Definition of stress
The Oxford dictionary gives four definitions for the noun stress. We will be concentrating on the emotional definition, “A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.” Stress is a necessary part of life, and helps initiate the bodies “fight or flight” mode. This fight of flight mode is a series of complicated neurological and endocrinological responses that prepare the body to act.
Stress is useful when we need to be alert and aware. If we are going into a business presentation, and we need to be functioning at a higher than normal level. Here, stress can be very useful to increase our alertness and our mental capacity. An athlete at the beginning of a race needs to be aware and alert to perform at peak physical capacity. Stress can help heighten all this to give them an advantage.
Long term stress
Stress becomes problematic when it is around long term. The body and mind become fatigued with the constant hyper-awareness. This may have a detrimental effect on the physical and emotional well being of the person. Long term stress can lead to psychological problems such as depression and anxiety. It may also lead to medical problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure and a lowered immunological response.
Long term stress in Chinese medicine may impair what is called the qi dynamic. It is generally referred to as qi stagnation. Qi needs to flow freely around the body to successfully maintain its function. Long term stress can impede this free flow, and therefore create problems. Qi stagnation due to mental and emotional factors manifests itself as binding depression of the liver qi, commonly referred to as liver qi stagnation.
Clinical signs and symptoms of liver qi stagnation include mental depression or anxiety, bile secretion disorders and pain. Another common effect is when the liver affects the stomach and spleen. When this happens we see gastro-intestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Below we shall discuss five ways we can interrupt this constant barrage of stress, and give our bodies and minds a break. Try and make a habit of at least one of these a day. As the habits form, we can include another and another until we become well versed in controlling or lowering our stress response.
They say that “laughter is the best medicine”, and it is. Laughter can initiate an endocrinological response by helping to reduce the release of the stress hormones. I often hear from patients, “easier said than done”, when I suggest laughter. Yes, in the beginning it may be. Nothing seems funny, everyday life isn’t amusing and your family is giving you the irrates. However, netflix or some other subscription based service can be your friend here. Seek out some comedies. Jump on google and see what others recommend. Go home, and play a joke on a family member – or even better, watch some comedies together. Sometimes hearing others laugh around you can increase or instigate laughter within yourself. If stand up comedy is/was your thing, book yourself in to see a show. If you have young children (as I do), watch them quietly for a bit … they are hilarious! Things to laugh at or with are all around you, but it you may need to seek them out to begin with.
Sleep is a restorative state. We have our best sleep before 12am. Try and go to bed and to sleep as early as possible. If you are suffering from sleep disturbances, try and fix them or have them fixed. Teach yourself good sleep hygiene. This includes: going to bed at the same time every night, no screens in the bedroom (watch tv out in the sitting room first before going to bed), use the bedroom for no other activity except sleep and sex, no food before bed and do the same wind down routine every night (eg: watch tv, hot milk, brush teeth then bed). I learned the importance of a great sleep routine after having my baby. It was important with him to do the same thing at the same time every single night otherwise it was difficult to get him to sleep. It really brought home to me just how useful a bedtime routine was. I now follow the same routine every night and I am usually asleep by about 10.30 (my aim is 9.30, but that never happens). This for me is phenomenal as I have been a bad sleeper for most of my adult life.
When I mention herbs here, I am not speaking about herbal formulas that you may be prescribed from your Chinese medicine doctor. I’m talking about herbal teas, or even herbs that you may buy from a health food store or Asian grocer to either take or make soups out of. Some herbs to consider are:
Chamomile tea: chamomile tea is well known in the West as a very relaxing tea. It is great to have before bed. Try not to have it with honey, just have it plain.
Chrysanthemum (jú huā): Chamomile and Chrysanthemum belong to the same plant family. Chrysanthemum is very well known in the East, and is used in Chinese medicine. It is great at clearing the liver and brightening the eyes. It’s nick name is “bright eyes” due to it’s eye brightening effect. I speak of the red, hot itchy eyes that many liver qi stagnation sufferers experience.
Aged tangerine peel (chén pí): think mandarins here. When you next eat a mandarin, save a bit of the peel and steep it in boiling water and drink. You could also dry some out in the oven and use the dried peel. It is in this form that it is used in Chinese medicine formulas.
I do not say meditation lightly for I know personally just how difficult meditation is. However, if you can teach yourself how to do it, it is an invaluable tool in learning how to quiet the incessant chatter of your mind. It is very easy to get caught up in the stress of planning for the future and worrying about the past. If you’re living in the past, you’re worrying about something that you can’t change. If you’re living in the future, you’re full of stress about something that hasn’t even happened, and it can be very easy to let these thoughts snowball out of control. Learning to calm the mind is important when it comes to managing the psycho-emotional aspects of stress. There is a plethora of resources out there. A good place to start may be your local mental health page such as the Victorian governments page. Meditation is often taught as part of yoga or qi gong practise, so if you can, try and find a teacher of these arts. You will gain the benefit of a quiet internal style of exercise plus gain the skills in how to meditate.
Generally speaking, when it comes to food during stressful times follow these simple rules. Do not eat when emotionally heightened, consumption of food should be done in a calm environment. It is best to take the last meal of the day in the late afternoon or early evening. Try and eat less at the meal table. It is a good rule to leave the table with a feeling that you could eat more. Flavours should be mild and pungent. Try to avoid heavy, congesting foods. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, especially the leafy greens. If you can, try and include a leafy green in one of your meals a day. Avoid synthetic substances such as preservatives, colourings and flavourings. Limit fatty heavy foods which are high in saturated fats and oils. Don’t eat food that is too hot or too cold like hot chillis or ice cream.
If you are interested in further reading about food, then feel free to read my post all about foods to help with stress.
One more word
I haven’t included exercise here, but it is a very important method of helping to alleviate stress. Any health practitioner of any modality will highlight the importance of exercise when it comes to stress. The best sort of exercise is mild exercise. The aim is to elevate the heart rate and bring on a surface sweat.
Too much exercise can actually be detrimental as it can be too draining on a person with qi stagnation. Their qi isn’t circulating properly to provide the body what it needs, where it needs it in hard exercise. What I recommend to people is that they walk home from work. Get off a stop earlier, or park your car a little away from the office and walk. You could do 10 minutes there, and 10 minutes after work. I find this is the best way to incorporate exercise as it also encourages you to turn your mind off. Walk and enjoy your surroundings, breathe in the air, look at the flowers and listen to the sounds of the city. I used to recommend headphones and music, but I think there may be a safety issue there so it would be best if you just enjoyed the sounds of the world around you.
I hope with these five tips you can begin to regain control of your stress levels. If you find that you need more guidance, do not hesitate to seek the aid of a health professional.