Everybody seems to be stressed out to some extent, but why do you hear so much about the importance of relieving it? The answer is that stress is a mixed bag. It’s your body’s natural response to threatening situations. Your reaction to stress is largely regulated by your body’s sympathetic nervous system, which activates a “fight or flight response”, preparing your body to deal with situations that you perceive to be dangerous. Your body releases hormones that cause your heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure to go up, your muscles to become tense and your pupils to dilate—all designed to help you react quickly to the threat at hand. However, some of the systems that your body thinks you don’t need in the moment slow down, such as your digestive and immune function.
In ancient times this response would have served you well, but modern day stress is different and more insidious than the kinds of stress that our ancestors experienced. And that’s why stress is a mixed blessing. Stress is a good thing when you need it, and is actually beneficial, not only in keeping you alive, but also in keeping you motivated and interested in life. The thrill of bungee jumping or giving your first speech evokes the stress response in the same way being chased by a lion does. When it’s over, you feel exhilarated and excited. But after you have jumped or finished your speech, your body returns to normal fairly quickly. Your heart rate slows back down, blood pressure returns to normal, and your body begins to relax. This is the parasympathetic nervous system kicking back into gear, initiating “rest and digest” activities and helping to return your body to homeostasis after the fight or flight response.
The dark side of stress, however, is the kind that continues unabated. Your antagonistic co-worker, money problems, or a sick family member are all examples of the kind of stress that can make you ill. Chronic stress means that your body is in a constant state of fight or flight. Stress hormones are continuously being released, which prevents your body from maintaining homeostasis and properly recovering. Over time this perpetual state of stress can contribute to issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, insomnia, autoimmune illnesses, depression, anxiety, obesity, diabetes and decreased immune function.
Chronic stress depletes your body and affects your health in a negative way, which is why finding ways to limit and manage it is so important. This is where acupuncture, TCM, and naturopathic medicine can help. There is a great deal of research on the effects of acupuncture on your brain, and one of the most profound changes is the increase in circulating endorphins. These neurotransmitters are feel-good chemicals that help you relax, elevate your mood, and relieve pain. Acupuncture can effectively treat insomnia, anxiety and depression, as well as menstrual and digestive disorders related to stress.
Beyond relieving stress, it’s also important to repair your body that’s been exhausted from being in a chronic state of fight or flight. Your acupuncturist can create treatments to balance and restore your depleted organ systems, prescribe herbs to boost your energy and organ function, and discuss diet and lifestyle changes to support your health.
While short-term stressors may add a little spice to your life, stressful situations that have been weighing on you for a long time can damage your health. If your life is perpetually stressful, we’re here to help you manage it and take the steps necessary to repair your well-being.
Kristen Lukovich is a registered acupuncturist and practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine at BodaHealth in Vancouver, British Columbia.