Most of us know what it feels like to be “stressed out.” We know how too much stress can affect us, and we also hear that reducing stress is an important key to our health and well-being. Just relax! So much easier said than done. Read on to discover how Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture, and other healing modalities and practices, can help you live a more stress-free life. But first, let’s review what stress is, and why chronic stress is a problem.
What is stress?
Stress is defined as an organism’s total response to environmental demands or pressures. It’s not always bad! It’s how we are able to rise to an occasion, learn things outside our comfort zone, take on challenges. In some situations, it is life-saving. The stress response involves physiological changes, including the well-known fight-or-flight response, that are geared toward optimizing survival. However, if the stress response goes on too long or becomes chronic, it can have negative effects on our health and well-being. Sources of stress include adverse events, social situations, psychological conditions, illness, or physical injury (including from medical procedures). (1)
Why is chronic stress a problem?
Unalleviated, chronic stress can cause an array of symptoms and health problems. Different people experience the impact of chronic stress differently. Typical symptoms might include:
- Skin changes – Buildup of cortisol (the “stress hormone”) causes skin to appear dull and dehydrated.
- Digestive issues – Heartburn and upset stomach result when stress causes the body to shift blood used in the digestive process to other parts of the body where it can fuel the fight/flight response.
- Immune system impairment – Minor stress will stimulate the immune system which helps us fight off illness and heal from injury. However, chronic stress can impair immune cells and impede the body’s immune responses, increasing the risk of getting sick and taking longer to heal.
- Circulatory system problems – When the elevation of heart rate and blood pressure caused by the stress response becomes chronic, the result can be sustained high blood pressure (hypertension), which then puts more stress on the blood vessels, increasing the risk of stroke or heart attack.
- Musculoskeletal aches and pains – Stress-induced muscle tension without opportunity to relax leads to various chronic pain conditions. Headaches, back, neck and shoulder pain are common results of chronic stress.
- Behavioral symptoms – The physical imbalances of chronic stress can feed into behaviors like avoidance, self-isolation, loss of interest, irritability, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, difficulty relating to others. Seeking relief in dysfunctional coping habits like excessive alcohol use is another behavioral symptom.
- Emotional symptoms – Anxiety and depression are commonly related to unalleviated stress.
Alleviating the Effects of Chronic Stress
Does thinking about all the ways that stress can be bad for you, um, stress you out? Fear not. There are myriad approaches available for reducing the impact of stress, many of which we offer at CCHW! Here are a few:
- Acupuncture – It’s like physical therapy for the nervous system. It brings the body back into balance and calms the stress response by, for example, reducing cortisol levels or changing neuron functioning. (2,3,4)
- Herbal formulas – There are several herbs and herbal formulas used in TCM to alleviate symptoms of chronic stress. (5)
- Essential oils – Anxiety, a common symptom of stress, can be alleviated through the use of calming essential oils.
- Reiki – Studies document that a Reiki treatment lowers cortisol, the stress hormone. Combining Reiki with acupuncture can enhance the stress-alleviating effects. (6) Learning Reiki for yourself, and incorporating its practices into your life, can be a powerful way to supplement other modalities for managing the effects of stress in your life.
- Diet – TCM can offer nutritional advice on foods that help alleviate the imbalances of chronic stress, and also to help handle day-to-day stresses more effectively, for example, the stress of seasonal changes. (7)
- Allergy elimination – In some cases, a source of chronic stress may be sensitivities to elements in the environment, which can be identified and treated using NAET (Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Techniques).
Figuring out what will work best for stress-related problems involves investigating and understanding the source(s) of stress in your life, assessing the symptoms, and finding the method or combination of methods that will be most effective.
- Five Things You Should Know About Stress. National Institute of Mental Health Fact Sheet. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml#pub4
- Acupuncture Effects on the Stress Level in Administrative Workers. Annals of Yoga and Physical Therapy, June 14, 2017. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Cleria_Maria_Bittar2/publication/319186420_Annals_of_Yoga_and_Physical_Therapy/links/599a18daa6fdcc261586b19b/Annals-of-Yoga-and-Physical-Therapy.pdf
- Acupuncture Relieves Stress: New Understanding of Why the Ancient Practice Eases Anxiety. 03/16/2013 Huffpost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/acupuncture-could-help-prevent-stress_n_2883996
- Gentle Treatment for General Anxiety Disorder, Posttraumatic Stress and Episodic Anxiety. Acupuncture Today – March, 2002, Vol. 03, Issue 03. https://www.acupuncturetoday.com/mpacms/at/article.php?id=27927
- Chinese Medicine for Stress Relief. AOMA Blog, Nov 26, 2014. http://blog.aoma.edu/blog/chinese-medicine-for-stress-relief
- It’s All About that Ki: Using Reiki to Infuse Acupuncture Treatments, by Teri Calandra. Acupuncture Today, August 2018
- Foods for Anxiety: What Your Body Needs to Stay Calm, Centered and Happy, by Heather Lounsbury, L.Ac. Conscious Lifestyle Magazine, December 19, 2018. https://www.consciouslifestylemag.com/foods-for-anxiety-body-calm/