Stress! In the COVID era, we’re all stressed out – are my elderly family members okay? Am I at risk? Is my livelihood at risk? CAN I EVER LEAVE MY HOME? Tumultuous political situations, volatile economics, pandemic restrictions, working from home while simultaneously trying to home-school and care for small children – it’s a lot! Too much, really. And it’s not as though everything was 100% smooth prior to COVID-19. We Americans are known for our work ethic and inability to use all of our vacation time, as well as our burnout levels. So, what does that mean for our health?
Beyond any personal discomfort, stress has been shown to be the root cause of dozens of bad health outcomes. It is linked to cancer, heart disease, metabolic dysfunction, and can negatively impact reproductive health in women and men. It’s not a very big leap to see that many of the issues of our times have a direct link to our stress load – think diabetes and other metabolic issues like obesity, infertility, autoimmune disorders (which are seeing an unexplained boom) and even some cancers are all directly triggered or exacerbated by elevated stress levels.
Formally known as General Adaptation Syndrome, stress causes a cluster of chemical reactions in the body that occur in 3 phases:
- The brain experiences a stressor and responds with an alert to the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The hypothalamus releases adrenaline and cortisol to give a temporary boost to heart rate and blood pressure, which may have saved early humans by helping them flee from predators. Sadly, this response is not as handy when we have a tight work deadline or have to juggle a toddler’s lunch time with an important Zoom meeting!
- After the adrenal – corticoid response raises blood pressure and heart rate, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activates to balance the hormonal effects of the alert. This is called the resistance phase. Blood pressure and heart rate drop into a relaxed state (unless the stress continues). At least with predators, the lion caught you, or it didn’t. Our modern stressors don’t always have a clear end point.
- When faced with continued stress, the SNS answers with continued release of cortisol and adrenal hormones until they are depleted and the body reaches the exhaustion phase. Exhaustion occurs when one can no longer cope with the stressor. This leads to depression, anxiety, burnout, and may appear later as weakened immunity, suboptimal fertility, cardiovascular or metabolic disease, or chronic pain. Studies have suggested that persistent social stresses such as working in a high-pressure career, financial or medical difficulties, or even persistent race-based discrimination can cause dysregulation of cortisol output and disrupt the HPA axis.Clearly, to function and feel our best it is terribly important to manage the stresses of daily living. But in an modrn environment, stressors seem impossible to contain: we need to contend with environmental, financial, medical and social pressures all at once, and for some even a walk down the block can be a harrowing experience. So what can we do?
Gentle exercises such as yoga, walking or pilates, mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises, journaling and psychotherapy are all useful tools for managing your mood. According to recent studies, a 12-week course of acupuncture may be another resource to manage stress brought on by major life events (note: even good things like planning a wedding or accepting a promotion are inherently stressful), or continuous lower-level stressors.
A randomized controlled trial that examined the use of acupuncture to treat stress in a large urban college environment showed that both an acupuncture treatment group and a control group reported a drop in stress levels during their treatments, which were performed twice per week over twelve weeks. Significantly, three months after the treatments had ended, the group that received acupuncture reported a sustained reduction in their perception of stress while the control group did not. This is noteworthy because it shows that even a short course of acupuncture can offer continued relief from the effects of stress for several months.
If your personal wellness goals include preventing the development of diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease, managing your mental health, or trying to conceive in the next year, you probably want to use every tool at your disposal. Acupuncture is a pleasant and relaxing way to tackle all of the above while renewing your commitment to self-care. Want to see for yourself? Get in touch today!