Stress is unpleasant – who wants to feel irritable and anxious? But it’s more than just a minor inconvenience. 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 (Burgess 2017, Mohd 2008).
Also 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 (Burgess 2017). Sadly, this response is not as handy when we have a tight work deadline or missed the 4 train!
- 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 (Burgess 2017). This is called the resistance phase. Blood pressure and heart rate drop into a relaxed state (unless the stress continues, i.e., we continue to worry about our job stability, COVID-19, current events, and so on).
- 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. (Burgess 2017, Joseph and Golden 2016).
Clearly, to function and feel our best it is imperative that the stresses of daily living be appropriately managed. But in an urban environment, stressors seem impossible to contain: we need to contend with environmental, financial, medical and social pressures all at once, and in 2020 even a walk down the block can be a harrowing experience. So what can we do?
Gentle exercise such as yoga, walking or pilates, mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises, journaling and psychotherapy are all useful tools for managing unavoidable stress. (Burgess 2017). 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. (Schroeder, Burnis, Denton, Krasnow, Raghu and Mathis, 2017). 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.
Burgess, Lana, Medical News Today, What to know about general adaptation syndrome. November 28 2017, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320172.php
Grant, Sean, D Phil, Benjamin Colaiaco, MA, Aneesa Motala, BA, Roberta Shanman, MS, Melony Sorbero, Phd, and Susanne Hempel, PhD, Acupuncture for the Treatment
Adults with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, Volume19, 2018, Issue 1 pages 39-58
Jospeh, Joshua and Sherita Golden, Cortisol dysregulation: the bidirectional link between stress, depression and diabetes mellitus, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 1391, issue 1, Special Issue: The year in diabetes and obesity, March 2017 pages 20-34
Mohd, Razali Shallah, Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences 2008 Oct; 15 (4): 9-18 Life Event, Stress and Illness
Schroeder, Stefanie, James Burnis, Antony Denton, Aaron Krasnow, T.S. Raghu, Kimberly Mathis, Effectiveness of Acupuncture Therapy on Stress in a Large Urban College Population, Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies, Volume 10, Issue 3, June 2017, pages 165-170
Stub, Trine, Terje Alraek and Jianping Liu, Acupuncture treatment for depression – A systematic review and meta-analysis, European Journal of Integrative Medicine, Volume 3,Issue 4, December 2011, pages e259 – e270 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eujim.2011.09.003