Stress. It is intertwined with the lives we lead and is unavoidable given the nature of the world we live and the lives we create. Some people experience stress daily, others less frequently. Whether you feel it daily or occasionally, there is value in being able to identify when you are feeling stressed; to be able to listen to and observe your body; to learn how stress affects you; and to have strategies that can help you manage and reduce the impact it has on your life.
We have probably all read a clinical definition of stress at some stage in our lives – it goes something like – a situation (physical, mental or emotional) that causes an individual to feel ‘distress’ or ‘ discomfort’. But what is stress from a Chinese Medicine perspective and how does it affect our body? Chinese Medicine believes that the mind and body are inextricably linked. So you can not think or feel something without other areas of the body being affected.
Chinese Medicine is very focussed on ‘Qi’. Qi is our life force – the energy that travels around our body and keeps thing functioning. The presence of stress in the body interrupts qi from flowing freely and smoothly. Stress can cause qi to stagnate, move in the wrong directions, or lead to a deficiency in qi levels. During an acupuncture consultation we take great interest in how stress manifests in people. We will often ask our patients to take a moment to observe where they ‘feel’ stress. For example, stress can be felt:
- In the mind; a chaotic and busy mind that struggles to process things; headaches; feeling irritable; feeling anxious or depressed.
- The digestive system; feeling nauseous; a loss of appetite or conversely hunger; feelings of never being satisfied; heartburn; constipation; diarrhea.
- The heart; feelings of heaviness; pain; palpitations; tightness; anxiety.
- The musculoskeletal system; pain can be felt anywhere in the body, but is often felt in the neck , shoulders, flank and lower back.
- Energy levels: false feelings of energy or extreme tiredness; the feeling of ‘not being able to stop’.
It goes to say that if these problems are left unaddressed, they can have major long-term effects on a persons physical and mental well-being.
Once we identify that stress is affecting our mind/body, what can we do about it? Different strategies work for different people, and there is definitely no ‘one method suits all’ but common and tried ways to alleviate stress include:
- Exercise: Put simply, if we move our bodies, we move our qi. There are so many ways we can move our bodies … running, walking, cycling, playing team sports, yoga, pilates, swimming (etc). Sometimes finding the time to move our bodies can be tricky, but it really is worth it and is an investment in our long-term health.
- Focusing on our breath: When we are in the middle of a stressful situation, just focusing on our breath can be helpful. I am currently reading book about renowned Vietnamese Monk – Thich Nhat Hahn. He provides a simple mantra of ‘Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile”.
- Getting enough sleep: What defines enough sleep is different for each person but we all know that feeling when we haven’t had enough. Getting enough sleep gives our body and mind the time is needs to re-set, heal and rejuvenate. A well-slept mind/body has a better chance of making clear decisions and processing things more positively.
- Consider what you can control—and work on that: There are some stressful situations that we don’t have control over. Ideally, it would be nice to just remove ourselves from a stressful situation but this is often not possible. So working out what you can control (ie. what you think and how you view and deal with a situation) is a more positive way to view a stressful situation.
- Find the time to invest in yourself: This is your life – make sure you find time to do things that you enjoy.
- Acupuncture: Of course this is on the list .. .I am an Acupuncturist! But seriously, acupuncture is a wonderful way to move and rebalance our bodies energy. Acupuncture treatments address the whole body and consider our mind, body and spirit to be interconnected.
- Meditation: People who meditate regularly comment that they feel calmer and are better able to deal with difficult and stressful situations. Even 10 minutes of daily meditation can make a big difference.
- Talking to someone: Either a friend or a professional.
- Learning to say no and not over committing: This one isn’t easy, but sometimes over-filling your life with things to do and places to be, can be the cause of stress. It’s okay to be quiet and still sometimes:-)
Stress is unavoidable, and there are many stressful situations we can’t remove ourselves from. What we can control though is how we think and feel about them. Take some time to listen to your body and mind. Learning to identify and manage our stress levels are an investment in our health. And you know, your health is your future 🙂