Stress is an all-encompassing term that is used to describe a reaction to various ‘stressors’ or pressures in our lives. There can be two types of stress, ‘eustress’ (from Greek origin: ‘eu’ meaning good), which is a positive type of stress that we can use to motivate us to achieve results and succeed, and bad stress, or ‘distress’ which is generally what we are talking about when we say we feel ‘stressed’. We all need a little stress in our lives to maintain the motivation to work and achieve, but often stress can make us feel overloaded, angry, depressed, and can have a very strong effect on the proper functioning of our bodies.
Stress and The Body
The human body responds to stressors by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. When we feel pressure or stress the adrenal glands, situated on the kidneys, produce more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and release them into the bloodstream. These hormones speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. Blood vessels open wider to let more blood flow to large muscle groups, putting our muscles, especially our ‘fight or flight’ muscles in the hips and shoulders, on alert.The liver releases some of its stored glucose to increase the body’s energy, sweat is produced to cool the body, our hands may get tingly, and our brain may seem to work at a faster pace. All of these physical changes prepare a person to react quickly and effectively to handle the pressure of the moment.
In an emergency situation, this can be an ideal response, as it can help us run away or fight, if needed. Often what happens though, due to the nature of our lives, or the cause of the stress, responding to pressure by running away or ‘fighting it out’, just aren’t options for us. So we have to stay put, continue working, and getting on with our jobs, school, looking after kids, etc. Here is where the stress response can cause problems, when it overreacts or fails to turn off and reset properly, when you can’t seem to find the space or time to clear the stress out or there seems to be a never ending line of things to be stressed about.
Long-term stressful situations can produce a lasting, low-level stress that’s hard on people. The nervous system senses continued pressure and can remain slightly activated and continue to pump out extra stress hormones over an extended period. This can wear out the body’s reserves, leave a person feeling depleted or overwhelmed, weaken the body’s immune system, and cause other health related problems.
Stress and Muscular Pain
Because our stress response is all about being able to run away or fight our way out of a stressful situation (think evolution: a hungry lion is heading your way!), our stress hormones are geared toward activating the blood vessels and muscles designed for this task. The muscles of our hips, the gluteals, piriformis, and hamstrings are the muscles of running, and these are targets for adrenaline. The muscles of our neck and shoulder girdle, the trapezius, scalenes, and deltoids to name a few, are also running muscles, and of course are involved in fighting. All this energy is produced to prepare us to run and fight, and of course, mostly what we do is sit and stay at our computers, phones, and car wheels and mutter to ourselves. Where does this energy and built up hormone production go? Nowhere. It stays in the muscles, slowly dissipating, but mainly just building up, creating more and more muscle tension.
From a Chinese Medical perspective, the effect of excessive stress or pressure on our Qi, our vital energy, creates blockages in the pathways that form a network throughout our body. Where the Qi cannot flow, a pooling, or stagnation is created, which creates pain in the channel and associated tissues surrounding the area. Over time, this Qi stagnation also begins to create Blood stagnation, so that the Blood cannot properly flow and nourish the muscles and sinews. Here, we have muscles that are chronically stiff and sore, and have a feeling of permanent hardness that doesn’t go away easily when we massage it ourselves.
This, combined with the repetitive movements and positions we put ourselves in during our every day life, leads to a lot of muscular aches and pains which bring people to our clinic to seek relief through Acupuncture or Massage.
Stress and Our Emotions
One of the major ways that we can identify in ourselves that we are stressed is when we feel different psychologically. We can suffer from acute or chronic Depression, Anxiety, Panic Attacks, angry outbursts, and sleep disturbances, just to name a few manifestations of stress; everyone is different. Usually the stress has been going on for a long period of time or it has been very sudden and traumatic before we can fully identify and accept that we are feeling this way. More often than not, we try to keep calm and carry on for a long period of time before we realise that we are about to ‘crash and burn’. Often our bodies will show symptoms of stress before we can fully admit to ourselves how stressed we are, for example through skin eruptions like acne, or eczema, or digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Chinese Medicine has a long history of perceiving the link between emotional stress and health, and vice versa, and can be very useful in helping you deal with the way your body manages stress, while also giving you tools to help deal with new stress in the future. Of course acupuncture, herbs, and massage can’t stop bad things from happening, what we may be able to help you with is to weather the storm and reduce its effects.
