“Everyone deals with stress differently. For some, stress may result in a headache, and for others, it may be more musculoskeletal-related due to muscle tension, biomechanics, and overall individual sensitivities,” Jackie Sutera, DPM, a podiatrist with Vionic Labs says.
According to Dr. Sutera, a musculoskeletal response to stress—in other words, a reaction in our bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and soft tissues—is caused by a pesky biological process known as a “fight or flight response.”
When we are in the grip of extreme stress, our bodies go into a state of fight or flight. The sympathetic nervous system is activated, and stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released, preparing our bodies to fight off a physical threat or run away. Fight or flight protected humans when we lived in nature and would have the occasional brush with predatory animals like bears or mountain lions. And though most of us no longer live with the fear of being ravaged by wild animals, we still experience the physical symptoms of fight or flight when we are afraid, anxious, or stressed out. And this can affect our feet in a few different ways.
Three ways your feet are telling you you’re stressed
No, not the marriage kind. Literal cold feet can be a sign that you are in a state of high anxiety. This is because, during fight or flight, blood and oxygen rush to center mass and all of the major organs, leaving less available for far extremities like your hands and feet. If you’re finding cold feet cumbersome, Dr. Sutera recommends you “take your shoes off and soak your feet in a warm water and Epsom salt bath for 15-20 minutes, and you can even add your favorite essential oil.” The magnesium contained in Epsom salt is thought to help stabilize mood and relieve stress, while essential oils—and aromatherapy in general—is a centuries-old holistic treatment for anxiety.
Numb or tingling feet
You may find that numbness and tingling go hand-in-hand (or, more appropriately, foot-in-foot) with having cold feet. When blood and oxygen in your feet are called for duty in another part of your body, your feet can start feeling like they’re on pins-and-needles or like they’re asleep. To wake those babies up, Dr. Sutera says you should “do some gentle massage and stretches to your feet and legs.” And, if you can bear it, stand up and walk around, stretching those tingles out of your feet as you go.
Decreased flexibility and discomfort in your feet
According to Dr. Sutera, fight or flight can cause muscle tension all over the body. But when that tension is in our feet, it can be acutely uncomfortable. Every step we take aggravates that muscle tension, which can often become outright painful. For this, Dr. Sutera says some gentle massaging is again in order. “Compression socks or ace bandages can help reduce swelling and reenergize feet and legs as well. You can also use ice and anti-inflammatories, and your doctor in more severe cases may prescribe prescription muscle relaxers.”
As is the case with most ailments, the best way to treat them is to go right to the source. Lowering your stress levels, investing in self-care, and seeking out professional support can go a long way to calm your stressed-out feet. But, more importantly, these practices can help manage your stressed mind, so you find yourself in fight or flight a little less often.
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