I first met Dr. Seth Oberst, a Physical Therapist out of Georgia, when he wrote me an email introducing himself and referencing a mutual friend of ours, who has also written an article for Fit For Real Life, Dr. Dave Tilley. We’ve since become pals and it’s an honor that he wrote a guest article for my site all about stress, movement, breathing, and how they all relate to each other. Over to Seth…
Stress is certainly, and justifiably, a buzzword of late with an increasing number of media features on the negative impacts of this insidious force on our life.
However, physiologists, physicians, psychologists, physical therapists, and many great coaches have known of the negative effects of stress on humans for years.
Bruce McEwen, one of the preeminent researchers on stress, defines stress as “experiences that are emotionally and physiologically challenging”.
A stressor is any external stimulus that moves us away from homeostasis – the optimal state of the myriad physiological processes in the human body.
Our stress response, then, is the body’s attempt at restoring homeostasis.
This is absolutely necessary in reacting effectively to something that could endanger us.
But we must define the stress response beyond just reactionary processes because the human ability to predict future stressors can induce a stress response to something that has yet to actually occur.
Worrying about the weather, anticipating a meeting with your boss, financial woes, a pandemic; literally anything we imagine can set about a stress response that negatively impacts our biology if it persists.
These responses can be rather predictable, including an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, a change in breathing patterns, an increase in cortisol (a hormone that serves to increase blood sugar), the list goes on. For more on the numerous physiological effects of stress on the body, I encourage you to read Robert Sapolsky’s fantastic Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.
As a physical therapist and coach, I often see the effect stress has on how we move.
In response to something stressful, people typically change movement patterns by overextending their spines to combat the stressors.
This essentially means that they increase the tension or tone of their extensor muscles.
Extension serves to maximize airflow by lifting the ribcage and opposing gravity – both needed to overcome a stressor.
After all, our resistance to gravity allowed humans to stand upright. Evolutionarily, extension was also a necessary component in response to a physical threat because you don’t last long in the jungle slumped forward and breathing shallowly.
But in modern times that same movement pattern is often elicited with any stressor as we discussed above; think of a rigid, self-conscious dancer at a wedding and you’ll catch my drift.
Ultimately, the body’s adaptive capabilities to repeated stressors cause a habitual change in movement behavior, which may set us up for injury or performance loss.
Does chronic stress affects how you move?
Chronic and excessive stress (aka hyperextension) drains performance and reduces our capacity to move in, and engage with, the environment for several reasons:
1) Loss of movement variability
Movement variability is the normal variation that occurs in performance of a repetitive task (Stergiou and Decker, 2011).
A healthy amount of variability is necessary for human fitness and function. Variability allows adaptability. For example, a skilled runner is able to alter their gait slightly to adapt to the running surface, muscle fatigue, etc.
A stressed human is one that cannot easily get into different body positions and shapes because they’re rigid and stuck in extension – a crucial piece to high performance as any reader of Kate’s will surely agree!
If you can’t get into a variety of positions, how can you possibly adapt to all the unpredictable situations life throws at you?
2) Loss of joint rotation
When stressed and rigid, we lose the ability to rotate our joints because they are no longer centered in the socket as our brains tighten the joints to protect from injury during a threatening experience.
When the stress is chronic and non-threatening, this loss of rotation causes us to smash our joints together which is at least partly why I see so many injuries to the rotational ball and socket joints (hips and shoulders).
Just watch most anyone walk and you’ll notice a lack of symmetrical rotation in the body as people tend to stay stuck on one side (almost always the right).
3) Altered breathing patterns
One of the most common breathing issues we see is the hyper-inflated pattern. Essentially, the athlete is in a state of excessive inhalation – breathing on top of breathing – with inadequate exhalation. They just can’t get air out efficiently.
This hyper-inflated pattern of breathing can be asymmetric (typically see the left rib-cage flared more than the right) or symmetric (both rib cages flared). This of course contributes to the overextended posture as the diaphragm pulls the ribs and spine forward and up.
A vicious cycle now ensues where stressed, rapid breathing only exacerbates this pattern, making it difficult to find a relaxed and variable state. I explain the hyperinflated breathing pattern in more detail on my website.
It’s critical to keep the thoracic spine, where the ribs and diaphragm are located, mobile and strong if you want to have a solid lower back and core, have good posture, and avoid unhelpful hurdles like back, neck, shoulder, and hip pain.
4) Excessive tissue tension
With chronic stress and the rigidity that ensues, the tissues of our body are loaded without relief.
The excessive muscular tone prevents optimal blood flow, changes local pH, and may cause shortening of the muscles over time.