Stress and The Digestive System
One very common way that stress can manifest in our bodies is through the digestive system. Thinking again from an evolutionary point of view, if we are about to try and run from or fight a lion, we don’t want to be halted by our bowels or trying to digest a heavy meal at the same time. Therefore, the opposite nervous system action to the Fight or Flight response is the Rest and Digest response. When we are relaxed and comfortable, our digestion works well. We don’t get indigestion, we don’t get reflux, and we don’t get painful stomachs or horrible bowel movements (not counting allergies and pathogens). When the Fight or Flight response is initiated under stress, the Enteric Nervous System, which runs our digestion, is switched off. Everything slows down, it becomes sluggish, and if stressed for a long period of time, everything starts to stagnate. Adding to this our generally very bad food habits of eating too fast, on the run, watching the news, or at work, and we begin to see why our digestion isn’t as good as it could be.
Chinese Medicine is very clear on the importance of eating regularly, small meals, slowly and thoughtfully, without exposure to stress. TCM indicates that health begins at our digestive system, and when our digestion is compromised, disorder will follow. If this carries on for long enough, serious disease is also a potential. The practitioners at the Maitland Wellness Centre can’t stop your stress in its tracks, but through acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and massage we may be able to assist your body to achieve a more harmonious balance. We can also provide you with the tools and knowledge to improve your diet and food habits throughout your day.
Stress and Weight Gain
Over a long period of low grade steady stress, our bodies attempt to adjust to the constant flow of stress hormones. One way our body attempts to do this is store fat, as a mechanism to prevent the stress of famine. Cortisol, one of the major hormones released during stress, is more typically produced during long term low grade stress, like the one we experience at work, and is well known for increasing the storage of fat around the abdomen, and the internal organs. Combining this with jobs that are mainly sitting down at computers for 8 hours a day, or the hormonal disruption of shift work, it is easy to see how our weight can creep up quickly around our bellies and how difficult it is to get rid of it when we try.
Part of any good weight loss regime should always include the means and methods to deal with our stress in a healthy manner, both to curb comfort eating, and to deal with the deep physiological effect stress has on our metabolism.
Acupuncture and Massage
Obviously, there are many factors in most people’s lives that create stress and that they have no control over. Acupuncture and massage provide the chance to stop and breathe for the time that you are being treated. It can help to give you that chance to get some clarity back, and reduce some of the stress fog that we often find ourselves in. Our practitioners can also assist you with exercise, stretching and dietary advice that can help your body cope with the stress that it deals with in a more positive fashion while you are not getting a treatment.
Looking After yourself
Often the things that we know we should do when we are stressed, like eating well, resting, and gentle exercise are the main things that first get neglected when we are going through a period of stress. It is important to place a higher priority on these factors in times of higher stress, because, even though they can’t get rid of the stress, they will make the difference as to how your body deals with it, and how well you are throughout.
How many treatments will I need?
There is no standard number of treatments that are needed, as every individual requires tailored therapy. Treatment schedules are generally discussed between the therapist and the client, however, typically we expect to see positive change within three to four treatments, usually within a week of each other.
What should I expect from a treatment?
Massage treatments can range from half hour, hour, or 1.5 hour sessions depending on what you feel you require. Most acupuncture treatments take approximately an hour. The therapist will ask you to fill in a form and will take a thorough case history before beginning treatment. Acupuncture treatment involves the insertion of very fine needles at various points of the body and may be performed on the back or front or both sides of the patient.
You may feel a sting upon insertion of the needle although the discomfort is usually minimal. After insertion the acupuncturist may manipulate the needles to obtain De Qi (to get the Qi or energy to come to the needle). This feeling is most often described as a tingling, numbness or heavy, achy feeling at the site of insertion. Occasionally you may feel movement up or down from the point or you may feel something elsewhere on the body. Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal but let your acupuncturist know what you are feeling and they will adjust the treatment if you are experiencing any discomfort.
The needles are retained for anywhere between 15 to 45 minutes and may be manipulated again throughout the treatment and some therapists may also use massage or electro-acupuncture. At the end of the treatment the needles are removed and disposed of. At some sites of insertion you may feel a lingering dull achy feeling after removal of the needles but this will disappear shortly.
Are there any side effects?
Acupuncture is considered to be a very safe and side effects are rare. All needles used are sterile and are unwrapped prior to treatment and disposed of immediately after treatment. The most common side effect is bruising at the insertion site. You can generally expect to feel quite relaxed and energised after the treatment. The points that are used are tailored to you and your particular condition so each person will respond differently