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What is Stress?
Stress can be defined as the brain’s response to any type of demand that poses a challenge or threat to our well-being. There are at least three different types of stress, all of which carry physical and mental health risks:
- Routine stress related to the pressures of work, family, financial matters and other daily responsibilities.
- Stress brought about by a sudden negative change, such as losing a job, divorce, bereavement, or illness.
- Traumatic stress, experienced in an event like a major accident, war, assault, or a natural disaster where one may be seriously hurt or in danger of being killed.
Not all stress is bad. Animals and humans alike experience a similar response to stress. The nerve chemicals and hormones released during stressful times prepare us to face a threat or flee to safety (fight or flight response). When you face a dangerous situation, your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, and your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity—all functions aimed at survival. In the short term, it can even boost the immune system.
However, with chronic stress, those same nerve chemicals that are life saving in short bursts can suppress functions that aren’t needed for immediate survival. Your immunity is lowered and your digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems stop working normally. Once the threat has passed, other body systems act to restore normal functioning. Problems occur if the stress response goes on too long, such as when the source of stress is constant, or if the response continues after the danger has subsided.
Symptoms of Stress
Stress can cause a wide array of effects on our bodies, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Different people may feel it in different ways. For example, some people experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, depressed mood, anger and irritability. Effects may range from aches and pains to fatigue and forgetfulness, and eating disorders and drug or alcohol abuse. People under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold, and vaccines, such as the flu shot, are less effective for them.
Of all the types of stress, changes in health from routine or chronic stress may be hardest to notice at first. Because the source of stress tends to be more constant than in cases of acute or traumatic stress, the body gets no clear signal to return to normal functioning. Over time, continued strain on your body from chronic stress may lead to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, anxiety disorder, and other illnesses.
How Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Treat Stress
Chinese acupuncture and massage, as well as Tai Chi and Qigong exercises, can alleviate stress symptoms by releasing endorphins, the body’s own natural painkillers, and improving the circulation of blood and lymphatic fluids, which brings fresh oxygen to body tissues. This increased oxygen flow eliminates waste products from inside the body and enhances recovery from diseases. Chinese medicine also decreases the stress hormone cortisol, lowers blood pressure, reduces heart rate, and relaxes muscle tissue.
When one feels more relaxed and digestion improves, tension is relieved. Instead of being tense and angry, one remains calm, tempers stay even, and blood pressure can even decrease. Studies have shown that the substances released in the body as a result of acupuncture relax the body, and also regulate serotonin in the brain, which affects emotional states.
Chinese medicine will not, of course, change the circumstances of a person’s life. But it can relieve feelings of anxiety or depression. As the heavy feelings of stress are relieved, a person feels more confidence in his ability to cope with the negative aspects of life and make necessary changes. This in turn can eliminate dependence on sleeping pills, antidepressants, or anti-anxiety medications.
Acupuncture is a way to improve circulation within the body. It has shown to be an effective solution by many to treat systems associated with stress. Stress tends to tighten up the muscles, leading to several aches and pains. Acupuncture helps to alleviate this pain by opening up the meridian channels to allow energy to flow freely and relax the muscles. Acupuncture increases the circulation of blood and oxygenates the tissues throughout the body while cycling out cortisol and releasing natural painkillers called endorphins. Other benefits of acupuncture include decreasing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and strengthening the immune system.
A medical study published in Anesthesiology (June 2003) used ear acupressure to relieve stress and anxiety in patients being transported to the hospital in ambulances. In some patients (the acupuncture group) real acupuncture points were used, while in others (the control group), bogus points were used. On arrival, the stress level in the acupuncture group decreased 66%. In contrast, the stress level in the control group increased 10%. Such studies indicate the effectiveness of acupuncture in stress treatment.
Chinese medicine uses a unique form of massage, Tui na, that focuses not only on the muscle but also on the energy (Qi) circulation in the body. By opening up the meridian channels in the body, the muscle will naturally relax. This form of massage is also great to relieve several aches and pains in the muscles brought on by stress.
Chinese medicine recognizes that our feet connect to the earth, and the energy of the earth circulates throughout our entire body. The feet are major conductors of energy for our heart, liver, kidneys, and other internal organs. Chinese foot massage and acupressure can help alleviate many symptoms of stress and bring the body back into a balanced, calm state.
Chinese Herbs: There are hundreds of herbs in Chinese medicine specifically designed to work on balancing the body to reduce stress. In addition, some herbs, known as adaptogens, help the body withstand the effects of stress. These include tonifying herbs such as ginseng, Astragalus, Codonopsis, and reishi mushroom. Many traditional herbal remedies for sleeplessness and nausea have long-demonstrated safety. Ginseng, green tea, chamomile, and peppermint teas are used around the world to calm and reduce anxiety, depression and stress. In doing so, they help calm and aid sleep. Chinese Medicine looks at the entire body as a working organism, so a good herbalist will be able to tell where the imbalances are and prescribe a customized herbal remedy for each person.
Nutritional and Lifestyle Guidance: Changes in one’s diet can also help alleviate stress. Too much refined sugars, for example, can cause wild fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin levels, which can significantly affect one’s mood and mental health. They also deplete B vitamins from the body, which can affect the nervous system. Excessive amounts of caffeine can create “toxic heat” in the liver, causing a rise in anger and anxiety. As an adrenal stimulant, caffeine can ultimately lead to adrenal exhaustion and depression. Substituting refined sugar and caffeine with low glycemic foods and beverages can result in reduced stress and anxiety.
Most vegetables and fruits that are rich in color can help the body deal with stress. For example, in Chinese nutrition, blueberries, purple cabbage, beets, tomatoes, and eggplant are believed to be stress reducing. A diet high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins B & E is recommended, as these nutrients are easily depleted by stress.
Fruits and vegetables such as apricots, asparagus, avocados, bananas, and broccoli, brown rice, dried fruit, figs, salmon, green leafy vegetables, and most rich colored fruits are high in vitamin B. Even if you eat a healthy diet, vitamin B complex is a good supplement to consider if you suffer from chronic stress.
In China, if you go to the city parks, thousands of people are doing some type of meditation. The doctors in China encourage people to meditate because of its value on reducing stress and promoting health and well-being. There are several forms of meditation used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, such as QiGong, Tai Chi, or siting meditation.
Additionally, regular exercise (even walking), yoga, or spiritual exercises can greatly reduce the effects of stress on both the mind and body.
How Western Medicine Treats Stress
Western medicine first recommends coping with stress by taking steps to reduce the amount of tension in our daily lives. Exercise regularly; even gentle walking, at least 30 minutes per day can reduce stress levels. Get plenty of sleep, eat a balanced diet, and avoid tobacco use and excess caffeine and alcohol intake.
If problems still persist or someone has severe stress or anxiety disorder, professional counseling and/or treatment by a mental health care professional is recommended. Sometimes antidepressants, sleeping pills, and anti-anxiety medications may be required. There is a risk, however, that medication will only mask the stress and become dependent, rather than help a person deal and cope with their stress issues. If other serious health problems persist, a person should seek help from their primary physician for further diagnosis and treatment.