Holding a five-pound weight in an isometric biceps curl isn’t too bad for most of us for a few seconds or minutes. Imagine carrying it all day. Think your biceps, elbow, and eventually that whole side of your body would get a little sore? Many clients I see are carrying an imaginary weight around with them every single day. It’s exhausting and many never realize they’re living with such tension.
Has stress stressed your system?
To be clear there are numerous, more technical markers of stress that we don’t have the space to address here. But here are a few ways to self-check:
1) Resting muscle tone
Lay on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Reach underneath your lumbar spine with one hand. Can you fit your hand underneath your back? If you feel a space between your spine and the floor, there is likely too much tension in your extensor muscles when they should be at rest.
While on your back, look at your rib cage. Does it flare out at the bottom? Does one side look more flared than the other? This ribcage flare is highly indicative of an overextended spine and altered breathing pattern.
As I described above, the inability to relax the spine and drop the ribcage is indicative of a chronic stress response.
2) Breathing rate and breath-holding
Staying in this hooklying position, what is your resting breathing rate? I like my clients to stay in the 10-14 range or lower. It can be difficult to count on your own as conscious attention to breathing can override the subconscious, automated rate so it may be worth having someone else count when you’re not paying attention.
With chronic adaptation to stress, we tend to adopt a rapid, shallow breathing pattern.
Also pay attention to how often you are holding your breath, particularly during training movements. You only need to hold your breath when above 70% of a one-repetition maximum lift.
Often, athletes will have learned to hold their breath even when only performing bodyweight exercises.
We even hold it when working on our computers – known as screen apnea. This serves to only amplify stressors as breath holding charges up the fight/flight response adding tension to the system.
3) High-tension strategies
Something I see commonly in treating and training movement is the chronic use of high tension movement strategies.
Performing low-level movements such as a bodyweight squat should not require high amounts of muscular tension for normal human. However, excessive tone often pervades these movements especially when asked to perform them slowly.
If you feel like you’re gassed or tensed up after a few reps that require minimal resistance, it may be that you have learned to over-recruit your muscles secondary to high levels of chronic stress.
How do I get rid of stress
and move better?
There are lots of ways to reduce the effects of stress on movement and improve our performance; here are a few ideas to reduce rigidity.
1) Slow movements
Moving slowly allows for adequate time to judge the sensory information our brain is receiving which helps change attentional focus and reduce conditioned patterns of high tension.
For more on reducing high-tension movement strategies, read this.
2) Resonant frequency breathing
Our heart rate naturally increases with inhalation and decreases with exhalation – this is referred to as respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA).
If we are stressed and stuck in a state of inhalation our heart rate pounds like a metronome, adding rigidity to the system.
Resonant frequency breathing is dependent on each person but typically occurs at 4.5-7.0 breaths per minute coinciding with their own low-frequency oscillations (for more read the article by Lehrer that I cited in the References).
An easy protocol to follow is to lie on your back with knees bent. Breathe slowly at a pace of 4 seconds in and 6 seconds out. I usually have clients do this for 15 minutes per day as it’s been proven to increase relaxation and reduce system rigidity. There are a few apps that provide visual guidance to help with breath pacing. I recommend Larva Labs Breath Pacer and Breathe2Relax.
3) Exhalation training
Focusing on the exhalation phase of breathing helps to calm the nervous system (by lowering heart rate thru the vagus nerve) and brings our ribs and spine into relative flexion. This spinal neutrality (from extension towards flexion) centers the joints and allows for better rotation, which improves our movement variability.
Here are a few ideas to promote our capacity to get air out:
So while stressors are inherent to our modern lifestyle, our stress response and its effect on how we move doesn’t have to be.
By using movement practices to reduce stress we can better integrate our body and minds.
McEwen, B. Physiology and Neurobiology of Stress and Adaptation: Central Role of the Brain. Physiol Rev 87: 873–904, 2007
Stergiou, N. and Decker, LM.Human Movement Variability, Nonlinear Dynamics, and Pathology: Is There A Connection? Hum Mov Sci. 2011 October ; 30(5): 869–888
P M Lehrer., EG Vaschillo., B Vaschillo. Resonant frequency biofeedback training to increase cardiac variability: Rationale and manual for training. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback 10/2000; 25(3):177-91.
Dr. Seth Oberst, DPT, SCS, CSCS is a residency-trained, board-certified specialist Doctor of Physical Therapy and strength & conditioning coach. Currently practicing in Atlanta, Georgia, he works with a diverse population of clients from those with chronic pain and fatigue to competitive age-division, CrossFit, professional, and Olympic athletes. Dr. Oberst specializes in optimizing movement and behavior to reduce dysfunction and improve resiliency, adaptability, and self-regulation.
For more from Seth check out his website.
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This article was updated in March 2021.