Anxiety and stress are feelings that virtually all of us are familiar with. Whether it be problems at work, financial troubles, relationship difficulties, an illness, or any other situation where we might feel we are outside our comfort zone, stress is a common part of human life. When we are healthy and the stress is short-lived, we are usually able to recover from stressful situations relatively unscathed. However, if stress and anxiety are prolonged and/or coupled with other emotional or physical disruptions, they begin to have serious consequences on our overall well-being.
Stress served as an important survival trait during our hunter-gatherer days. It affects the sympathetic nervous system, which initiates the instinctive "fight or flight" response when we are met with a dangerous or stressful situation. On a physical level, this response causes some dramatic temporary physical changes, such as increased heart rate, increased blood circulation, increased oxygen intake, dilation of pupils, and shutdown of digestive functions - all designed to enable us to either flee or combat a perceived danger for survival.
Unfortunately, this response by our sympathetic nervous system does not fit as well into modern living, where most of our stressful situations are met at home or work. Unlike in our cave-dwelling days, stressful situations tend to be more long-term and cannot usually be resolved by fleeing or fighting. As a result, levels of cortisol, the body's natural stress hormone, become elevated, resulting in high blood pressure, increased abdominal fat, increased blood sugar, lowered immune function, and decreased cognitive performance. Over time, this can cause long-term disruptions to our physical and mental health such as fatigue, depression, digestive issues, sleep problems, weight gain, headaches, and other pain problems.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, physical and emotional imbalances are closely linked in the sense that one type of imbalance can cause or exacerbate the other. Prolonged disruptive emotions like stress and anxiety cause obstructions in the natural flow of energy in the body, which can cause pain and illness. For example, chronic stress often manifests itself with muscle tension and pain in the upper back and neck, often also leading to headaches. Physical pain often leads to even more anxiety, resulting in a perpetuating cycle of imbalance.
Acupuncture combats stress by breaking this cycle of imbalance. It does this by freeing up the obstructions in the flow of energy and thereby restoring natural balance to the body. This not only helps to alleviate the physical manifestations of stress, such as pain, digestive disorders, and sleep issues but it also directly combats stress itself.
From a scientific perspective, acupuncture helps to alleviate stress by causing the body's nervous system to release natural chemicals, such as endorphins, in the brain and body. These chemicals act as pain-killers and relaxants, which have a calming effect on the body. The calming effect of acupuncture decreases heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and relaxes the muscles, thus alleviating many of the physical issues associated with stress. Additionally, acupuncture increases blood circulation, which in turn brings more oxygen to the tissues, while cycling out cortisol and other waste chemicals.