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Stress - An Alternative Approach
By: Sally Sulhee VanCura, L.Ac.

We've all got it.

Stress needs no introduction – everyone is unfortunately all too familiar with how stress can affect your everyday life.
 
This article discusses what stress is, how it can affect you, and safe, effective, and natural approaches (like acupuncture and Chinese medicine) to becoming stress-free.

Stress and you

Believe it or not, stress is helpful, to a point.  It causes our bodies to produce adrenaline and increase heart rate and sensitivity to surroundings, helping our bodies to respond to unexpected situations rapidly.  For example, when there is danger, such as a fire or burglar, the adrenaline level rises to pump more blood in our body so we can fight or run.  Another stress hormone called cortisol is also produced which increases the level of blood sugar, thus providing more energy for the reaction.

However, chronic stress is related to many unhealthy symptoms, including high blood pressure, migraines, digestive problems, pregnancy complications, and even stroke.  According to many research studies, the blood sugar increase caused by cortisol has also been found to lower the efficiency of our bodies' immune systems, and can result in even more problems for people with diabetes. In the most extreme cases, panic attacks, periods of a debilitating sense of extreme distress or fear, can occur.

So, how do I protect my body against stress?

Unfortunately, we can't simply disengage ourselves from our jobs, marriages, relationships, financial situations or children, the most common sources of stress.  In fact, the process of attempting to eliminate these perceived sources of stress may actually cause more stress. The first step in dealing with stress is to acknowledge that you're suffering from it in the first place.  I'd be willing to bet that if you've read the article up to this sentence, you've already accomplished this.  

Next, learning how to take control of a stressful situation can make a crucial difference - stress can be beneficial once you know how to take advantage of the situation by changing your outlook.  For example, are you stressed you may lose your job?  Instead of worrying about the loss of income and social status, you could expand your skill set by taking night courses in order to make yourself more marketable.  Instead of waiting for the axe to fall, you could be out meeting new people and creating opportunity for professional growth.  Are you stressed about impressing your in-laws over the holidays?
Instead of worrying if people are going to eat the broccoli casserole, you could take the opportunity to learn a new recipe, redo your interior design, or use as an excuse to buy that new entertainment center.

The point is, everyone experiences potentially stressful situations. Your outlook on these situations can make all the difference.  If you think negatively, the outcome will be negative, and your body will suffer from the resulting stress.  If you turn the negative into a positive, both your mind and body will benefit.

Okay, so I need to think positively.  Are there things I can do to help along the process?

Absolutely. There are many strategies to help us to manage stress effectively.  Exercise, yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, massage, acupuncture, and even laughter are some of the techniques proven to be helpful.  Instead of sitting on your couch and allowing yourself to be consumed by anxiety, how about going for a bike ride, seeing a funny movie, dimming the lights and taking a bath, or calling up a friend with whom you haven't spoken in a while?  In my experience, stress-reducing medications are only a stop-gap solution that suppresses, not solves the problem.  These medications can also cause addiction, despondence, fatigue, decreased memory, and metabolic problems.  Overall, medication is not a great solution to such a common and easily-treatable problem.

The next step – Stress from a Chinese Medicine Perspective

You're probably wondering, "this is a website about acupuncture and Chinese medicine...so where's the herbal remedy?"  We're getting there.  Let's start with how I look at stress: in Chinese medicine, chronic stress causes a blockage of the energy flow in our bodies at various points.  When the energy is not moving freely, painful sensations appear in places where the energy is congested.  Migraines, abdominal bloating, cramps, tennis elbow, and really any kind of pain without cause is more than likely due to stress-related energy blockage.

To perform a quick self-diagnosis, it's important to realize that the prolonged congestion of energy flow creates heat in the center of our bodies, which results in a lack of energy flow to the extremities.  Do you constantly have cold and clammy hands and feet, even if you're not sick or in a cold room? How about hot flashes on your face? Chances are, it's all stress-related.  What's more, the heat contained centrally rises, creating instances of abrupt anger and insomnia, even when the body is exhausted.  All of this can be traced back to the energy blockage in our bodies.

Fortunately, in Chinese medicine there is a remedy: many natural herbs help to promote the energy flow in our bodies.  White peony root, Bai Shao, and sedge root, Xiang Fu Zi, are two of the major herbs proven to open up the internal energy channels.  From there, it's one big chain reaction.  As the energy moves, it benefits the liver, which in turn enriches the nutrients in the blood.  The enriched blood benefits the muscles, the muscles can relax easier, and the relaxing muscles help ease the mind.  The mind at ease can better perform activities to free more energy, and the cycle continues until you're stress-free.   

Of course, this doesn't mean you can swallow a handful of herbs that will magically make your stress completely – rather, they are meant as a means to supplement your other stress-relief activities in a safe, natural, and effective manner.  In my experience, patients taking these herbs who also exercise and practice relaxation techniques experience exponentially more relief than those who only take the herbs without changing their lifestyle.  In short, the herbs are a great way to jump-start your body's energy flow and a perfect complement to ridding your mind of stress by beginning with your body.   

About the Author:

Sally Sulhee VanCura is the owner of the DuPage Acupuncture Clinic in Naperville, Illinois.

Sally is a board-certified acupuncturist and herbologist, and has treated numerous patients with various health problems in her clinic with much success. She is also a registered nurse with twenty-two years of intensive care unit experience. Sally's professional experience enables her to understand the medical background of patients as it applies to traditional, Western ideas and methodologies, as well as how people with such backgrounds can be helped by the natural remedies that Chinese medicine offers.

She created Herboria.com to try to expand people's knowledge of the benefits of alternative medicine, and also to help people answer questions they have about herbal remedies and acupuncture.