time and meeting deadlines, and we will all experience bigger stresses at some stage too. This current situation is proving a wave of constant uncertainty however, that does not help our stress levels as we navigate the ever-changing rules and many people will be experiencing higher, and more constant stress than normal.
Small amounts of stress are natural, often even positive as it can be healthy to help us perform at our best, and our body is designed to handle this through its cleverly regulated physiological system. However, regular exposure to stressful events can begin to affect our health both physically and mentally, with greater impact on mental health imbalances, chronic pain, and serious health concerns such as heart disease and stroke.
Stress is both a biological and psychological response to a threat that we feel we cannot handle adequately. This means it is important to recognise the physical signs of heightened stress, as well as learn coping mechanisms to suppress the psychological aspect, and therefore minimise the overall effect on our body. Pilates (and yoga!) can aid in stress reduction and is scientifically-proven to reduce stress levels.
The stress response in summary:
Stress causes two main pathways to activate within the body:
- Firstly the brain (hypothalamus) stimulates a cascade of communications that result in the production of CORTISOL, the stress hormone. This produces a steady supply of blood sugar to allow your body to cope with the stressful event. It also releases stored glucose from the liver to provide energy and control swelling after an injury. The immune system also becomes suppressed because the raised cortisol levels suppress formation and circulation of lymphocytes, and inhibits the making of new antibodies in response to infection. So you may find you feel more run-down or pick up illnesses easier than normal.
- Secondly, the brain also stimulates the flight or fight system (autonomic nervous system). This causes the production of ADRENALINE. This causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, increased sweating, decreased digestion, and sleep disturbances.
In the short-term these effects are all normal, and will return to their baseline measures once the threat (stress) is reduced. However, if you are exposed to chronic stress and an over-production of cortisol and other stress hormones, you can experience symptoms of anxiety, low mood, headaches, low motivation, digestive problems, and prolonged sleep disturbances.
How Pilates can help the stress response:
MOVEMENT. Physical activity promotes feel-good endorphins in as little as ten minutes, and we have all likely experienced the post-workout highs that can come with exercise. Pilates also provides this, but as most exercises are performed at a slightly slower pace, incorporating breathing control, awareness, and are interspersed with feel-good stretches and movements, we can often feel an even greater response to our workout.
BREATHING. Pilates teaches a specific breathing pattern. This is for two key reasons. Firstly, it physically activates the core muscles (transversus abdominus) more efficiently if it is activated on an exhalation, therefore you gain better control with your muscles. Secondly, by moving in tune with your breath you create a specific speed of movement. This prevents you rushing through exercises. This also helps to regulate the parasympathetic system (the relaxation part of your nervous system) by slowing your breath down, it can also then reduce your heart rate, blood pressure, and overall sense of anxiety. You can read my other tips for relaxation here.
MINDFULNESS. Pilates encourages you to engage the mind-body connection. This means relating your thoughts, breath, and movement to each other so your mind and body work in sync. Increased attention and awareness helps regulate your nervous system and calms it down. The physical execution of the exercises also stimulates the body-mind connection and gives you internal body awareness, which stimulates the autonomic nervous system. This heightens the vagus nerve function; a nerve from your brain that’s main role is to promote relaxation and stress-reduction. 80% of the vagus nerve function is to send signals from your body to your brain. That is a huge amount of messages we send our body by our physical activity! You can read my simple ways to calm anxiety here.
ROUTINE. A regular Pilates practise encourages routine. The routine of completing your exercises regularly, but also routine within your practise of sequencing set exercises to cover core, upper body, lower body, and mobility/stretches. A regular routine relaxes the brain as this is a “safe” aspect your body becomes accustomed to, eliminating uncertainty and relaxing the body to a familiar process.
Pilates is hugely beneficial to other aspects of your health too. Read more on other health benefits with Pilates here.
If you’re interested in adding Pilates to your routine, I have a list of online classes that are running regularly. Or, if you wish for something more individual, get in touch to discuss your own custom Pilates programme. Within this we also consider your real life situations and how to factor your Pilates in to your day, as well as minimising stresses that can be controlled; this may be through careful planning, suggestions, or adding mindfulness and meditation or therapeutic yoga too. You can contact me here: firstname.lastname@example.org