The Impact of Stress

November 2008

Anita Smith (not her real name) is an accountant who owns a busy accounting firm. When she first came to see me, she had been under a lot of stress for years. She suffered from digestive problems, anxieties and poor sleep. I noticed that every time she came out of treatment she would say “I feel so relaxed.” Several months later, her digestive problems were gone and she could sleep well at night without any medication. Like Anita, many people also describe their feeling after an acupuncture treatment as being deeply relaxed, calm, more focused, and re-energized. They would say, “What have you done to me? I haven’t felt this good in years…”

So how does acupuncture help one relax and heal the conditions caused by chronic stress? Modern scientific research shows that acupuncture treatment regulates the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system, stimulates the release of endorphin, and regulates various other important neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine to achieve its therapeutic anti-stress effects. Chinese Medicine practitioners believe that regulating the free flow of Qi (energy) — the life force boosts one’s physical and emotional well-beings.

Do you feel pressured, irritable, overwhelmed and just want to get away from it all? Do you also experience poor sleep, low energy, pains and aches? Do you find yourself withdrawal from relationships, easily snap at people around you? You are very likely over-stressed. If you don’t want the stress takes a toll on your life, you will want to take some action to deal with stress now.

What happens in your body and mind when you are stressed?

In Chinese Medicine, we believe that Qi is the life force that flows in every life, and that the free flow of Qi is essential for physical and emotional health and a happy, more fulfilling life. The free flow of Qi allows you to perceive the world as it is, to take the nourishment the world can offer at each moment, to let go of anything that’s harmful to the development of the being, and to bring your deepest potential out into the world through authentic expression of words and actions. Although purely environmental factors (such as such as extreme cold, heat, natural disaster, lack of shelter, lack of food, constant physical danger in times of war) can cause stress for the body, for the majority people who live in North America today stress mainly comes from their own mind. It is not our environment that stresses us, but our mind’s reaction that causes stress. When you resist what is happening in the moment, when you hold onto the past which no longer helps you, when you eat foods that don’t give you nourishment but only instant gratification, when you suppress your own feelings, thoughts and expressions as who you are, when you do any of these things you block your Qi flow. When this smooth flow of Qi is blocked, over the time different symptoms will manifest themselves in your body and mind.

We all have our own habitual ways of dealing with stressors. The habitual strategies often are embodied in different parts of the body. These strategies have been working for us for years, that’s why we adopted them. However, when the symptoms show up, your body is showing you that the very strategies developed in order to protect yourself are now hurting you. At the energetic level, these embodiments form deep energetic patterns of blockage. When we use acupuncture to facilitate the Qi flow, we break up these blockages, which facilitates the release of the old strategies and allows awareness to search for and adopt new and healthier ways to cope with stress.

Let’s take a look at four common patterns of the Energy blockages that occur in people under chronic stress. Each pattern often reflects certain way of coping with stress.

The first pattern of blockage is found on the whole back area. In Chinese medicine, this area involves the Tai Yang Channels, which are like “fences” that fight off any invasion to the body, be it cold, heat, bacterial, virus or other stressors. When we perceive a threat, energy starts to rise to this part of the body in preparation for a fight. The first result of this is muscle tension. The muscle tension generally starts from the back of the skull, to the neck, to the shoulder, to the shoulder blades, to the lower back, to the hip then down to the hamstring, calf and to the feet. This pattern indicates the general strategy of “fighting against” or “resisting to” or “pushing through” whatever is at the moment. This strategy is helpful when there is a tiger chasing after you. Your Qi helps you to tighten up the whole back either to run or to fight. After the danger is passed, your Qi should once again flow smoothly to other areas.

If you repetitively engage Qi in the back zone to guard again some perceived danger, constant tension in long term can cause problems for your body. Common symptoms we see in this zone are: tension headaches, limited movement in the neck, chronic neck and shoulder tension, pain between shoulder blades, lower back pain, sciatica conditions, leg cramps, pain in the feet. In some serious cases, people may have already developed bone spur or arthritic conditions in the vertebrae. The tension in this pattern also affects immunity and quality of sleep.

The second area that becomes affected under stress is the abdominal area, from the navel to the rib cage even up to the throat for some people. The strategies reflected are “swallowing down” “chewing on” “stomaching” “digesting” the issues that bother you. Are you the “nice” person who doesn’t voice disagreement? Do you want to make other people happy, and do you believe that you can “take it”? If so, you are probably holding tension in your digestive system. The manifested symptoms are mainly gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, gastritis, ulcers, acid reflux or even more serious bowel disorders like Crohn’s disease.

The third pattern involves the head, the neck, the upper back and the chest area. We see most often in white-collar professionals or people who live in their head. Is your preferred coping strategy to “figure it out” with a lot of analysis, rationalization, and justification? The tension usually reflects the war between your heart and your mind. The heart’s moment-to-moment experience is ignored and the hyperactive mind is in control of the interpretation of the life events to maintain an illusionary certainty.

When this energy blockage between the heart and mind persists for long, the energy can be so hyperactive in the head and there is no energy circulation to the chest. People tend to report that they have so much going on in the head, and they also feel anxious easily, and have difficulty taking a full breath. The tension in the chest affects the functions of the heart and the lungs. Some conditions such as heart palpitations, asthma, allergies, anxiety attack, panic attack, and mitral valve prolapse are usually the result of long-term tension in these areas.

The fourth major pattern of stress affects the pelvic area. This pattern usually develops as the body’s last way to remain “in control” in the face of the stressors. It is usually seen in people who have been under chronic stress for long time, or have been traumatized as a child. When we feel out of control in the face of the stressors, we often try to maintain a sense of control by shutting down, holding our body tight. Holding one’s urine, bowel movement, suppressing one’s sexual impulse is all part of maintaining control.

However, by doing this, we suppresses our life force. Fatigue is often one of the main complaints of people who hold chronic tension in this area. People also complain about various discomfort, from cold sensation, bloated sensation, vague pain to actual diagnosed conditions such as chronic pelvic inflammatory disease, inflammation of prostate, bladder, prolapsed bladder, uterus, hernia, incontinence, low sexual drive and infertility.

It is very important to understand that the root cause is the energy blockage in the various areas where people hold tensions. And also the mind’s habitual way of interpreting life events perpetuates these blockage patterns. People usually manifest more than one stress pattern, in treatment we have to release the tension in those specific areas to restore the normal functions of the organs. In my practice I usually select some acupuncture points that release the local constricted and tight areas where energy is blocked and also select points on the meridians that deal with the deep imbalances. With each treatment, the energy starts to flow more smoothly, and the body learns a more balanced way of functioning. As the normal function of the body is restored, various symptoms will disappear. Smooth flow of energy can also help you to let go of what bothers you more easily, and to receive the nourishment each moment of life has to offer. As we no longer resist what is at the moment, as we stop perceiving things that happen as “problems”, we can avoid the stress that we create for ourselves — and for most of us, that will eliminate most of the stress from our lives.