Stress is too common to ignore
It is a typical Saturday office and my first two patients are a middle aged woman and her young adult son. Both are struggling with stress, which looks entirely different if you compare their symptoms. The mom has a ton of tension in her shoulders: she is exhausted and falls asleep the moment she hits the bed but then wakes up and tosses and turns all night. Her son’s stress shows up as crippling anxiety. He is a handsome young man in his 20s, yet he spends his days stuck in the house, fatigued and trapped by his own mental state. Both the mom and her son have nerve pain in their lower back.
It is so fascinating that every single person has stress. Yet nobody can see it, measure it, or touch it. It is a vague concept for most of us and almost nobody takes stress seriously. People often say, “Oh, it is just life, everyone is stressed” like it is not a big deal. Somehow we are expected to be busy and stressed as if it is some kind of badge of honor or at the very least normal.
How did humans evolve to handle stress?
As human beings we evolved to handle short-term stress to be able to escape from danger and fight for our lives when necessary. In fact, short-term acute stress is not only normal; it is necessary for good health. It gives our muscles and nervous system a good workout and keeps us in shape. But stress is normal only if it is short-lived!
What happens when we perceive a threat?
When we perceive something as scary, the amygdala (a group of neurons in the brain) triggers a cascade of neural responses that causes the adrenals. This leads to the release of epinephrine and cortisol. This is necessary to create a boost of energy in case we need to prepare for a violent muscular action to be able to run away or engage in a physical fight (the infamous “fight or flight response”). That is why a mother suddenly gets superhuman strength and can lift a car to free her baby.
Here is what happens in your body the moment your brain perceives a threat. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure goes up, and the blood vessels dilate to supply oxygen to the muscles. All non-essential functions such as digestion and immunity are suppressed, and there may be some vision and hearing loss. Some people also start shaking. Muscles tense up to make you fast and strong. Your blood sugar rises for a robust muscular action. Even blood clotting increases to prevent blood loss in case of an injury. This is meant to be intense! This is clearly an expensive energy process that is meant to ensure survival in a crisis.
I often explain to my patients that animals in nature burn up this fight/flight energy because they do end up running away or fighting for their lives. They shake it off and right after a scary tiger is no longer a threat, they kind of stop worrying about it and take a nap.
Chronic stress vs. acute stress
Chronic stress is like running on a back-up generator when you lose power. This generator is meant to help you survive until your power is back on. Can you do this for a couple hours? Sure! But you would probably want your whole house electricity on at some point. It is the same with stress. It is not meant to be a prolonged state.
Now imagine if your stress is caused by a stressful job or COVID19. Can you imagine what happens if you walk around for days, months or years in a state of elevated blood pressure, sugar, fat, increased blood clotting, suppressed immune system and unable to digest your food properly? It is no wonder that chronic stress is tied to many physical diseases such as cancer, auto-immunity and pain.
How to avoid stress and maintain good health
To maintain good health it is important to let go, to switch from this sympathetic state of high arousal to a parasympathetic (or “rest and digest”) state. In a parasympathetic state your immune system can deal with pathogens and cancer cells, your digestive system properly digests food, and you are able to get enough restorative sleep.
Is it possible to function in a state of chronic stress? Yes, people can live like this for a long time, but at what cost? It is impossible to predict how each person will end up reacting to long term stress. As shown in my example of the mother and son above, they manifested different symptoms. For one person, it could be chronic and constant colds, and for the other it could be more serious, such as cancer or auto-immune disorder.
Weirdly, chronic stress is like catch 22. On one hand, stress causes all these physiological changes such as indigestion, insomnia, chronic fatigue, and low immune function. Awful sleep leads to volatile emotions. Poor digestion leads to inability to digest proteins properly and produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Catching lots of colds makes you fatigued and irritable. And at the same time, feeling unwell, fatigued and achy leads to even more stress. It is a vicious cycle!
Physical relaxation leads to mental stress relief
Yet this is not as dark as it sounds, there are ways to reduce and eliminate chronic stress. The first step is to realize that stress is not something that exists out there in a vacuum. It is our reaction to external events and we do have some control over it. Practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga are very helpful in understanding where the external stressors end and our reaction begins. We can regain some space and consciously choose to let go. Being aware and taking deep breaths before reacting can stop the stress cascade reaction in its tracks.
There are many ways to prepare your body and mind to be less reactive. Your body is literally your subconscious mind. The more you relax and let go, the easier it gets. Being and staying relaxed can rewire your nervous system. My favorite ways to deal with mental and emotional stress (rarely in our modern society do we deal with purely physical stress) are through the body.
As an acupuncturist who specializes in insomnia and anxiety, I can tell that the effect of my treatments is cumulative. The more my patients are able to relax, the easier it gets. This is a snowball effect, the opposite of the catch-22 of stress aggravation mentioned above. Acupuncture, cupping, and massage are all excellent ways to deal with mental and emotional distress without talking about it. While I appreciate psychotherapy, I find the body approach to mental issues is a powerful shortcut. If the body is relaxed, the mind will follow.
Having a stress relief routine is important!
I personally have a wellness routine that includes acupuncture, hot yoga, massage, and ozone saunas, which allows me to run my acupuncture/ozone sauna clinic practice and take care of my family relatively stress-free. I find my job extremely gratifying because I get to help my patients get rid of insomnia, anxiety and pain which leads to their whole lives being transformed for the better! Stress relief is so important and it is doable. I hope that this would inspire you to take a look at your state of stress and address it before it leads to an illness.
Lola Fox-Rabinovich, Licensed Acupuncturist
Owner of Luna Body and Mind, Santa Monica, CA