My friend, Karla, is one of those people who seems to catch every cold or flu that’s going around. She recently caught that throwing-up flu that her kids had. This was right after she’d gotten over a nasty cold, with the hacking cough that seemed to linger for about a decade. Last week she was laid out with a headache that sent her home from work and straight to bed.
When I think about Karla, I realize that she is one of the most stressed women I know. She worries about her husband’s job, struggles to balance work and her kids’ after-school activities, and is the consummate volunteer. She is overwhelmed and on the go, and it makes perfect sense to me that she doesn’t feel well much of the time.
We all know that stress makes us sick (and it feels really bad). That’s because when we’re stressed our bodies produce extra cortisol and other hormones that in overabundance cause all kinds of damage to our health. Also, prolonged stress keeps our bodies in a constant state of hyper-readiness, which is really depleting and just plain wears us down.
We practitioners of Chinese medicine have a different explanation as to how stress makes us sick. According to the Chinese, energy flows in your body through a network of “roads”, like a highway system. (Don’t get hung up on the energy thing—it’s made in the mitochondria of every cell in your body.) Stress and anxiety can interrupt the smooth flow of energy, acting like road construction on a hot summer day. (Traffic Jam!) For example, a lot of people who are really stressed complain of upper back and neck pain and tension headaches. If you’ve ever had this kind of pain, you know what I’m talking about. The pain occurs because stress is causing tightness in those areas, blocking the free flow of energy, causing pain that can travel into your head (remember those roadways?) leading to headaches.
In a highway system, when there’s road construction or an accident, traffic may also be backed up on secondary roads that feed into or out of the affected area. This is true in your body, too. Stress and anxiety may affect many other parts of your body, most notably your digestion, the ability to sleep, pain conditions, and immunity. Stress also makes existing health conditions worse.
Through acupuncture, these energy blockages can be addressed. Acupuncture points serve as the on and off ramps to the energy highway, and can help energy flow smoothly, and alleviate not only the symptoms of stress, but the stress itself.
Beyond acupuncture, Chinese medicine offers other ways to reduce stress and anxiety and move energy including:
-Breathe. While we’re all sick of hearing “just breathe”, your breath is a source of energy in Chinese medicine, and slow, deliberate breathing can be very calming.
-Gentle exercise, such as Tai Qi or Qi Gung is a great way to cultivate and move energy. However while very strenuous or prolonged exercise sessions might make you look really good, they’re considered to be depleting over time.
-Good nutrition and digestion. The Chinese consider digestion to be as important as nutrition. They shy away from very cold foods or iced drinks, too many raw fruits and vegetables, and very greasy foods mostly because they mess with your digestion.
With my friend Karla in mind, I would also like to add that taking a little time each day for yourself can be a great way to break the stress cycle. Sometimes a few moments of quiet are all it takes.