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So you feel stressed?

In Health and Healing, Health and Nutrition by Dr Matt RadfordLeave a Comment

Here are some simple solutions that people have used to minimise the effects of stress on their lives. Try them for yourself.


So you feel stressed?

Well you are definitely not alone. Everyone experiences stressful periods in life. This is absolutely normal. It is these challenges that allow us to grow and develop as people. After all, we are all going to experience ageing, sickness and eventually death. This in itself can be a very stressful idea unless we think about it and contemplate it wisely.

Anxiety, worry, anger, jealousy, even tiredness can be opportunities to transcend the feeling and increase the strength of our character. This is great in theory, but often seemingly a virtual impossibility in practice. As my old yoga teacher once said, “Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you feel as if you were dead.”

So what’s the big deal then? Why is stress so bad for you? We can look at it from two points of view; from a modern Western medicine physiological perspective and a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) framework.

Western medicine physiology – the nervous system

The nervous system is like the electrochemical wiring which transmits information and instructions around the body. The autonomic nervous system is the part that deals with the automatic functions of the body, not usually under conscious control. For example, breathing, heart beat, and digestive processes. The autonomic system is further divided into two; the sympathetic and parasympathetic.

The sympathetic nervous system controls the ‘fight or flight’ response. Under stressful conditions, it rapidly prepares the body to deal physically with the situation or run away. However, in modern life, it is often not so convenient to have the body physiologically primed to thump an annoying customer or run screaming out of the office when confronted by an angry boss. The body is coursing with adrenalin. The heart rate rises, breathing becomes shallower, the digestive system is slowed down as the blood is directed to the muscles.

Move it

When the body is in such a state, it needs to move, to use the available energy. The last thing you should do in this situation, is to eat. Your digestive system is in standby mode and the food simply sits there, waiting for the digestion to be switched back on.

This is achieved by the parasympathetic nervous system that restores the body’s functions to their normal resting state. If you have been under fairly constant stress, the parasympathetic system does not get a chance to calm the body down, resulting in that ‘running on adrenalin’ feeling. People in this state are often more irritable, less tolerant, less emotionally resilient and can experiences hot flushes in the body for no apparent reason. It also leaves us much more susceptible to illness as the immune system is compromised.

When you eventually rest and have that catch up sleep, you invariably feel worse, as the parasympathetic system overcompensates. These extreme swings are eventually harmful to the whole self. The effect is like putting your foot flat down on the accelerator and then slamming on the brakes rather than driving moderately. It’s dangerous, it’s not fuel efficient and it wears the vehicle down prematurely.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) – a holistic perspective

In TCM practice we view the person as a whole, with all the different emotions and organ systems interacting together. If one system is not functioning optimally, then all of the others will be affected. Prolonged stress adversely affects the flow of ‘qi’ or energy. This manifests as different symptoms according to which organ system is most affected. Each of these organ systems also has a corresponding emotion according to TCM theory.

Bear in mind that these are TCM concepts, and are not the same as the Western Medicine organs of the same name.

In TCM the liver system is associated with anger. Dysfunction in this system can manifest symptoms such as irritability, muscular pain and tension, headaches, skin conditions such as acne and herpes, and period pain or menstrual problems in women.

The heart system is concerned with joy

If the heart is affected, symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia can result. The spleen and stomach system likes regularity. Prolonged stress or irregular eating habits or poor diet can lead to stomach upsets, bloating, nausea, diarrhoea or constipation. If this is prolonged, you can also suffer with concentration and memory problems with a characteristic ‘foggy-headed’ feeling.

The lung system can be harmed by prolonged grief

Obviously smoking doesn’t do it any favours either. Frequent coughs and colds and general run-down feelings are a result of lung system dysfunction.

In TCM we consider the kidney system to be the foundation of health and believe that fear harms the kidney. When people are stressed, working longer hours and spending less time horizontal and resting, this system is compromised. Common problems are lower back pain and knee pain, frequent urination and loss of libido.

Common reactions

What happens when we find ourselves in these unfortunate situations? Too often people subconsciously self-medicate, but unfortunately, this tends to make the problem worse. For instance, the liver is temporarily placated with alcohol, drugs, caffeine and fatty foods; the Heart is numbed with tranquillisers or unhealthy relationships. The ‘spleen stomach’ craves sweet foods, as a small amount of the sweet taste helps the digestion. However, we are talking about the sweetness of a pear, not a block of chocolate! Paradoxically, we smoke to help the lung and eat salty food in an attempt to help the struggling kidney.

