A Chinese Take on Stress

In my experience, the vast majority of people who come for treatment report feeling “stressed” in their daily life. Despite information available all around us on the importance of relaxation, there does not seem to be an overall decrease in general stress levels. I hope that this article will give a new and refreshing view of stress, which will allow people to genuinely do something about it and lead more relaxed and fulfilling lives.

What is stress, and, more importantly, how does Chinese medicine see stress?

A stress response is simply our response to a situation which, on some level, appears threatening to us. Chinese Medicine (the system which herbal medicine, acupuncture, and Tuina massage is based on) sees stress as a major cause of ill-health. Stress causes what the Chinese would call “Qi stagnation”, a description which includes what happens in our body, our mind and our emotions. “Qi stagnation” has a knock-on effect on all the systems in our body and often ends up leading to impaired functioning, for example affecting the digestion, various muscle areas, or sleeping patterns.

In Chinese medicine, we do not believe that stress is necessarily a part of life, modern or otherwise. My experience of working with people both as an acupuncturist and as a Qi Gong teacher confirms this. Chronic stress is unfortunately a pattern that many people fall into, however it is possible to gradually reverse it and, over time, to achieve an increasing sense of calm and well-being that is much less affected by external factors.

So what can we do about stress?

Truly dealing with stress is not easy, it takes time and perseverance – however it is also a very empowering process, which is well worth the effort. I have found myself recommending the following 3-step approach many times, as a way of fundamentally reducing stress, based on Eastern thinking: 

1.         Examine how much stress you have in your life and identify what is causing it. Stress is so commonplace nowadays that many people are often unaware of how affected they are. It is not uncommon to hear the sentences “I’m not more stressed than anyone else around me”, or “I’m pretty stressed, but I don’t think it’s affecting me.” In Chinese Medicine, we consider all stress to have a negative effect on the body, no matter how used to it you are, or how much stress people around you are in. It is also important to identify the exact cause. Many people can say that their job is stressful, for example, however it is more helpful to narrow it down and find the exact aspect of the job that is causing the stress. The more honest and precise you are, the more you have a chance to do something about it.  

2.         Once situations which are causing stress are identified, change them. Often this feels overwhelming at the first thought, or even impossible. However, if you consider that what you are possibly trading in is your health, it does usually bring up the priority. I would always encourage someone to give some serious thought to what they can change about a situation that is causing stress.

3.         If it is impossible to change the situation, the answer is simple: it’s about changing your response. The most successful people, be they high-powered businessmen, top athletes, or mothers juggling households with many children, all have this in common: they are able to deal with very high pressure situations by staying calm and thinking clearly. The Chinese have a phrase for developing this ability: they call it strengthening the mind - and it is something they have been doing for centuries.

A key way of strengthening the mind is to work on the breath, allowing it to be soft, steady and deep, even in times of increased pressure. In Chinese medicine, the Lungs are seen as responsible for the circulation of Qi, and are therefore the antidote to the Qi stagnation I mentioned earlier.  If your breathing is soft, deep and natural, your mind will be calm, steady and strong. It is no surprise that the Chinese have developed a whole system to study and develop the breath. It is called Qi Gong, literally meaning breath work. (In India too, pranayama deals with aspects of breathing).

Meditation is another very direct way of strengthening the mind. However my experience is that an initial level of calm is necessary to be able to meditate effectively.

Finally, acupuncture and Tuina treatments to deal with stress aim to affect the mind enough to give it a different sense of perspective, a perspective of strength and calm that can be taken into daily life. They work best if accompanied by daily breathing exercises to “take the treatment home”.

Following this approach to reducing stress is not a quick fix. However, it is an approach that can lead to very fundamental, and therefore lasting, changes in body and mind. With time, it will allow you to develop a different, much more fulfilling perspective of life.

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