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How Stress Affects the Body

How Stress Affects the Body

We all experience stress. 

We all need healthy amounts of stress in order to have the strength to encounter illnesses, big emotions and life upheavals. 

There can be a fine goldilocks line however, with how much stress is too much, and how this can impact the health of the mind and body.

One of the things I really loved learning about Chinese Medicine, was the acknowledgement of how our emotions can impact our health. 

In western medicine the only emotion written about in peer-reviewed literature in terms of its impact on health is stress. And stress itself is not one defined emotion. People can be irritated, sad, worried, anxious, depressed, and these can all create certain amounts of stress in the body. 

What do you notice in your body when you are stressed? Do you get headaches? Does your neck and upper back lock up? Do you feel like your whole body is tight and sore? Do you feel like you are on edge? 

In Chinese medicine we usually attribute these physical signs and symptoms of stress in the body as being resultant of ‘liver qi’ stagnation. This does not mean there is anything wrong with your liver organ. It means that the qi of the body is no longer able to “flow freely and smoothly throughout the entire body”, which is one of the functions the liver network is responsible for. This phrase defines the role of the liver in Chinese medicine, which essentially makes sure that all systems and rhythms (circadian, menstrual, hormonal, digestive, nervous etc) are running smoothly. 

The most obvious sign that qi is not flowing smoothly is when we feel physical pain. Pain means that qi is not flowing freely through a particular area of the body resulting in a blockage which we feel as pain. We naturally want to massage a painful ache in the body, or add some heat, which are both instinctive ways that we try to self-regulate qi blockages in our own bodies. 

“Stress”, or affect disorder (big emotional upheavals), is looked at in Chinese Medicine as an etiological factor contributing to the physical signs and symptoms that upset a person’s health. I think it is really great that we can consider that a long period of grief, or an angry outburst at home, or even an event such as moving house can be acknowledged in a consultation as part of the patient’s story regarding their health complaints.

If a patient came to see me and their main complaint was very painful periods, and they also shared with me that their job is extremely stressful and they dread going to work, I will definitely make a connection between the stressful emotions with the dysfunction showing up in their menstrual cycle. 

In my humble opinion, stress of any kind is the biggest factor that may disrupt an otherwise regular and fairly pain-free period and cause it to arrive early, or late, with more pain, and perhaps more clotted blood, and probably more signs of PMS on the lead to the bleed as well. Have you ever noticed that a particularly stressful month has disturbed the rhythm of your menstrual cycle? 

With this new idea of qi not flowing smoothly through the body when liver qi flow is impeded, it makes sense that chronic stress can have a disastrous impact on the body, in a variety of ways. Tissues of the body can become dry and stiff as fluids and qi are not circulating freely. The digestive system can become weak and unable to properly absorb nutrients if spleen qi is not strong or liver qi is impeding the flow through the gut. The nervous system can be firing too much on the sympathetic gear which can create excess stress hormone in the blood and make it difficult to sleep deeply. 

With anxiety becoming an emotional state being experienced by a higher amount of people on the planet than ever before, being able to find ways in which we can destress and decompress is absolutely essential for our health! 

It is not as simple as being told to “relax.” In fact, a stressed-out person may find that kind of an instruction may amplify their stressful state, because not being able to relax makes them realise just how tense they really are! 

From my years of mentoring yoga teachers and facilitating yin yoga classes, I have found it much more helpful to create invitations to help people reconnect with their bodies in a way that is exploratory, rather than just instructional. The difference between these two might be that instead of being told to “relax your leg” you might “invite your leg to become really heavy as it sinks into the firmness of the floor.” 

Qualitative sensations to explore can help a person come down from thinking (usually over-thinking) and remember that they are in a body, not just a head. 

In whatever ways you can find your access to stress decompression, the most important thing is that you find an easy way to weave it into your life. Because in times of extreme stress, finding the time to go to yoga, or to meditate, or even go for a walk outside might not be possible. Little spot moments of re-centering and self-regulating are key.

Here are a few ideas that you might find helpful to try:

  • Whenever you remember, stop what you are doing, close your eyes and take 10 slow deep breaths (and then take 10 more). 
  • If you do a lot of computer work, set a timer at regular intervals so that you can stand up and stretch out your shoulders, fold forward stretching out your legs, swing your arms around and shake your hands. 
  • When you wake up in the morning, before you get out of bed, put one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Take three deep breaths and remind yourself that no matter what happens today, you will be fine, and that you have your own back! 
  • Try and have a meal (once a day if you can) without looking at any devices, and just honour the moment of receiving nourishment from your food. 
  • And when you do have space, weave in some time spent in nature, take off your shoes, lay on the grass and watch the clouds, turn off your phone and just let yourself be still for a little while. 

Remember, in these strange and unprecedented times self-care is not a luxury, it is a necessity to manage your health and keep your qiflowing smoothly.

Dr Karina Smith

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