April = Stress Awareness Month: Reduce Your Stress & Join The Conversation
Understand Your Body and Harness Your Power!
As living, breathing, complex beings – each one of us experiences stress. And yet, the WAY in which we experience stress looks and feels very different. This makes it hard to define what stress actually is. The American Institute of Stress gives the most common explanation of, “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension.” Unfortunately, the world gives us plenty of things to stress out about. The pandemic alone has bombarded us with psychological burdens spreading fear, anxiety, frustration, and overall burnout. It can be dangerously easy to let the stress consume us, and yet it is vital to understand the science behind stress. Knowledge is power. The more we know, the more we can fight back. By continuing the conversation about our own stress triggers, we increase awareness and reduce the feeling of shame that many of us still experience when discussing topics relating to our mental health. The truth is, the human struggle is REAL and we MUST keep talking about what matters and ask questions to better understand ourselves and one another.
The Science Behind Stress
To understand stress, we have to understand just a little bit of the science behind it. The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is the part of your nervous system responsible for the rest and digestive function within your body. When your PNS is activated, it produces a calm, relaxed feeling in your mind and body. Learning to trigger this part of your nervous system can immediately reduce anxiety and stress. This is good news!
Of course, we must also learn to understand how stress can harm us so we can start to get a grip on it. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) prepares your body for what you know as the “fight or flight” response during any potential danger. From an evolutionary standpoint, this evolved from a caveman being chased by some kind of prehistoric lion, to modern-day men and women surviving life-threatening situations and sometimes even using what can only be described as super-human strength to survive and live to tell their own miraculous stories.
There is a time and place for our SNS, and we certainly need it to survive. But the problem is, our SNS system gets triggered far too easily and far too often. All it takes is that one stressful phone call, traffic, an approaching deadline, or even just the simple blue light emitted from our cell phones, and boom – a flash flood of hormones boosts the body’s alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles.
Bad for Your Health
The more we stress out, the more we activate our SNS. Our body stays in “Fight or Flight” which keeps us alert, even when it’s time for our bodies to rest. Adrenaline increases the heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and causes the release of the primary stress hormone – cortisol.
As cortisol levels go up, the body releases glucose (sugar) as a fuel source. Under normal circumstances, cortisol counterbalances insulin. But an elevated release of glucose can lead to increased insulin production. Insulin is a fat-storing hormone that moves glucose out of the blood. Normally, insulin puts glucose back into the cells, but if there is nowhere to store it – it gets converted to fat. Which is why even those who are eating clean but are highly stressed find that they cannot lose weight, or they notice cellulite taking the place of muscles. Additionally, too much cortisol in the body can lead to anxiety, depression, heart disease, trouble with digestion, sleep loss, etc. This also explains why we often crave more sugar and carbs during very stressful situations.
The Greater Impact
Stress fatigues the mind and the body. Dr. Sarah Anzola says the physical impact varies from one patient to another. “I often see physical signs of tension and tightness in the upper shoulders and jaw for people who have more liver constitutions (meaning the stress manifests differently in this specific organ). Usually, these patients tend to be more irritable, suffer from headaches and migraines, have PMS, and are at risk for developing hypertension due to long-term stress. People who are more susceptible to spleen and stomach constitutions may have digestive troubles such as nausea, decreased appetite, loose stools, and stomach pains.”
Dr. Anzola goes on to say that understanding HOW stress shows up in your body can help you develop a plan of action. “The key is noticing and being mindful of how your body responds to stress and how long those feelings are lingering.”
The Silver Lining
While human beings cannot completely escape stress, we can learn how to curb it and even treat it. Dr. Anzola recommends a treatment plan of four to six weeks to help get her patients' stress in check. “Treatment may include acupuncture, cupping therapy, herbal prescription along with customized dietary and lifestyle recommendations. The sooner you get treatment for your stress, the sooner you will feel better!”
While we wish there was one magic pill to fix all of our problems, we know there is no quick fix. Combating stress takes effort and time. Some patients require specialized treatment and medical care as their conditions are far more severe. No matter what you are going through, there are plenty of strategies to help minimize stress in the mind, the body, and ultimately the soul.
Check out a few of these totally doable game-changer approaches:
Avoid too much caffeine during your day – as caffeine also causes cortisol levels to rise.
Engage in deep diaphragmatic breathing throughout your day. Inflate the belly like a balloon and then slowly exhale. Notice how you feel an instant sense of calm and peace. This is one of the easiest practices to implement into your routine. Try it right now and see for yourself – get to breathing!
Set your sleep schedule. As your PNC works primarily between the hours of 10 PM - 2 AM, these are the optimal hours for rest and restoration in your body.
Set aside sometime in your day to do some yoga and meditation – even a few simple restorative poses such as legs up the wall can help activate your PNC and calm your mind and body.
Try tapping, which combines ancient Chinese acupressure and modern psychology to alter your brain, energy system, and body. The results will amaze you!
Help your adrenal system adapt to stress with adaptogens, which are specific herbs and mushrooms that help your body naturally cope with stress. Ashwagandha, for example, is a small evergreen shrub that has been used for hundreds of years. These herbs can be found in supplement or powder form. So be brave and check ‘em out - you can throw some into your smoothies, take them in pure supplement form, or even use them to cook.
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WHAT'S THE POINT???
This Month’s Acu-Point: Ren 17 "Tan Zhong"
"Chest Center," Tan Zhong is a powerful point for heart health in traditional Chinese medicine. It is also an excellent point for releasing anxiety and fear, and it is useful for preventing acid reflux. The point is located in the center of the breastbone, at the fourth intercostal space (the space between the ribs), which is usually at the level of the nipples in men.
To stimulate this point, use the tips of your fingers to gently tap the center of your chest at this point to release any tension and break up chi stagnation. You can tap this point for three-five minutes while taking deep breaths to feel more relaxed.