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Acupuncture, Massage, and Chinese Medicine for Stress | East London Acupuncture & Massage Therapy
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East London Acupuncture & Massage Therapy

Acupuncture, Massage, and Chinese Medicine for Stress

06 January 2013

“Waiting to treat until after the illness has already developed is like digging a well when one is thirsty, or casting a knife after the battle has already been engaged.” Chinese Proverb

Stress is a mental or emotional reaction resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. The exact mechanisms are not completely understood, but many parts of the brain, nervous system and endocrine system are involved, increasing the amounts of some hormones (such as corticosteroids) and reducing others (like serotonin). It’s something that most have experienced from time to time, and to some degree or other. Studies estimate that about half a million people suffer from work related stress alone, and that around 105 million work days are lost to stress each year.

Chinese Approach to Stress

A background in Psychology has given me an interest in the use of acupuncture and other Chinese medicine techniques, such as massage, food therapy and essential oil therapy, when approaching complaints such as stress and anxiety. Western medicine, with it’s origins in Cartesian Duality, tends to view mental or emotional processes as separate from physical ones. In contrast, eastern medicine sees the body as a whole – mental processes are reflected in the physical body and vice versa.

The Chinese approach suggests that specific mental-emotional processes are reflected in the physiological processes of our organs. We already have an understanding of this in our culture. For example, we talk about being ‘broken hearted’ or having ‘butterflies in the stomach’. Any one who has experienced these knows that the feelings are very much physical as well as emotional. Over centuries of self-observation and empirical studies, these ideas have been expanded and developed into a profoundly holistic and complete perspective on the body.

For example, Chinese medical theory sees pensiveness or thoughtfulness as a reflection of the physiological processes of the digestive system. Just as we turn problems over and try to break them down to understand them, so our stomachs turn over and break down food. When this process becomes excessive it becomes ‘worry’ – the majority (perhaps all) of the people I’ve seen with digestive complaints (IBS, Chron’s disease, etc) have described themselves as worriers, and find it difficult to stop thinking over and over about problems or challenges ahead. Western science is starting to understand these links, and there is a lot of evidence coming out of clinical studies that suggests that the gut, for example, can be described as the ‘second brain’, playing a larger role than previously thought in our mental and emotional well-being, affecting our thoughts and moods.

Using and understanding this perspective can be very effective and empowering for people dealing with problems of this nature. It helps to achieve a deeper awareness of our body’s functions as well as opening up different ways of approaching the problems.

Ways of Coping With Stress

One of the most frequent comments I hear after people get off the couch after a session of acupuncture or massage is how relaxed they feel. Even those who had been feeling apprehensive about the treatment are often surprised at how their stress levels have dropped and how much calmer and grounded they feel. So it’s definitely worth trying, especially if you feel that your stress levels are affecting your health. Typical signs of this can be difficulty sleeping, disturbed digestion, palpitations, sweating, and back or shoulder pains. There are other ways to reduce stress levels. Here are some of my recommendations:

  • Breathe. Deep breathing (diaphragm breathing) can reduce blood pressure, stimulate the digestion, as well as reduce feelings of stress. Practise in a calm space, and try counting as you take each breath. You should start to see the effects fairly quickly. Essential oils such as lavender, bergamot and lemon verbena can enhance relaxation.
  • Exercise: This is one of the best ways to reduce stress. Do something you enjoy, and don’t overexert yourself. Even a gentle walk in a park can be a great stress buster. Meditative exercise, such as Tai Chi or Qi Gong is fantastic.
  • Mediate: meditation techniques are easy to learn and can have a profound affect on stress levels. Look for tutorials online or join a class. It’s often difficult at first, especially for people with a lot on their minds, but persevere and the benefits will soon become obvious.

Some Science

The affect that acupuncture has on stress is not widely understood, but a handful of studies have suggested that it could work in the following ways:

  • Acting on areas of the brain known to reduce sensitivity to pain and stress, as well as promoting relaxation and deactivating the ‘analytical’ brain, which is responsible for anxiety and worry (Hui 2010; Hui 2009);
  • Improving stress induced memory impairment and an increasing AchE reactivity in the hippocampus (Kim 2011);
    Reducing serum levels of corticosterone and the number of tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive cells (Park 2010);
  • Regulating levels of neurotransmitters (or their modulators) and hormones such as serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, GABA, neuropeptide Y and ACTH; hence altering the brain’s mood chemistry to help to combat negative affective states (Lee 2009; Cheng 2009; Zhou 2008);
  • Stimulating production of endogenous opioids that affect the autonomic nervous system (Arranz 2007). Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, while acupuncture can activate the opposing parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates the relaxation response;
  • Reversing pathological changes in levels of inflammatory cytokines that are associated with stress reactions (Arranz 2007);
  • Reducing inflammation, by promoting release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors (Kavoussi 2007, Zijlstra 2003);
    Reversing stress-induced changes in behaviour and biochemistry (Kim 2009).

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