It isn’t all in your mind. Stress affects your health at every level. Learn how to combat the negative effects of stress on your body, mind and spirit.
by Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D.
“But he was so young!” “But there wasn’t anything wrong with her!” Have you heard of someone you know–maybe a friend or a relative, maybe someone famous you admire–dying, suddenly? It’s hard to take it in; we don’t want to believe that these things can happen, especially when someone is only in their middle ages. It forces us to look at our own lives. Are we taking the time to take care of ourselves? Or are we rushing around from one crisis to another, always stressed out?
Stress is the body’s natural reaction to any difficulties that appear in our lives, physically or emotionally. It’s a normal response to adverse conditions. It’s actually healthy to experience some low-degree, short-term stress occasionally, because this lets the body practice protecting itself. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle creates a lot of stressful situations for us to endure, and most people are not taught or encouraged to release the effects of stress from our bodies and minds. When stress builds up, it can lead to serious health problems. It may be that when you go to an M.D. who orders tests, nothing shows up in a scan or a blood test. But that may not mean you don’t have a serious problem.
Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and illnesses and affect overall health and wellbeing. Many diseases, including 90% of cancers, can be linked to stress. A recent study from AARP found that 37% of adults over 50 have experienced a major stressful life event in the past year. Job changes, the illness or death of a family member, relationship issues, financial or business difficulties, caring for and educating children – we all face these stressors at one time or another. For some people, the problems begin in childhood. If a child experiences trauma–parents fighting, or bullying at school, for example–that kind of severe stress can develop into permanent health problems as he or she grows up.
TCM is based on the philosophy that the body, mind, and spirit are inextricably linked. It is only in recent years that Western science has begun to acknowledge the connection between the emotions and our physical health. In TCM, we always look at the whole person. If the emotions are out of balance, the body’s functions will be, too. Keep in mind that without a spirit, the body is nothing more than a container: a box. Likewise, if the body is not healthy, the spirit doesn’t have a good home to live in. That is why we treat stress, emotional fluctuations, and balance the body’s organ systems all at the same time with acupuncture.
What Stress Can Do To Your Body
Stress can affect all systems in the body. It starts with the central nervous system and the endocrine system. When something unusual happens, the brain gets a signal: something needs to be done! The brain sends out a message, alerting the body to start producing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases the heart rate, elevates the blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisone increases sugar in the bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose and increases the body’s ability to repair tissues.
In the short term, the body is doing what it needs to protect itself. But if you are under this kind of stress constantly–think about it–your body will keep producing adrenaline, causing the heart to beat constantly at a high rate and keep the blood pressure high. Eventually, the body will become exhausted, leading to chronic fatigue, hypertension, diabetes, risk of stroke and heart attack. The lungs become vulnerable, which can trigger asthma. When the cortisone level is high, it causes a constant immune response. Eventually, the immune system becomes imbalanced.
Long term stress can cause the body to lose the ability to shut off the alert that says something is wrong: what we call the “fight or flight” response. Say you send a soldier to a war zone. The soldier’s job is to shoot the enemy. When the enemy approaches, the soldier starts to shoot. But if the soldier is there fighting for days, weeks, years, and his job is to keep shooting, at some point he stops recognizing who is an enemy or who is an ally. He will shoot anybody. Likewise, the body loses the ability to recognize what is good and what is not good. This is what creates an autoimmune condition, like ALS, MS, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis.
When a person is under chronic stress, the liver has to work much harder. We rely on the liver to clean the blood, but if it gets tired out, it can’t do its job. So toxins don’t always come from outside the body; they can come from stress, when the body becomes more acidic and toxic, increasing inflammation and risk of cancer.
When we’re upset, the appetite changes, causing us to eat too much or too little, affecting our nutrition. Many digestive problems are related to long term stress: heartburn and reflux, ulcers, cramping, nausea, vomiting, obesity, constipation, bloat, IBS, diarrhea. Sometimes stress shows itself externally, on the surface of the skin, as with eczema or psoriasis.
Stress causes the muscles to become tight and makes the nerves more sensitive. This causes more pain and inflammation.
The reproductive system and the sex drive are, naturally, affected by hormone imbalances, too. For women, this can cause PMS, fertility issues related to ovarian function, blocked tubes, or unstable uterine lining, and more severe menopausal symptoms. For men, long term stress can cause the testosterone level to drop, the prostate and the urethra to become inflamed and prone to infection. With all of this, it is no wonder that libido and sexual function take a dive, too.