When I tell people what I do I’m always impressed by how many have been helped by acupuncture. They usually say how it helped with their neck pain, sciatica pain, or something to that effect. Undoubtedly these are things that acupuncture has shown to be very good at treating, but many are not aware of how many other things acupuncture can help.
If there’s one thing that everyone experiences at times, it’s stress. More people experience stress than back pain, for example, and a great many of us experience some form of chronic stress. This person might be a student, or a new parent who isn’t sleeping, or in a difficult relationship to name a few. These are things that can go on for a long time. So this is one area that we should all think about using acupuncture for more often!
It is easy to say that stress can lead to some very nasty things if left unaddressed. In fact, “Stress Kills,” right? But if we understand a few ways to combat stress, we can have some pretty positive impacts on not just our immediate experience, but on our long term health in general.
If we look at stress from the western medical approach, we categorize it into an area of the nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. This is a part of the nervous system that works in the background which we don’t generally have control over directly. So if a person is stressed, scared, or angry, the sympathetic nervous system is firing at a higher rate. This is the “fight or flight” system and this happens for a reason. If you are being chased by a hungry tiger for example you will need your sympathetic system to be active. This diverts blood to the muscles, it dilates the eyes to let in more light to see with, and it provides bursts of blood sugar. These are all things you might need to save your life. However this comes at an expense. If the body is coursing with stress hormones and blood is being shunted away from the organs, over time things start to suffer. Just think about how your stomach would feel if you were asked to speak in front of 100 people. Most of us would feel sick and possibly lose our breakfast! Now keep that going for weeks. This is not healthy. So there needs to be balance.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the “rest and digest” system. This is the counterpoint to the sympathetic side. We require the parasympathetic system to relax, digest our food, go to the bathroom, have healthy sexual function, and generally not feel like we have had too much caffeine! Life is full of stressors so our physiological reaction is often sympathetic in nature. Therefore we need to do things that help turn up the parasympathetic system to balance out the equation. This is one thing that acupuncture has shown to help.
Acupuncture has been shown in the medical literature to turn up parasympathetic nervous system activity to help ease the impact of stress on the body. Now consider for a moment how a lot of us “relax.” Does it involve stimulants like coffee? That’s sympathetic. Does it involve high action TV drama shows? Sympathetic. Does it involve staying up late (not resting)? Sympathetic. I’m not saying these things are all bad. In fact I am known to watch high action shows late at night myself. But is there a little room in there perhaps to balance what we are putting into our systems?
When a patient comes in to see me for acupuncture, I always keep this in mind. I will always add in some points to address stress even when the person isn’t complaining about it. Know it or not, all of our systems are impacted by stress. If you think about it that person may be in to see me for their neck pain. But isn’t that stressful? I know that when I am injured I can’t do the things I like to do. I lack physical outlets for my stress. The pain is the largest concern of course, but there is stress right below the surface! If there is one thing that I see time and time again it is that no matter what the reason for the acupuncture visit, the person almost always walks out feeling better. They took some time out of their day to take care of themselves. They helped themselves readjust their nervous system. And more times than not walk out with a healthier outlook on the day.
So don’t wait for neck pain or some other unfortunate injury to bring you in. Schedule some acupuncture for your health! De-stress a little. You deserve it.