Pulse of Oriental Medicine: Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks


Women's Issues: STRESS!
by Carolyn Ross, MD


Believe it or not, Stress is Natural

Stress is actually a natural and necessary response experienced by both humans and animals. To put it simply, stress is a state of readiness. It can be positive, as in the form of excitement, or negative, as in the form of nervousness and worry. Unfortunately, our modern society provides too many opportunities to heighten stress and too few to deal with it. Unpleasant effects of the natural stress response develop when a person experiences stress all the time.

Symptoms of Burnout

A long-term high level of stress can lead to burnout. Burnout is a descriptive rather than a medical term, but when it occurs you may experience a variety of symptoms. These include:

  • trouble concentrating
  • constant feeling of fatigue
  • irritability and
  • insomnia.

Symptoms of Stress

Long-term stress affects the entire body, causing such problems as:

  • headaches
  • skin irritations
  • diarrhea
  • ulcers
  • indigestion
  • muscle pain
  • irritable bowel and
  • many others.

You may also be at risk for later developing:

  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes or
  • immune system problems

The effect of too much stress has become a major health problem in our country. Clearly, it is worth understanding and treating. As with any problem, the solution begins with awareness. Following is more about the stress response and some recommendations for professionals and techniques to help you cope.

The Stress Response

The stress response is highly individual because it begins when we perceive a situation to be a challenging or threatening. Thus, one woman could have an extreme response to seeing a snake, while her friend remains unconcerned.

In any case, once we perceive a situation as being challenging or threatening, the sympathetic branch of the central nervous system is immediately activated to produce stress hormones. These hormones cause specific bodily changes such as increased heart rate and metabolism and redirection of blood flow to large muscles; all to prime the body for action.

When the perceived threat is over, the body has two means of returning to normal. The stress hormones will dissipate over time and be destroyed by other chemicals in the body; and the parasympathetic branch of the central nervous system can release hormones to calm the body and return it to its normal state.

Stress Hormones

Too many stress hormones are frequently the culprits in burnout. Since the stress response affects most of the body systems, the process takes a lot of energy; leaving you feeling drained at the end of a stressful day.

There are two basic ways to reduce the effects of stress hormones:

  • Decrease their production (not allow ourselves to become stressed by altering our perception of the situation) or
  • Eliminate them from the body once they have been released (through relaxation and other techniques).

These two mechanisms form the basis of stress management.

Your Physician or Nurse Practitioner

Your physician or nurse practitioner may suspect stress or burnout if you show generalized problems in different parts of the body along with feelings of being overwhelmed. When symptoms come in response to a stressful period in your life, they will rule out an organic cause with a physical exam and blood work. Sometimes medication may be prescribed during an adjustment period to stress. Anti-anxiety medication or mild sleeping agents may be helpful.

Psychological Counseling

A psychologist or psychotherapist can help you deal with the emotional and behavioral aspects of stress. They can evaluate symptoms based on your self-report, their observation, life-events scale and a genogram. A genogram is a tool similar to doing a family tree with questions asked that reveal conflicts and issues between family members.

Treatment may include educational material to clarify the difference between stress, burnout and tedium, and strategies to deal with stress.

Individual therapy may include self-hypnosis, supportive therapy, assertiveness training and homework assignments. Cognitive therapy helps you change the way you think about people or situations. Couples or family counseling may be appropriate to assist in making changes in relationships to decrease symptoms.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

A TCM practitioner aims to restore balance to the body. When the body's energy is flowing properly to all tissues of the body, a person is better able to deal with stress and its effects.

The TCM practitioner will diagnose the effects of stress on the different body systems. They may recommend an herbal medicine and acupuncture once or twice per week.

Chiropractic Care & Therapeutic Massage

A spine that is properly aligned enhances functioning of the nervous system to help it manage the stress response better. When stress does occur, tense, tight muscles create pain and biomechanical problems. Chiropractic care can provide symptomatic relief and treatment.

Therapeutic massage increases circulation, relieves muscle tension, and relaxes and elongates tight muscles. It also stimulates production of the 'feel good' brain chemicals, serotonin and endorphins, and decreases production of stress hormones. It thus invokes the relaxation response so desirable in managing stress.

Relieve Stress with Nutrition and Exercise

The family of B vitamins features prominently in managing the body's stress response. Chronic stress can thus deplete these vitamins, which must be replaced daily since they are not stored in the body.

Also, the very foods which are often used to deal with stress tend to heighten its symptoms... try to steer clear of these:

  • fat
  • sugar
  • caffeine and
  • alcohol

Instead, eat more:

  • vegetables
  • fruits
  • whole grains and legumes
  • lean protein.

In addition, you may wish to take a multiple vitamin containing the B vitamins.

Regular exercise can help to make you more stress hardy and aids in the elimination of the stress hormones. Aerobic exercise sessions of at least 20 minutes in duration at a moderate level of intensity will serve you best. The ideal would be to get some exercise most days, but try not to drop below three days per week.

Calming Meditation

Learning to meditate can provide you with a very powerful tool in coping with stress. Meditation calms the mind and body, enhancing production of the parasympathetic relaxation hormones.

Research has also shown that certain types of meditation, when regularly practiced, produce lower incidence of disease, reduced physiological aging, improved brain functioning, better rest, and improved job satisfaction and relationships.

Self-Help Techniques

Begin by paying attention to your body's communication system. Try taking your 'stress temperature'. On a scale of one to ten (with ten being the most intense), what number stress do you feel? When you identify that your number is greater than a five, it's time to employ one of the following techniques:

  • Deep breathing: Execute a full, deep inhalation through your nostrils. Relax your belly muscles to allow your lungs to fill fully. Then slowly exhale through your mouth, letting your stomach and chest collapse. Repeat until you are feeling calmer. (Try breathing in to the count of 4 and out to the count of 8.)
  • Sensory focus: Use your senses to tune in to what is going on around you (thus directing the focus outside yourself). Pay attention to a leaf for a few moments, listen to the sounds that exist right now, notice the smells, touch your cheeks as you would a baby, and so on.
  • Affirmations: Make short, positive statements such as "I can handle this" when you are confronted with an unexpected event. Or, if you are already feeling anxious, try "I am relaxed" or "I am calm".
  • Prayer: There's a lot less to worry about when you know you're being taken care of by the Creator of the universe! Ask for some help. Or just talk to Him.
  • Focusing: Sit upright in a comfortable position holding a small, sentimental object in the palm of your hand. Focus only on that object, allowing no outside thoughts as you breathe deeply for one to two minutes. Notice that your breathing has slowed and you feel calmer.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Sitting or lying comfortably, take a few deep breaths. Then tense and relax the following body parts, in order: face, shoulders, back, abdomen, pelvis, thighs, calves and feet. Then shake your hands and imagine any remaining tension flowing out through your fingertips.
  • Blow some bubbles: Go to the store and buy yourself a bottle of bubbles to carry with you. When you notice that you are feeling stress, take out your bubbles and blow them, focusing more on the 'out' breath. The out breath is the relaxation, the letting go response. Symbolically bubbles represent your troubles floating away.



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All information herein provided is for educational use only and not meant to substitute for the advice of appropriate local experts and authorities.
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