By June 20, 2022
Oh stress. It feels like our constant companion these days (especially after the past few years!). It’s gotten to the point that most of us feel it’s normal to be at least some level of stressed pretty much all the time. It’s not (normal, that is). And, even though I know you’ve heard it before, I’m going to repeat: Chronic stress has long-term health consequences.
Stress from a Western perspective:
At this point, you’ve probably heard how Western medicine sees stress: Your body goes into fight or flight mode, and it floods with cortisol and adrenaline to help you get out of the situation that’s threatening you. When we stay stressed all the time, those hormone levels also stay elevated and it triggers a constant immune response. Basically our bodies end up constantly functioning in overdrive, which quickly wears us down.
This constant elevated state leads to a whole slew of symptoms, like:
- High blood pressure
- Chronic fatigue
- Increased risk of stroke and heart attack
- Allergic reactions/hives
- Autoimmune conditions like ALS, MS, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis
- PTSD symptoms
- Panic attacks
- Appetite changes – over eating or under eating
- Digestive problems – heartburn, reflux, ulcers, cramping, nausea, vomiting, obesity, constipation, bloat, IBS, diarrhea
- Skin issues – acne, eczema, psoriasis
- Fertility issues – ovarian function, blocked tubes, unstable uterine lining, severe menopause symptoms, drop in testosterone levels, prostate and urethra inflammation
From a Western perspective, treatment typically includes managing whichever symptoms you’re experiencing (often with medications that come with their OWN side effects), and trying to decrease stress levels. Of course, that’s about as far as the advice usually goes – “try to decrease your stress.” Not super helpful.
So how does Traditional Chinese Medicine see stress?
TCM definitely acknowledges all the same symptoms of stress that Western medicine does. However rather than seeking to mask those symptoms, it considers which systems are involved in your particular brand of stress and works to restore balance to those systems. For example, the Liver is often one of the first organs affected by stress, so bringing balance back to the Liver can help to alleviate your symptoms. Long term stress can cause Qi to stagnate in various organ systems and meridians (the “streams” where Qi flows).
As you become more stressed your Liver has to work harder. As the Liver is responsible for cleansing your Qi (and your body), this causes acidic toxins to build up. This increases inflammation in your body, as well as your risk of cancer. Other symptoms of Qi stagnation in your Liver include:
- Rigid and tight muscles of the neck, shoulders, and back
- Pain or distention in the chest and/or ribs
- Feeling like you have something stuck in your throat
- Depression and moodiness
- Frequent sighing
- Agitation or restlessness
- Frequent headaches
- Women’s health problems (PMS and PMDD)
The spleen governs the digestive system. The Liver and Spleen are closely linked because the Spleen relies on the Liver for the smooth flow of Qi through our digestive systems. So once Liver function becomes disrupted, there’s a good chance that the Spleen will follow closely after. Stress symptoms in the Spleen include:
- Stomach cramps
- Abdominal bloating
- Poor appetite
- Chronic fatigue
- Constipation or diarrhea
- A feeling of heaviness over the body
When Qi stagnates in the Liver, it can cause a buildup of “Liver heat.” Just like normal heat, this Liver heat rises and can start to affect the Heart meridian. The heart is responsible not only for overall blood circulation, but also aspects of mental and emotional activity. Symptoms of heart imbalance include:
- High blood pressure
- Heart palpitations
- Coronary heart disease
- Disturbed sleep
Treating stress with Traditional Chinese Medicine
As is often the case, my first line of defense for treating stress in the body is acupuncture. Acupuncture is a phenomenal resource for managing and balancing how Qi flows through the body. Since a core underlying cause of stress symptoms is the stagnation of Qi in the Liver, using acupuncture to get that Qi flowing again can do a lot to help manage your stress and clear the buildup of heat and toxins from your body.
Acupuncture also gives me the ability to target the source of your other stress symptoms, since it is definitely something that manifests in each of us differently. The treatment itself tends to bring people immediate stress relief. Patients often leave their session feeling calm and relaxed (and the time spent relaxing on the table definitely doesn’t hurt either).
I don’t know about you, but my stress tends to manifest itself in neck and shoulder tension. And since a lot of us spend most of our day sitting at a computer desk, these areas can definitely get tight and sore. Cupping is a great way to loosen those muscles and break up the Qi and lymph that can stagnate there.
Depending on your symptoms, there are tons of herbal medicine options to help you manage your stress symptoms. Herbs like dried Hawthorn fruit and mandarin peel can help to manage bloating from digestive symptoms, while Chrysanthemum flowers and mulberry leaf can help your mind relax to promote more restful sleep.
B12 to the rescue! Vitamin B12 is an essential co-factor for your body to function properly on a daily basis. But because of the way that stress can affect your digestion (and diet), you may not be processing the vitamin properly, or even getting enough of it to begin with! B12 injections go directly into your bloodstream to help with fatigue, brain fog, mood changes, insomnia, and heart and digestive issues.
Treating stress outside of TCM
Unfortunately, while I can help you manage and treat your stress, it’s up to you to try to prevent or lessen your stress in the first place. Here are some tips to help you out:
- Change the way you think about stress. I’ve heard a lot about how you should change your self-talk lately, for example: compliment yourself instead of focusing on your flaws. I’ve found it’s really helpful to do something similar when it comes to how you think about stress. When I’m rushing between childcare and work it’s become a habit to think “OMG I’m so stressed out.” But am I? Is this actually stressful, or is this just an everyday activity that doesn’t need to stress me out? I’ve found that when I stop telling myself how stressed out I am, I stop feeling so stressed out.
- Get outside. We live in one of the most beautiful states in the country. We have forests, mountains, lakes, plains, and even sand dunes. If you can’t make it there, then just go outside and take in the grass and the trees around you. Connecting to the natural world is a great way to release stress and lower your cortisol levels.
- Get moving. Regular exercise is proven to help lower cortisol levels and decrease stress. Even just walking for 30 minutes a day can improve your heart health and put you in a better frame of mind to deal with any challenges that may come up in your day.
- Make time for what makes you happy. Call a friend, read a book, or just enjoy a cup of coffee on the front porch swing. No matter how busy you are, you can afford to take 5 minutes to yourself to reset your mood. And it’s amazing what just a few minutes can do to help you manage your stress.
Stress has become an epidemic in our society, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer! If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, give me a call and we’ll get you set to rights.