Getting the Most Out of Acupuncture: Stress Relief

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Feeling stressed has become so common in modern times that many people don’t even consider it an illness. Yet, stress can create some very real symptoms, both emotional (anxiety, irritability, worry) and physical (headache, tense muscles, shortness of breath). Long-term stress can contribute to ailments like high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, irritable bowel, asthma, infertility, and skin disorders.

Stress has its roots in the “fight or flight” response. Our prehistoric ancestors faced daily struggles for survival, which triggered chemical responses in the body. These reactions aided the body with conserving energy and reacting quickly to face the danger more successfully. Although in modern times we are not usually faced with daily crises, we still have an automatic response whenever our brain thinks we are in trouble—this becomes stress.

Regular acupuncture patients can attest that acupuncture can be very beneficial with treating stress disorders. Acupuncture needles signal the nervous system to release endorphins—our natural “feel good” chemicals– into the bloodstream. An hour of peace and quiet and a nice nap certainly help as well!

If you are coming into acupuncture with a main complaint of stress, here’s what you can do to help boost the effectiveness of your treatment.

Know your triggers: They may be people, places, or events. Whenever possible, avoid these triggers. In some instances, this may not be practical. While acupuncture still can help you to manage stressful situations, you will probably need more treatments at a greater frequency if you are constantly faced with your triggers. Unfortunately, your acupuncturist can’t force your boss to be nicer to you (though you might want to suggest s/he come in for a few treatments!).

Track your symptoms: Stress impacts everyone differently. Some people will have almost entirely emotional symptoms. Other people will respond purely physically. Don’t think that an absence of anxiety means you are not suffering from stress—those tight shoulder muscles may say otherwise. By keeping track of your symptoms you will be able to provide feedback to your acupuncturist about how well the treatment is working. You may also discover some formerly unknown triggers.

Do your homework: Self-help work that you do on your own is just as important as your acupuncture sessions. Here are some ideas for coping methods you can use to lower your stress levels.

Physical– Exercise is a great stress-buster. Go for a walk, take a yoga class, or just find time to do a few minutes of stretching during your day. Get regular massages.
Mental– Keep a journal, make time for a favorite hobby, play with your pets, listen to your favorite music, practice meditation, set aside some alone time.
Social– Make use of your support network— talk with friends and express your feelings. Go on fun outings. Try things that make you laugh. Get the help of a therapist if necessary.
Lifestyle– Practice time management; don’t over-schedule yourself or try to multi-task. Get enough sleep and eat a balanced diet.

What if you are too overwhelmed and don’t know where to start? Your acupuncture treatment is a great time to practice some deep breathing so that you can use it as a coping mechanism for the coming week. I suggest my patients try the following technique, which I can “reverse breathing.”

Inhale through the nose as you would normally do. As you exhale, focus on emptying your lungs as much as possible. When you have exhaled as much as is comfortable, allow yourself to inhale; the inhalation should happen normally and easily, without conscious thought. Repeat cycle.

Once you are comfortable with reverse breathing, you can use it anywhere—in traffic, at the grocery store, in a business meeting—just keep your eyes open and no one will know that you are doing anything differently.

Do you have other questions about how acupuncture can help with stress management? Contact us!

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