by Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D.
Nowadays, we hear pretty constantly that everyone is “under a lot of stress.” But what is stress?
Stress is a natural reaction in the body to any difficulties or changes that we face in life. Stress affects health at every level: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Stress can bring a lot of negative effects to your health and your career. TCM and acupuncture offer a unique treatment to stress management without any of the side effects that anti-depression drugs cause. Acupuncture treatment often brings people immediate stress relief, as they leave the clinic feeling calm, relaxed, sometime even euphoric. But TCM and acupuncture can also provide meaningful reduction in the toxic effects of long-term stress over time.
In this article we will discuss stressors, stress symptoms, and how to combat the negative effects of stress on your body, mind and spirit.
What Are Stress Symptoms?
“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 middle aged. 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 their bodies and minds. When stress builds up, it can lead to 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 does not mean you don’t have a serious problem.
Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and illnesses and affect overall health and well-being. Many diseases, including cancer, can be linked to stress. 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.
What Does Stress 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.
The body’s initial reaction to stress is 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, and allergic reactions such as eczema or hives rash. When the cortisone level is high, it causes a constant immune response. Eventually, the immune system becomes imbalanced.
When stressful periods are prolonged, the body can 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. Stressful life events are often a main factor in the onset of an autoimmune condition, like ALS, MS, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis. When a person has experienced shocking, perhaps life-threatening, events such as being attacked or surviving in a war zone, he or she may exhibit PTSD symptoms, depression, or panic attacks.
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. Liver Qi problems are a major factor in women’s health problems, including PMS and PMDD.
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. 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 (erectile dysfunction) take a dive, too.
Stress Management by TCM and Acupuncture
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.
Acupuncture is one great way to help you manage your stress and protect you from permanent health damage. Even though you may not be able to avoid stress, you do have the power to manage stress better so that it can’t build up, hurt you internally, and turn into serious health issues.
Top 7 Habits for Stress Relief
Every day, we encounter people and situations that cause frustration. Sometimes several minor incidents over the course of a day can build up until we feel we are at the end of our ability to cope. Other times, we are hit with a big problem that we have no choice but to face. These stressors are unavoidable. What we can do is pay attention to our responses, and train ourselves to respond more calmly when situations arise.
Here are some things you can do in your daily life to manage stress.
- Change the way you view problems. It is human nature to protect ourselves from danger by recognizing the negative energies coming at us. But we can become too accustomed to looking for the “dark side.”A lot of time we needlessly take things negatively. Say you wake up to the sounds of a bird, chattering in a tree. You can think, “Ah, the beautiful music of nature!” Or you can get annoyed. Same situation, different response. Learn how to think positively. Often I ask a patient to “show me your hand.” They show me the palm side, but don’t think to look at the back of the hand. In the world, nothing can exist that has one side only. This is the concept of Yin and Yang; nothing is only good or only bad. There is good and bad in everything. Learn to pay attention to both, but “accentuate the positive.”
- Connect yourself to nature; consciously choose to make yourself one with the Universe. Connect to energy outside of yourself by going to the mountains or the
beach, walking barefoot on the sand and listening to the waves. Sit by a river and feel the flow of the water. When you feel anger inside, go out and face something – a mountain, or the woods – breathe out, remove that negative energy from your body, absorb positive energy; make that exchange. By doing this, you gain the perspective of playing a small, yet integral part within the greatness of the universe. This will release stress and give you new strength.
- Learn some techniques: Tai Chi, yoga, meditation, Qi Gong. Tai Chi, for example, trains you physically and emotionally at the same time, cultivating your internal Qi. Deep breathing will make your body more balanced and calm; exhale negative energy and inhale fresh air and energy.
- Engage in regular physical activity, especially cardiovascular varieties. Walk, jog, bike, swim. Going outdoors, getting fresh air and sunshine, is even more beneficial than going to the gym.
- Encourage yourself to engage in some social activity. Stress can cause sadness and depression. People tend to close themselves off. So, you must push yourself to go out, keep up your activities. Talking with friends will release the stagnation from your body and mind. Sign up to volunteer; helping other people will reduce your stress.
- Take time for a hobby. Whatever you enjoy: walking, swimming, reading, listening to music, going to dance class, fishing, golfing. Do it regularly. But it should be something active for your body or mind. Inactive pastimes– like watching television or playing video games, surfing the internet–may seem relaxing, but they can actually increase stress long term. Keep time spent on those passive activities to a minimum.
- Work on your sense of humor! When you laugh, you are happier and so are others around you. Be generous with your positive energy and others will be there to help you when you need it.
Managing stress will pay off, not only by making you happier, but probably also allowing you to enjoy a longer and healthier life. Practicing stress management will help you to recover from existing conditions and prevent other issues from becoming serious in the future. If you need treatment and look for acupuncture near me, come to our clinic Art of Wellness, Santa Monica, Los Angeles, CA. Our clinic is one of the top 19 pick among 825 similar clinics in the great Los Angeles area. Our doctors have over 30 years of experience of practicing TCM and acupuncture.