Acupuncture, the Stress Buster
Updated March 1, 2004






by Kath Bartlett, LAc

Kath Bartlett, LAc practices at the Asheville Center for Chinese Medicine, located in downtown Asheville. Kath is a nationally certified Diplomate of Acupuncture and Herbology. She received a Master's of Science in Traditional Oriental Medicine from the prestigious, Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. She has completed advanced studies in the classic Chinese medical texts of Herbology and Oriental medical theory with Dr. Min Fan, formally of Beijing University. Kath can be contacted for acupuncture treatments or herbal and dietary consultations at Asheville Center for Chinese Medicine at 828/258-2777

Stress. We all have it. The question is, "How do we get rid of it?!"

The answer lies partly in eliminating the causes, but also in learning to manage life's curveballs. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are useful in the management end. Lifestyle counseling can help with the causes. How can acupuncture help, and what can you do stop stress in its tracks?

Before answering that question, let's look at what happens when we get stressed. Mostly, we tense up. This tightening causes our qi to get stuck. It's qi that mobilizes our arms and legs to move, our stomach to digest food, our heart to pump and blood to flow. Without qi, we're dead, lifeless.

When qi gets stuck, it builds up, and eventually it needs an escape valve. We might get angry and have outbursts. When qi in the stomach gets stuck, we have digestive problems, like acid regurgitation, or heartburn (qi is stuck, and can't flow down, so it escapes up and out the mouth). Some people get bowel problems, like IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) because this stuck qi cannot move food through the intestines properly. Did you ever get angry and feel qi rising to your head (maybe you got warm)? This happens because the stuck qi builds up, and then has to get released. It goes up to the head, and can cause migraine or tension headaches, and high blood pressure.

Acupuncture effectively treats disorders caused by stress, by unblocking stuck qi, allowing it to flow properly throughout the body, and we feel more relaxed. Then food is digested smoothly and moves through the bowels properly. As our tension is relieved, so are the headaches. Instead of being so tense and angry that our blood pressure starts to rise, we remain calm and our blood pressure and our tempers stay even.

A new patient of mine came to me for treatment of knee pain from an old injury. During the initial intake, I discovered that he had acid regurgitation (heartburn) that is clearly worse with stress and spicy food. He told me that his whole abdomen felt large and full after meals (qi is not moving, building up in the stomach). He also had neck and back pain. I used acupuncture points that move qi in the stomach, and clear heat (for the burning regurgitation), and local points for the back, neck and knee pain. I did tui-na, a Chinese style of massage developed to move qi. I also prescribed herbs that he cooked and drank twice a day as a tea. After just three treatments, his stomach problem was nearly resolved, and he felt much less tense and worried. He no longer has back or neck pain, and his knee was much improved. Every person responds differently to acupuncture, but this case shows how well stress related problems are treated with acupuncture. When problems linger, then more lifestyle changes are needed.

Stress is our internal response to outside stimuli. By modifying the way we respond and react to external triggers, and the way we live, we can make a great impact to improving health problems caused by stress. Here are 10 things you can do change your response and eliminate stress.

1) Walk away from it. Walking is a great way to move qi, so it doesn't get stuck. When you have a problem that is making you tense, go take a walk. Get your qi moving. Sometimes while you're walking you'll see a new way to solve the problem. Or, some how in the fresh air, it just doesn't seem so bad, and you'll relax.

2) Exercise regularly. Doing regular exercise will move qi and relieve stress. This could include special Chinese exercises specifically designed to move qi, like Tai Qi, or Qi Gong, but any exercise will work. Swimming, biking, hiking or paddling, it doesn't matter, so long as you're moving.

3) Breathe. When life gets overwhelming, take a deep breath, and then slowly release it. Then another, and one more. Keep going, watching the breath, as it comes in, and as it goes out. I strongly recommend meditation as a stress reduction technique. Meditation requires you to focus on something other than your problems, like your breath, relaxing music or guided imagery. By doing this, you get your mind off your troubles, and when you come back they just don't seem so bad. People with regular meditation practices consistently report that they are calmer and less reactive to stress triggers.

4) Eat in a calm, relaxed environment. Eating on the run can cause digestive problems. Take time to chew thoroughly, taste and smell the aromas. Don't eat and work. Take a break, relax and enjoy your meal. I put my eating table by a window with a bird feeder outside. So I sit at the table and watch the birds. It's a fantastic stress-buster.

5) Do one thing at a time. Resist multi-tasking. Trying to do to many things simultaneously inherently causes tension. Prioritize, and then calmly and efficiently go down the list.

6) Shorten the list. When you're overwhelmed because of too many to-do's, cross some off the list. Taxes can be extended, deadlines can be post-phoned, and some things will just have to wait.

7) Get help. Often we feel there's just too much to do, and not enough hours in the day. When that happens, don't try to be superwoman (man). Let people know that your plate is overflowing, and enlist aid to get the must-do's done. This may include hiring personal services, like tax accountants, housecleaning or gardening. Or delegating at work. Often people around us are not aware that we need help because we're not telling them that we do.

8) Attend to your financial health. Financial stress can be insidious, affecting our emotions, sleep and physical well-being. Work out a budget to manage your expenses so that you know what your bills total and how you will pay them. If your income fluxuates, be sure you are saving enough during the higher months to cover the lean ones. Make sure your nest egg is large enough to cover unexpected expenses, or sudden changes in employment (this is usually 8 months expenses kept in cash in the bank). Having a plan and knowing that you are in control of your finances can go a long way towards relieving this kind of pressure.

9) Laugh. Laughter is the best medicine, and there's nothing like a good laugh to break the tension. Go to a comedy club, or rent a funny movie, and laugh long and hard. You'll find some of your troubles will melt away.

10) Have fun. What's life but to be enjoyed? When you troubles are mounting, go do something you love. It's hard to be tense when you're enjoying yourself. So whether it's dinner with friends, watching a favorite movie, or a bubble bath, remember to make fun part of your routine.

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