Stress is a natural part of your life. You know when your stress levels are maxing out when you feel overwhelmed, you have deadlines looming, your mind starts racing, you don’t sleep very well, and your digestion is in an uproar. Generally, your stress is psychological in nature, in that the stress itself usually isn’t life-threatening, but how you react to the events going on sometimes feels pretty serious. We tend to think of stress as something that occupies your mind, and only when the stress is severe or long-standing will it impact your health.
There are some sources of stress, however, that are primarily physical in nature—some that don’t occupy your mind at all. It seems that the emotional stressors are the ones that get your attention, but stressful physical events can also be major health bombs.
Here are three of the most common:
Seasonal changes. Much of Chinese medicine is based on the premise that we are part of the natural world. As such, we reflect the forces of nature in our bodies, and good health is all about balancing these natural forces. When the seasons change, animals adapt in a variety of ways; squirrels gather nuts in the fall, songbirds migrate, bears hibernate in the winter, and all kinds of baby animals are born in the spring and summer. We humans tend to keep doing what we’re doing and for the most part, ignore seasonal changes altogether.
Each season has a personality, and to be as healthy as possible, you would be wise listen and adapt to the tasks, or themes of each season. For example, when we move from summer to fall, the weather turns dry, the evenings become cooler, and the harvest of squash and root vegetables is in full swing. Your job is to make the switch from cooling summer foods (tomatoes, cucumbers, and watermelon) to nourishing and moistening fall produce. During the fall, you’re supposed to put on a couple of pounds to help you keep warm through the winter. Pears and apples, plus squash, potatoes, yams, and other root vegetables are ideal autumn fare.
The change in weather from season to season causes you to adapt physically, and adapting takes energy. By honoring the essence of each season and acknowledging the change, you can avoid fatigue and the typical colds and flu associated with each season.
Overwork. The concept of overworking is considered a direct cause of disease in Chinese medicine. Even if you love your job, it’s possible to be physically wiped out from working too hard. While the term overwork conjures up the idea of hard manual labor, it can also mean working too many hours, studying too long, and even exercising too much.
The work ethic and financial necessity is a strong motivating force in the United States, where 7.6 million people hold more than one job, and over a quarter of a million people actually work two full-time jobs. In addition, seven percent of American workers spend 60 or more hours a week at work–that’s the equivalent of working 8 1/2 hours every day of the week!
Overworking is a health disaster for a couple of reasons. First, it creates a huge imbalance between work and rest that’s so necessary for good health. Your body and mind heal and rejuvenate when you rest, and if you’re working 60 plus hours a week, there’s not much time to recover. Second, overworking wears down your body constitution, or your ability to bounce back from trauma and illness. Essentially, it depletes your energy and wears you out.
Travel. Traveling is also an energy drain, even if you’re taking a trip for fun. You’re dealing with different time zones and jet lag, eating different foods, sleeping a bed that’s not your own, and drinking from a different water supply. Your body is using valuable energy to adapt to all of these changes.
Travel can also wreak havoc on cranky backs, and can be especially hard if you’re flying or driving for many hours. In addition, getting on a plane with 200-300 other people, some of whom are sick can tax your immune system before you’ve even left the runway.
While you may thrive on the change of visiting a new place, your body is stressed because it’s…different. If you routinely travel for business, the stress on your body can be even more intense. Often the trips are short, packed with meetings, business meals, and little time to yourself.
Simply being aware of these physical stressors is an important first step in guarding your health. Pay attention to seasonal changes, eat food that’s local and currently in season, get enough down time, and protect your immune system, especially when you’re working long hours or traveling. These simple safeguards can help you stay in the best health possible.