How the body responds to stress

To our Neanderthal forefathers, stress was an essential component of survival. That burst of adrenaline brought on by an encounter with a sabre-tooth tiger gave them the speed to flee or the strength to kill the monstrous beast.
Today’s challenges might not include facing hungry carnivores, but office politics, TV news, and dodging minibus taxis make for an equally stressful life – only now, running away is not an option.

Initially, feeling stressed is a positive response that enables us to complete tasks quickly and efficiently. But over time, stress build-up takes its toll on our bodies, usually on those areas that are genetically weak, and can lead to chronic illness. Dr Arien van der Merwe (GP and Stress Management consultant) warns that most, if not all, diseases have their foundations in prolonged and ill-managed stress. This, together with a predisposing genetic defect that determines the weak link in the body, will, for example, lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer, slower recovery after operations and infections, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, asthma, eczema and many other disorders.

Because there are so many different manifestations of stress build-up, stress is often not recognised as the cause of illness. Worse still, once identified, many try to ignore it, fearing it is a sign of weakness.

The Stress Spiral
Stress can be an ever increasing, out of control spiral. When we do not remove stress hormones through deliberate relaxation, or by using the fight or flight response, our brain takes that to mean that we are not sufficiently prepared for fight of flight. If you were a Neanderthal being chased by a sabre toothed tiger, this would be a severe problem. Survival demands that our autonomic system comes to the rescue by pumping more and more stress hormones into our system, until we show signs of fight or flight, or deliberate relaxation.

The stress response

When we are first stressed, the brain signals the release of adrenalin and cortisol. These are  hormones that boost our blood sugar and oxygen levels, push more blood to the brain, the result is increased alertness. The average “adrenalin rush” experienced while in traffic supplies enough glucose to keep you running for a mile.

In the short term stress suppresses the immune system, increasing the risk of infections; slows down the body’s rate of repair; slows down the metabolism; robs the body of vital nutrients.

And the symptoms can be: recurrent headaches; vague aches and pains; dizziness; heartburn; muscle tension; dry mouth; excessive perspiration; pounding heart; insomnia; fatigue.

Medium term, as we become more and more stressed out, so our body begins to adapt to the high level of stress hormones. As a result we feel increasingly anxious, fatigued and prone to mood swings.

Long-term stress: promotes rapid ageing; leads to weight gain; increases the risk of developing osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer and digestive problems.

When we find your ourselves stuck in the stress response and it is chronic, we become exhausted and depleted of vitamins and minerals. Our energy plummets and our bodies ability to produce adrenalin decreases. Consequently our emotions take a dive and we may experience the following:

  • Anxiety, fear, restlessness
  • Irritability, anger
  • Depression
  • Insecurity
  • Loss of libido
  • Impaired memory and concentration
  • Excessive smoking and / or drinking

The good news is that we can recover and I am going to tell you how.

Go with the fight or flight response. Yes, yes, sucker punching client  is probably not the best career move, and running for it does not score brownie points. But physical exercise (5 times a week) will act as the flight or fight response would, by using the body’s preparation for fight or flight and thereby lowering stress hormones to manageable levels.

Regular, deliberate relaxation. Using techniques to lower or remove stress hormone build up from our systems, such a floatation therapy, massage and meditation allow the body to naturally remove stress hormones from the body.

The signs of stress
and what to do….

Many headaches are caused by stress. Tension headaches feel like a band tightening around the head. Relaxation, just like tension is a learned response. With regular floating, you can teach your body to relax, and learn what it feels like to be relaxed even outside of the tank. The weightless environment of the floatation tank means that you do not have to support your body against gravity. Deep physical and mental relaxation follows.

Back and neck pain
In mind body medicine, there is a clear relationship between lower-back pain and stress says Dr van der Merwe.
Again, relaxation techniques are the answer. In the floatation tank, you are able to take quality time out, and reach deep relaxation very quickly and without years of training or practice. With regular massage, both the mind body relax.

