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Coping With Stress

by Mary Martin(more info)

listed in reflexology, originally published in issue 157 - April 2009

Stress has been described as a 21st century plague. The correlation between stress and depressed immune function is well documented. About 70% of disorders are directly or indirectly related to stress. These include hypertension, heart disease, insomnia, onset of malignancy, depression and digestive disorders.

Doctors understand this but do not have the time to spend on getting to the underlying causes of stress. A GP's average consultation lasts 10 minutes or less. Treating symptoms with drugs offers short-term benefits.. Patients are concerned about side-effects and also dislike this impersonal approach, whereas Reflexology does not conflict with orthodox treatment. Many people are choosing Reflexology as a non-invasive way of coping with stress.

What Does Reflexology Offer?

Touch Technique

The sympathetic nervous system initiates the stress response. Reflexology activates the parasympathetic nervous system that is concerned with relaxation and recuperation. This helps patients move from being stuck in the sympathetic overactive state to one of deep relaxation. The effect is cumulative, and allows the body's systems to achieve normal balance . Studies show that if stress is managed properly, the immune system returns to normal. This lessens the likelihood of chronic health problems. It is also easier to face difficulties when mentally and physically relaxed.

Tension is held in the muscles which affects nerves and circulation. Existing conditions such as backache, neck pain, headaches, joint pain or sciatica are exacerbated by this. As muscular tension is released, pain is lessened. As nerve function improves and blood and lymph circulates freely, overall health and wellbeing improves. Touch is also a basic form of communication to convey empathy.


Empathy and understanding are therapeutic in themselves. Reflexology is a patient-centred therapy, built on good practitioner/patient relationships. Relationships that are built on trust where patients are empowered and supported in making the necessary changes in their lives. It is very important to devote sufficient time to this. Reflexology practice acknowledges the interaction of the mind, body and spirit. Stress can be mental, physical or emotional and so this is significant.

Case Example

Louise suffered from chronic eczema covering her face and body. It had an adverse psychological effect on her. She then went off to university where she was virtually free of it. After returning home her eczema became chronic.

When I saw Louise she was very stressed and avoided eye-contact. Her self-esteem was low. Her face and back were covered in eczema. I warned her that Reflexology brings symptoms out and that her eczema might get worse initially. This was the case and then her eczema cleared.
It became apparent that her condition was exacerbated by the stress of an overbearing parent. Louise was relieved to discuss this delicate problem. She became relaxed and confident and decided to leave home for the sake of her health. Without reflexology, none of this would have happened.

Cancer Care

Coping with cancer is very stressful. Reflexology is particularly helpful in calming and supporting cancer patients. In many cases it relieves the side-effects of cancer treatments. It can also provide pain relief and functional improvement.

The Stress Response

Understanding how the body responds to stress makes us aware of how persistent exposure to stress causes disorders. Our primitive ancestors had to face life-threatening challenges such as attacks from wild animals. The body is programmed to respond to physical threats, instantly, via complex biological changes. This is called the 'fight or flight' response because there is only a split second to decide when to fight or flee.

The stressors we face today are usually of a psychological nature. They can relate to stress associated with relationships, employment, finance, housing or commuting etc. The body has not adapted to the rapid changes in modern society. It responds, as it has for centuries, by preparing for emergency physical action. Persistent stress takes its toll on health when the body is constantly placed in a high state of alert:
  • Muscles tense ready for action;
  • Heart-rate speeds up to circulate more blood to the muscles, brain and lungs;
  • Blood pressure rises;
  • Spleen pours more red blood cells into the bloodstream;
  • The airways dilate to increase oxygen intake from the lungs to the bloodstream;
  • Breathing becomes deeper and more rapid;
  • The hormone noradrenaline increases the rate at which blood clots in case of injury;
  • Stored glucose from the liver and fats stored in tissues are mobilized to supply extra fuel for the body;
  • The steroid hormone cortisol is released to reduce inflammation and to heal wounds. It suppresses allergic reactions;
  • Mental alertness and senses are sharpened. Pupils dilate to improve vision and hearing becomes more acute.

How Stress Contributes To Illness

Stress can be modified, but not eliminated; it needs to be managed. A moderate amount of stress is essential to help us attain our goals. It is the repeated or prolonged exposure to stress that invariably contributes to disorder. In prolonged, distressing situations we want to run away but cannot - we try to cope. This results in the release of an excessive amount of the steroid hormone, cortisol. Overproduction of cortisol suppresses the immune system.

In cases of non-threatening, lengthy challenges we may feel like fighting. If this is not possible, we experience feelings of frustration and anger. This results in the overproduction of the hormone, noradrenaline. It shows how feelings and emotions affect the activation of the stress response.

For example, Eleanor was undergoing a long and difficult divorce. She felt her security was threatened, both emotionally and financially. Her sleep was disturbed. Too much adrenaline had raised her heart-rate, making her agitated and fatigued. She experienced palpitations and had been diagnosed with high blood pressure and prescribed medication.

Her immune system was suppressed and she has had several colds and throat infections. She was angry and wanted to hit out at those responsible, but could not. It gnawed away at her as she tried to cope. Eleanor should have sought help sooner, but now Reflexology has reduced her stress levels.


Research shows that stress has a negative effect on the immune system. There are cells that kill viral-infected cells and they are also anti-bacterial. These particular cells are also considered to prevent the formation of tumours and limit metastatic disease. Studies demonstrate that the function of these cells is reduced in animals and humans who are living in stressful conditions. When they escape from the stress their immune function improves.

Studies have shown that social support lessens susceptibility to infection. Patients with melanoma attended group therapy to reduce psychological distress. This produced improvement in the quantity and function of different types of killer cells. Research also showed that such intervention created a significant increase in patients' survival time


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About Mary Martin

A qualified teacher, Mary Martin established her School of Reflexology in 1987. She founded the Association of Reflexologists in 1984 and is an Honorary Life Member. Previously she practised as a Gerson therapist. Mary belongs to a network of therapists attached to the cancer centre at Mount Vernon Hospital. She has had a busy practice in Ruislip since 1983. She may be contacted on Tel: 01895 635621;

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