Stress is a cause of many chronic illnesses. When we experience stressful life situations, the body releases hormones that are biologically intended to keep us safe from danger by kicking the body into high gear. This is the ancient human response to “the tiger is going to eat me, I have to run really fast in order to survive”. The heart rate increases, digestion is suppressed, energy increases as more glucose (sugar) become available for the brain. Because survival is the primary goal, stress hormones suppress otherwise necessary functions like digestion and excretion.
The stress response is absolutely necessary in times of acute danger. But the body can’t always tell the difference between the proverbial tiger about to eat us and sitting in hours of traffic, so we experience chronic stress. Under chronic stress, our bodies often stay in a state of ‘fight or flight’. We experience tension, anxiety, insomnia, stomach problems, headaches. These chronic stress symptoms are really common, and with all of the overwhelm in the modern world, to say we are all stressed is probably an understatement. While many of us have learned to cope with stress, stress hormones may still be, well, stressing us out. Over time this can negatively impact our quality of life.
In Western medicine, the release of chronic stress hormones into the body causes chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is understood to put the body at greater risk for diseases such as heart and bowel disease, diabetes, arthritis and cancer. In short, it affects all systems of the body. This is because, as Eastern medicine teaches us, chronic inflammation sets off a cascade of reactions, throwing our system off balance.
In Eastern medical thought, the body is striving for a balance of Yin and Yang, and plentiful, free-flowing Qi and Blood. Chronic stress interrupts that delicate balance and over time can deplete our reserves, causing us to “burn out”. Just know that when we are constantly in fight or flight, the body doesn’t get to rest, restore, and repair. This leads to imbalances, which show up in different ways, depending on your unique constitution. This is why it can be confusing to understand just how stress may be a factor in causing sinus issues, or PCOS, for example.
Natural Ways to De-Stress
Our bodies are incredible and have natural ways to release stress hormones, but there are some things we can do to help the process along. If you notice yourself feeling tense, worried, anxious, or in pain, trying some of these techniques will help your body relax and increase your overall health.
Exercise. Moving your body, whether gently or vigorously will get the blood and qi flowing, releasing tension that gets stuck in the body. Walking, running, dancing, yoga, tai chi are all great ways to release endorphins and improve your overall well being.
Laughter. Laughter really is the best medicine. Laughter increases your oxygen intake, getting your blood flowing, stimulating your organs, and releasing endorphins, the happy chemicals in your brain.
Deep breathing and meditation. Sitting quietly for just 5 – 10 minutes a day, practicing deep breathing activates the vagus nerve, allowing the body to relax from its fight or flight stage into rest and relaxation. The heart rate slows, digestion resumes, and stress hormones are no longer released. Meditation also quiets down the overactive chatter and worry we often have in the mind.
Crying. The next time you feel sad or overwhelmed, you might want to let the tears flow. Interestingly, crying is an excellent way to release cortisol, one of the main stress hormones. This is one of the reasons we sometimes feel better after crying a little.
Hugs. A warm hug from a pet or a friend, often makes us just feel good. This is actually because hugging releases oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle hormone”. Oxytocin may be a factor in reducing inflammation, and even if it isn’t, it sure feels good.
We can’t take away the pressures of life and society. In the modern world, stress is a part of life. But we actually have a lot of simple tools we can use to support our body in releasing stress hormones and getting back into a restful state. Along with regular acupuncture, these techniques support the body’s natural processes and improve our quality of health.