When most of us think about stress, we think about approaching deadlines and meetings, a sick child or pet, packing for a trip! But the truth is, stress is a natural part of life that exists in the everyday, not just with bigger events. Generally, people relate stress to its emotional/mental form, but other things we do cause stress in the body. Things like bad eating habits, poor sleep quality/quantity and injury, for example, can all contribute to stress and a strain on our systems.
In my practice I see many patients with stress related symptoms. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, stress shows up in the body as a disrupted flow of Qi which can affect the function of various biological systems. In everyday life stress presents in the form of neck tension, headaches, digestive problems, insomnia, skin problems, and the list goes on. In other words, stress wreaks havoc on the body.
But if stress is a part of daily life, how can we avoid it? The short answer is, you can’t. But you can learn to deal with stress in smarter ways, and prepare your body and mind for the potential onset of stress.
Stress and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Traditional Chinese Medicine describes health in terms of balance and abundance of energy (Qi). Qi is the vital energy of life. Qi warms the body, builds the immune system and links all functions of the body. It flows throughout the body in channels called meridians.
The meridian system is connected to all our internal organs and their functions. When there is smooth flowing Qi in the meridians, the organs; liver, heart, kidneys, spleen, stomach, small and large intestines, bladder, lung and their functions are balanced and working in proper order. Proper functioning of our organs equates to good health, illness-free physical body.
The state of our physical, mental and emotional health affects the outcome of our overall well-being. When stress is introduced, acutely or chronically, our Qi is not flowing smoothly. The organ systems are then affected and symptoms manifest in a myriad of chronic or acute health conditions.
Five Effective Ways Of Handling/Preparing For Stress
While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are some ways that my patients and I have found to be effective in dealing with stress. Individually these techniques will help immediately with acute stress, and when formed into habits, will help prepare your body and mind to absorb stressful encounters much more effectively.
Aside from the fact that the experience of acupuncture involves laying still and resting for 30-60 minutes, in a comfortable setting with relaxing music playing, there is much scientific evidence that supports the effectiveness of these little, painless needles and the destruction of stress hormones.
In fact, “A 2013 article in the Journal of Endocrinology presented the results of a series of animal studies done at Georgetown University Medical Center which showed that rats who endured stress conditions and then received acupuncture had lowered blood hormone levels secreted by the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis (which controls reactions to stress and regulates processes like the immune system, digestion, emotions and moods and sexuality.) They also measured the levels of NPY, a peptide secreted during a “fight or flight” response.”
Acupuncture has been known to relieve physical manifestations of stress, sometimes as quickly as one or two days later. Stress in skin rashes, painful muscle tension and sleep problems, to name a few, have been relieved almost immediately. The relaxing experience, combined with the biological response, often leaves patients feeling “blissed-out” and completely relaxed.
No rats were harmed in this study. In fact they were all relaxed and rejuvenated by the many benefits of acupuncture.
For all of the complexity and infinite functions your body performs automatically every day, it is surprising easy to trick. Evolution has developed responses in the body that let the body know it’s time to hide or hit the road, otherwise known as a flight or fight response. This is the same response that your body goes through when you’re feeling “stressed out.”
When you come upon a person, situation or idea that is new or different, your brain sends signals to the rest of the body, preparing it to deal with the problem. This causes racing thoughts, increased heart rate, sweating and quickened breathing. If you begin to breath as if you are relaxed, your body will relax and send those signals back to the brain saying, “chill out, we’re safe.”
According to research done at the University of Michigan, “Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. This is because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax.”
There are many different controlled breathing techniques, but a good place to start is with belly breathing. Simply place your hand on your belly, breathe in through your nose, and while the chest remains still, inflate your belly to the point where it moves your hand. Release the breath slowly through pursed lips. Repeat this a few times and you’ll be feeling more relaxed in no time. It is an excellent habit that will develop with practice, and eventually part of your stress response will be to breathe deeply.
Deciding to take care of your body, does wonders for you attitude. Often people begin to feel that they look and feel better, simply from making the resolution to exercise more or make healthier food choices. Exercise has been shown to make people feel more energized and clear headed.
Exercise increases the endorphins secreted from your brain. These are your “feel-good” neurotransmitters and any amount of physical activity will increase these happy makers right away. Exercise also requires focus, and that focus redirects your brain to what you are doing, instead of worrying about whatever is stressing you out. Your brain will thank you for the pause in worrying! The physical side effects of exercise can also increase your self-confidence, energy levels and the effectiveness of your sleep.
The good news is, to increase your daily exercise, you don’t have to become a gym-rat overnight either. There are many easy, fun, low-impact ways to introduce more activity in your life, but you will find that a commitment to a regular exercise plan will benefit your stress levels and your entire life for the long run (or walk).
Do you ever hear children say, “I love spending the day at my desk”? Or an adult say, “This vacation is great and all, but boy do I miss looking at spreadsheets in my cubicle”? No?
Being outside in nature has been proven to improve short term memory, calm our nerves and systems, reduce inflammation, eliminate fatigue, fight depression and anxiety and so much more! Living in Collingwood, there is no shortage of beautiful sights to see and ways to get outside.
For an excellent round-up of the studies done on the effects on nature on us, you can check that out here.
The effects of decluttering and tidying up have been well documented in the #1 New York Times best-selling guide The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, and with good reason. Physical clutter can have a big effect on your sense of wellbeing. The act of tidying up provides a sense of accomplishment and a fresh start. Who here prefers to get into a made bed at night, instead of one that’s all dishevelled? Me too!
In addition to creating a relaxing, tidy space, the act of cleaning up can be meditative as well. When you are focused on bettering your surroundings by organizing, cleaning, or vacuuming, your mind is again, taking a break from your worries and focusing on the task at hand. You will also get a boost from doing something productive, which is very helpful, because often what makes us feel stressed out is a sense of powerlessness. Productivity is the cryptonite to powerlessness!
Implementing these simple strategies into your life will help you to deal with a stressful situation, and when they become habits, will help you be prepared for stress, thereby reducing it’s effects. We all know that feeling that comes on when we are confronted with danger, the unknown or an intimidating person (or wooly mammoth!) so instead of just accepting it as a normal part of life, teach your body that you are a team, that you will work together to combat the situation and that there is no need to freak out.