If 2020 could be defined in one word it would be: STRESS! The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much about our daily lives and stress is only natural when change is involved (especially if we mention distance learning – yikes!) or simply life in general. Stress can stem from many different areas including; worrying about getting sick to daily tasks such as chores, to-do lists, taking care of kids and family, going to work and everything in between. Even if you are happy to perform these tasks (such as taking care of your kids) stress can follow. It’s a normal part of life. However, it’s also extremely important we learn how to manage our stress so it does not become chronic and lead to a health issue.
So, what exactly is stress and how does it affect the body?
Stress is defined as a physical, chemical or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. It’s the body’s way of signaling for help or a break in the routine. If we don’t listen to these signals, we can develop imbalances in our bodies, which can lead to illness.
Cortisol is the hormone most closely related to stress. Cortisol is a big component of the “fight or flight” response we feel when we are scared or threatened. In small bursts, cortisol is helpful. However, when stress becomes chronic, cortisol levels become consistently elevated. This puts the body in a constant state of being “on edge”, which can eventually cause insomnia, depression, anxiety, digestive issues, muscle pain and mental illness.
While minor stress will stimulate the immune system which helps us heal from illness and disease, chronic stress can actually compromise the immune system, once again due to the cortisol hormone. Chronic stress sufferers actually tend to get sick more often and recovery is slower.
Excess stress can also cause your heart to work too hard, leading to continuous high blood pressures or hypertension. Hypertension puts more stress on your blood vessels, which can increase your possibility of a stroke or heart attack. Chronic stress can also be detrimental to your muscles and can then lead to chronic body aches and pains. Muscles are supposed to tense up when under stress. However, when you are constantly stressed, the muscles never get the chance to completely relax, leading to headaches, back, neck and shoulder pain.
One of the most visible ways stress affects our bodies is our appearance. People who are under chronic pressure and stress tend to look older and fatigued. This happens because cortisol, the stress hormone in our bodies, builds up, which then increases the amount of free radicals in skin cells. Free radicals damage the skin cells causing them to become dull and dehydrated.
Another side effect of stress is digestion issues. In fact, many people today suffer from heartburn, upset stomach, and irritable bowel on a regular basis which is frequently caused by excess stress. Stress causes the body to alter gastrointestinal motility by moving blood normally used in the digestive process, away from your belly and midsection, as part of the “fight or flight” response that occurs when you are stressed. The lack of blood and fluids in the gastrointestinal tract leads to increases in stomach acid, stomach upset, heartburn and digestive issues.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are steps we can take to manage our stress before it gets out of hand. One of these stress management tips (and arguably the most important) is acupuncture! Acupuncture is a wonderful tool for fighting stress! In fact, as few as two needles can reset your body and decrease your daily stress levels.
How does acupuncture work for stress?
Acupuncture acts like physical therapy for the nervous system by regulating neurotransmitters including endorphins, noradrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin which affect our mood. The tiny needles retrain the nervous system and the brain to behave as it should normally. For the nervous system to act and respond accordingly, cortisol has to be at normal levels and only used when a true “fight or flight” situation occurs which is what acupuncture instructs the body to do.
Additionally, acupuncture can help reduce stress by keeping the heart rate normal. When the body is stressed, the heart tends to pump faster and in some cases, a person may even develop palpitations. However, the heart rate is closely connected to the vagus nerve and when this nerve is stimulated, it can lower the heart rate. There’s even specific acupuncture and acupressure points that calm the vagus nerve and the heart.
In addition, acupuncture promotes circulation of blood throughout the body, which oxygenates the tissues and cycles out cortisol and other waste chemicals, improves blood flow to your digestive tract, and relaxes tense muscles.
Overall, acupuncture changes the way the body metabolizes stress. We all have daily stressors which are not going to just magically disappear (unfortunately) but acupuncture changes the way the body reacts to them. Instead of storing stress as tension in the shoulders, a tight upset stomach, or as anxiety, acupuncture allows the body to metabolize it and process it without the negative body reactions.
Other ways to reduce stress
In addition to acupuncture, there are other quick and simple things we can do to help destress including:
- Take slow deep breaths
- Take a break
- Go for a walk
- Exercise or do yoga
- Read a book
- Listen to music
- Relax in the bath
- Talk to a loved one