So when we use these clumsy cures on ourselves, we just end up making the problem much worse.

The beauty of TCM is that it takes all these factors into account. The TCM practitioner can make a ‘holognosis’ – a holistic diagnosis – based on all the patient’s symptoms, rather than a diagnosis – which tends to narrow down the view to a single disease entity. An experienced TCM practitioner can pick up the subtle signs of stress long before Western medical diagnostic testing shows anything is abnormal. This is a much more satisfying approach for many patients who are frustrated by a medical system that says there is nothing wrong with them, when they know in themselves this is not the case.

In the clinic

I’ll often explain to patients that this is not due to the attitude or skill of the Western doctors, but rather, the limitation of that particular diagnostic system. This system excels at surgery and emergency treatment and cases where there is demonstrable organic change in the body, but may lack a fundamental understanding of what it means to be truly healthy, rather than merely ‘not sick’.

Stress can show up in a myriad of different ways in different people. Sometimes symptoms are obvious. Occasionally bizarre and seemingly unrelated symptoms can arise. For example, take the case of a young woman who attended my clinic for help with a chronic skin rash. She had been using Western medicine for three years and was entirely dependent upon it to keep the rash at bay. After a few weeks of treatment with Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, she was able to identify her boyfriend’s tragic death years earlier as the trigger for the rash. This realisation, coupled with a short course of further treatment, completely and permanently relieved all of her symptoms.

Follow the signs

If you are experiencing problems such as: frequent headaches, sore eyes, trouble sleeping with the mind racing, aches and pains, stomach upsets and bloating, or just not feeling quite right, then these can all be signs of ‘un-ease’. Most of these un-eases will change and come and go from time to time, often getting that little bit worse each episode. These are our early warning messages helping us correct some clumsy imbalance or unhealthy pattern in our lives.

But if we do not attend to them properly, and just ignore the signs, eventually they may crop up as ‘dis-ease’. By this stage, the organ system dysfunction is more advanced and consequently more difficult to treat. Often people just ignore this and hope it will go away. This is human nature. Or they will keep pushing themselves until they end up very sick, and this forces them to slow down. We often feel that we must keep soldiering on regardless of what our body is telling us, until we eventually break down.

That’s the bad news

So what can we do about it, short of quitting our jobs, stopping studying, or leaving our families to fend for themselves? Of course! We’ll go off and live in a tipi in Byron Bay. Unfortunately, that won’t solve the problem, (believe me, I’ve tried). Unless you can resolve the stress in a constructive way and move to bring your life into harmony, these types of problems can keep haunting you.

Here are some simple solutions that people have used to minimise the effects of stress on their lives. Try them for yourself:

  1. Make time for yourself.

    Quality alone time. Constructive rest. Yes, even with impossible deadlines and responsibilities, right in the middle of exams, this time out (or rather, time in), is essential.
    Five minutes a day – just contemplating nature, or your navel – observing the in-breath and the out-breath.
    Try it now. I dare you!
    How did you go? Did the world stop because you did? At first you don’t even have to try for five minutes of this per day. Just promise yourself five breaths in a row every day.

  2. Don’t walk away from a problem; walk a problem away

    You need to keep the qi moving. One of the most widely used TCM herbal formulas was developed in the 17th Century. It is called, “Happy Rambling Powder”, as it is said to produce the same tranquillity as a stroll in the hills.

  3. Stay flexible

    If you don’t bend, you can break. Yoga helps a lot in this respect. As people age they tend to lose their flexibility, both in mind and body. A daily stretching routine does wonders.

  4. “No hurry, no worry, no chicken curry”

    …as a restaurant owner in India once said to me. Patience is a virtue, hence the saying ‘the patience of a Saint’. Slowly, slowly, step by step. You will get there.

  5. Eat with enjoyment

    …and chew your food. That way your body can digest properly.

  6. Water the seeds of joy first

    Remember to have fun. Give yourself praise, rewards, treats and regular encouragement. When the going gets tough, the tough go dancing. Over the years I have seen many patients who cannot do conventional exercise but are able to go dancing even with their injuries or health problems.

Finally, if it all gets too much, then treat yourself to treatment. You’re worth it!

About the author

Dr Matt Radford

Dr Matt Radford is a physiotherapist, Traditional Chinese Medicine physician, and the director of Centre of Health – Physiotherapy & Chinese Medicine in Melbourne. Matt also lectures in anatomy, acupuncture and orthopaedics. A keen surfer and meditator, he tries hard to live up to his own advice.

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