Stress is a part of human life virtually all of us are familiar with, whether due to problems with work, finances, relationship difficulties, illness, or any other situation taking us outside our comfort zone. From the perspective of human evolution, in our hunter-gatherer days stress was crucial to our survival, since it acts on the sympathetic nervous system, initiating the instinctive "fight or flight" response when meeting with a dangerous or threatening situation.
On a physical level, this response initiates dramatic temporary physical changes, such as an increase in heart rate, blood circulation, and oxygen intake; dilation of pupils, and shutdown of digestive functions – all designed to enable us to either flee or combat a perceived threat. Unfortunately, this sympathetic nervous system response is not so well-suited to modern living, where most stressful situations occur at home or at work. Unlike in our cave-dwelling days, stress tends to be chronic and cannot usually be resolved by fleeing or fighting.
While we can usually recover from temporary stressful situations relatively unscathed, consistent and extreme stress can take a toll on the body, resulting in serious consequences to our overall health and well-being. Severe chronic stress elevates cortisol levels, resulting in high blood pressure, increased abdominal fat and blood sugar levels, suppressed immune function, and decreased cognitive performance. Other symptoms of long-term stress include fatigue, muscle tension, trembling, rapid or labored breathing, palpitations, excessive sweating, headaches, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, nausea, digestive complaints and sleep disturbances.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, physical and emotional imbalances are seen as closely linked in the sense that one imbalance can cause or exacerbate the other, and prolonged disruptive emotions caused by stressful situations obstruct the body’s natural flow of energy, resulting in pain and illness which in turn exacerbates the feeling of stress, creating a vicious cycle.
Acupuncture and Chinese herbal therapy help break this cycle by freeing up the obstructions in energy flow and restoring physical and mental health. From the scientific perspective, acupuncture helps to alleviate stress by causing the nervous system to release endorphins, the body’s own natural pain-killers and relaxants, which calm the nervous system, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and reduce muscle tension, alleviating many physical issues associated with stress. Acupuncture also improves blood circulation, brings more oxygen to the tissues, and helps cycle out cortisol and other waste chemicals.
The effects of an acupuncture treatment for stress relief are often immediate, and many patients report feeling much calmer, and at the same time restored to their more natural self after the very first treatment. This feeling can last anywhere from one to several days. Patients often notice an immediate improvement in muscle tension, sleep, energy levels, and overall sense of well-being. With regular treatments, the effects will be longer lasting and more cumulative. In most cases, coming for treatment once a week is sufficient, though the frequency and duration of treatment required to resolve the condition is determined by the individual presentation, symptom severity, the effects of stress on the person’s health and their circumstances.
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