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Dr. Karina Smith

How stress affects your body (and a few ideas you can try)

We all experience stress.

We all need healthy amounts of stress in order to have the strength to encounter illnesses, big emotions and life upheavals.

There can be a fine goldilocks line however, with how much stress is too much, and how this can impact the health of the mind and body.

One of the things I really loved learning about Chinese Medicine, was the acknowledgement of how our emotions can impact our health.

In Western medicine the only emotion written about in peer-reviewed literature in terms of its impact on health is stress. And stress itself is not one defined emotion. People can be irritated, sad, worried, anxious, depressed, and these can all create certain amounts of stress in the body.

What do you notice in your body when you are stressed?

Me and a very tuckered out Larry (doggo)

I recently started fostering a beautiful greyhound dog (Larry), who is pretty easy going.

But because I knew he was living in a house for the first time, had not socialised with other dogs, or been in such close contact with a single human before, or if he would be ok being left home for hours while I went to work at the clinic, I was out of my mind with anxiety!

I was really worried that he would not slide easily into my lifestyle.

I did not realise just how stressed out I was; I was waking in the night with palpitations, my upper back and neck were so tight that I'm surprised the muscles did not just ping off their bones.

My menstrual cycle went out of whack, and I was in a constant state of "being on edge." This lasted for at least 4 weeks before I gave myself a much needed time-out for yoga Nidra, and felt my state of edginess release slightly.

Isn't it strange how you can be so highly strung, and not realise, until you get a release from grasp of that tension?

Some people can be in that state of tension for years before that feel a release.

A toxic relationship might end, or you could leave a toxic work place, or maybe you stumble upon a new relaxation method that actually gives you genuine moments of reprieve (hello Yoga Nidra for me).

I'm happy to report that Larry (doggo) and I are doing very well, and I am relaxing into the process a lot more. The day that I relaxed somewhat, I felt the gears of my nervous system shift downward. I was overcome with a huge wave of fatigue, and the next day my whole body ached, as if I had been physically pummelled.

These were signs and symptoms that the Qi in my body was trying to flow smoothly again. That for 4 weeks my whole body had been like a kinked garden hose. The extreme fatigue that followed was a sign to show me just how much qi had been consumed whilst I was in a hyper vigilant state for all of that time.

My constant anxiety about my dog's wellbeing had created extreme Liver Qi stagnation, which is what we refer to in Chinese Medicine when the Qi of the body is no longer able to "flow freely and smoothly throughout the entire body." This phrase defines the role of the Liver in Chinese medicine, which essentially makes sure that all systems and rhythms (circadian, menstrual, hormonal, digestive, nervous etc) are running smoothly.

The most obvious sign that qi is not flowing smoothly is when we feel physical pain. Pain means that qi is not flowing freely through a particular area of the body resulting in a blockage which we feel as pain.

We naturally want to massage a painful ache in the body, or add some heat, which are both instinctive ways that we try to self-regulate qi blockages in our own bodies.

"Stress", or affect disorder (big emotional upheavals), is looked at in Chinese Medicine as an etiological factor contributing to the physical signs and symptoms that upset a person's health. I think it is really great that we can consider that a long period of grief, or an angry outburst at home, or even an event such as moving house can be acknowledged in a consultation as part of the patient's story regarding their health complaints.

If a patient came to see me and their main complaint was very painful periods, and they also shared with me that their job is extremely stressful and they dread going to work, I will definitely connect the stressful emotions with the dysfunction showing up in their menstrual cycle.

In my humble opinion stress of any kind is the biggest factor that may disrupt an otherwise regular and fairly pain-free period and cause it to arrive early, or late, with more pain, and perhaps more clotted blood, and probably more signs of PMS on the lead to the bleed as well.

Does that resonate with you at all?

With this new idea of qi not flowing smoothly through the body when Liver Qi flow is impeded, it makes sense that chronic stress can have a disastrous impact on the body, in a variety of ways.

Tissues of the body can become dry and stiff as fluids and qi are not circulating freely. The digestive system can become weak and unable to properly absorb nutrients if Spleen Qi is not strong or Liver Qi is impeding the flow through the gut. The nervous system can be firing too much on the sympathetic gear which can create excess stress hormone in the blood and make it difficult to sleep deeply.

The menstrual cycle can become very erratic and painful, as Liver Qi is responsible for the timing of the period, and the smoothness of the pre-menstrual aspect of the menstrual cycle. The breath can become very short and shallow with a reduction in oxygen being supplied to cells, and so on and so forth.

With anxiety becoming an emotional state being experienced by a higher amounts of people on the planet than ever before, being able to find ways in which we can destress and decompress is absolutely essential for our health!

It is not as simple as being told to "relax." In fact, a stressed out person may find that kind of an instruction may amplify their stressful state, because not being able to relax makes you realise just how tense you really are!

From my years of mentoring yoga teachers and facilitating yin yoga classes, I have found it much more helpful to create invitations to help people reconnect with their bodies in a way that is exploratory, rather than just instructional.

The difference between these two might be that instead of being told to "relax your leg" you might "invite your leg to become really heavy as it sinks into the firmness of the floor."

Qualitative sensations to explore can help a person come down from thinking (usually over-thinking) and remember that they are in a body, not just a head.

However you find your way of decompressing, the most important thing is that you find an easy way to weave it into your life. Because in times of extreme stress, finding the time to go to yoga, or to meditate, or even go for a walk outside might not be possible. Little spot moments of re-centering and self-regulating are key:

Here are a few ideas you could try:

  • Whenever you remember, stop what you are doing, close your eyes and take 10 slow deep breaths. (And then take 10 more).

  • If you do a lot of computer work, set a timer at regular intervals so that you can stand up and stretch out your shoulders, fold forward stretching out your legs, swing your arms around and shake your hands.

  • When you wake up in the morning, before you get out of bed, put one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Take three deep breaths and remind yourself that no matter what happens today, you will be fine, and that you have your own back!

  • Try and have a meal (once a day if you can) without looking at any devices, and just honour the moment of receiving nourishment from your food.

  • And when you do have space, weave in some time spent in nature, take off your shoes, lay on the grass and watch the clouds, turn off your phone and just let yourself be still for a little while.

I hope you find something in here that is helpful for you. I also have recorded some meditations that you can explore here.

Remember, in these strange and unprecedented times self-care is not a luxury, it is a necessity to manage your health and keep your qi flowing smoothly.

Karina x


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