Anxiety and PTSD

When the fight or flight stress response is high, you are, of course, much quicker to trigger to anxiety, even in situations for which the anxiety response is completely uncalled for. A lot of research is being done right now about floatation for Anxiety, and PTSD, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and it is proving to be a very powerful tool. Check out that research here

To combat this, breath deeply and relax your body starting with your toes and working your way up to the top of your head. Take Calcium and Magnesium supplements before going to bed, and avoid caffeine as much as possible (esp. after 4pm)
Floatation is excellent for insomnia because of the way your body works to decrease stress hormones and increase relaxation hormones when floating. When we are in the throws of the fight or flight response for so many hours a day, it puts us into a state for high alertness for danger, this is not a state that tells your body that it is safe to go to sleep! Clients report that floating enables them to fall asleep easier and sleep better after float sessions.

Heart disease
The body’s release of adrenaline during stressful events raises the heart rate and blood pressure. Adrenaline also stimulates a release of fat from the fat cells into the blood stream to supply energy for the fight or flight response. If unused, this fat is deposited on the arteries. The New England journal of Medicine (Jan 98) published a study that indicates that surges of blood pressure can trigger heart attacks in susceptible people. Repeated elevations of blood pressure over periods of weeks and months accelerate atherosclerosis (thickening of the arteries) thereby increasing the risk of heart attacks.

Arthritis is often aggravated by stress. Learning to manage that stress can help to relieve some pain. Floatation not only reduces stress, in addition, the brain releases endorphins while floating. Endorphins are the bodies natural pain killer. Massage helps to release the muscles that are tightening up around the body in response to pain, and encourage us to feel good about our bodies again.

Sore muscles
Stress related aches and pains occur when the muscles contract in response to stressful events, increasing the production of lactic acid and leading to pain. In the weightless, warm environment of the floatation tank, you are able to deeply relax your muscles. The Epson salts in the water also help the body to rid itself of lactic acid in the muscles, while the endorphins released by the brain during floating help with pain relief.

Peptic Ulcers
In a stressful situation your digestive system slows down, freeing your body’s energy for fight or flight. The stomach however continues to excrete acid, and ulcers may develop. “Using relaxation techniques goes a long way to preventing the onset of stress related illnesses” says Dr van der Merwe.

Tendency to get sick easily
High levels of stress hormones dampen the functioning of the autoimmune system, leaving you more likely to catch whatever is floating around. Floating decreases the levels of stress hormones in the body, thereby leaving your autoimmune system better able to fight off illness.

Digestion Problems

Blood moves from the intestines, when the body turns its focus to survival instead of  healthy day to day functioning. This often results in digestive problems for stressed individuals.


The sudden de-stimulation of large areas of the nervous system that occurs during a float session, triggers a spontaneous chain-reaction throughout the body to remove stress and leave you feeling wonderful. The whole body chemistry changes!

Blood testing indicates that floating reduces the levels of stress and stress related neurochemicals such as adrenaline,  cortisol, ACTH. It is high levels of these chemicals in the blood stream that leave you feeling “Stressed out”. It is also because of these chemicals that stress is so bad for your health, causing heart disease and hampering in the functioning of your immune system.
Floating also increases in levels of endorphins which helps both to relieve pain, and improve your mood.  

Floating is the ultimate stress buster. It does not require any effort at all on your part, just lie back, enjoy the sensation and let it happen.

Do you need to float? Do this simple stress test  

Is your energy less now then it used to be?

Do you feel guilty when relaxing?

Do you have a persistent need for achievement?

Are you unclear about your goals in life?

Are you especially competitive or aggressive?

Do you work harder then most people?

Do you easily become angry or irritable?

Do you often do 2 or 3 task simultaneously?

Do you get impatient if people or things hold you up?

Do you have difficulty delegating?

Do you eat quickly?

Do you smoke or drink excessively (especially by others’ standards)?

Do you have difficulty getting to sleep?

Do you have aching limbs or recurring headaches?

Do you have a dry mouth or sweaty palms?

Do you feel a lack of interest in sex?

Are your muscles tense?

If you answered yes to 8 or more of these questions you are in the HIGH stress category.

* Disclaimer: Floatation is an experience unique to each individual, as such, the experience and results may vary from person to person