Stress + Its Impact on Pelvic Health
By Aliya Dhalla
Pelvic Health PT, Educator & Coach
One thing is for certain: stress is a fact of life. Stress itself is simply a reaction to something challenging, difficult, or dangerous. If you’ve ever wondered why your neck is sore when you’re stressed, you’re grinding your teeth at night when you have a big deadline coming up, or your leaks and pain feel so much worse when you’re overwhelmed, then you need to read on. This article will go over what stress is and how it shows up in your body – including your pelvic floor. I’ll also share my top tips for managing stress and reducing its impact on your pelvic health.
What is Stress?
Stress is a hardwired reaction to danger. Our nervous system gets ready to fight, flee, or freeze. We become more alert and aware and have a boost of energy to get things done and to solve problems. In many cases, a stress response can be a good thing. If we think about what might happen when we see a bear – we would likely run away from that bear, faster than we’ve ever run before! That is a helpful reaction to a very dangerous situation. Short term stress can be helpful and protective and can even help us grow. For example, muscle and bone need physical stress to grow.
Although short term stress might be a good and unavoidable thing, over the long term, chronic stress can lead to serious problems. Our daily lives regularly include stressful situations like getting stuck in traffic, and getting in a fight with your partner or your mom, deadlines at work, and catastrophic world events. There are also things that can cause longer term stress in our day to day lives like poverty, discrimination based on gender, race, sexual orientation and trauma (emotional, physical, and sexual). Any combination of these stressors can lead us to feel stressed on a daily basis. Interestingly, research shows us that women are more likely than men to feel symptoms of chronic stress such as back pain, acne, rashes, headaches, stomach aches, forgetfulness, a lack of energy or focus, over or under eating, irritability, difficulty sleeping, drug and alcohol misuse, less interest in sex, and general disinterest in other things that were previously enjoyed.
Stress and the Pelvic Floor
We are all different in where we hold stress or feel stress in our bodies. Some of us grind our teeth, have jaw pain, have a sore neck or throw out our back. Others notice a change in bowel habits, more leaks, and strong + frequent urges to empty their bladder.
When it comes to the pelvic floor, physical and mental stress can cause our pelvic floor muscles to actively contract— this is called the pelvic-stress reflex response—and this can lead to pelvic floor dysfunction and overactivity of the pelvic floor muscles. This can show up in our bodies as many things, including:
- Pelvic pain
- Low back or hip pain
- Pain with sex
- Incontinence (leaks)
- Strong + frequent urges
- Increased prolapse symptoms
Something I encourage you to do is to check in with your body. Where do you hold tension when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed? If you find that your inner thighs, your glutes, your belly, or your pelvic floor are held tight when you’re stressed, I encourage you to take a slow and deep breath in and relax all those muscles as you breathe out. Check in with your body while you’re sitting at your desk working on a deadline. Check in with your body while you’re rushing to make dinner while your children are having tantrums. Check in with your body when you’re brushing your teeth or standing in line at the grocery store. You’ll be amazed as to what your body is doing without realizing it. Allowing your body the chance to intentionally release tension is an important first step, especially if you are feeling some uncomfortable pelvic floor symptoms.
3 Tips to Manage Stress
Although stress is not something we can avoid, we can definitely take steps to ensure that we are not slipping into a chronic stress response without even realizing it!
Here are 3 tips to keep your pelvic floor happy, even when you’re stressed:
- Do regular check-ins: What are your inner thighs, glutes, belly and pelvic floor doing when you’re stressed? Notice where you tend to hold tension and give yourself the permission to let that tension go
- Practice diaphragmatic breathing: Breathing diaphragmatically helps settle your nervous system down, can make you feel more calm in that moment, and can even help your pelvic floor relax
- Prioritize stretching, mobility, and relaxation exercises over kegels and pelvic floor strengthening exercises: If you’ve checked in with your body and learned that you tend to hold tension in and around your pelvic floor, spend more time on gentle stretching + mobility to help that tension melt away. When our muscles are too tense, tightening them more with kegels can sometimes make things worse!
And if you’re looking for guidance on your journey to better pelvic health, my Pelvic Floor Mobility Program is a self-paced program designed to improve your pelvic floor symptoms with a whole-body approach. From foundational breathwork, pelvic floor stretching, full body mobility, core + pelvic floor strengthening, mindfulness and more, this program includes short follow-along videos where I guide you towards a life with less annoying pelvic floor symptoms and more freedom and joy.
Aliya is a physiotherapist with 12 years of experience. She focuses exclusively on women’s health + pelvic health, including prenatal and postpartum pelvic health, incontinence, painful intimacy, and pelvic pain and teaching the right pelvic floor exercises for the person, situation, and their goals.