These past two years of the pandemic have been highly stressful, especially for our front-line health care workers. It comes as no surprise that during these unprecedented times people have been reporting higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Our front-line workers have seen these effects firsthand with their patients, themselves and the public. It is time that we give more recognition to their hard work and more resources to regulate their own nervous systems. During a high-stress time, there are many things you can do to regulate your own nervous system including acupuncture, certain herbal remedies like the use of adaptogens, and meditation. Let’s look at how these different modalities help support you when your body is responding to stress.
Acupuncture needles create microtraumas in the area in which they are inserted, telling the body that healing needs to happen there. The needles are inserted into different areas and/or meridians of the body which regulates both qi (energy) and blood flow, therefore, increasing circulation, decreasing pain, strengthening your immune system and regulating the endocrine system which helps to balance your hormones. When you are in a stress response, your body will have an excess of cortisol and adrenaline which are helpful in a moment of stress, but when these substances stay elevated, it leads to health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, headaches and other chronic health conditions. Acupuncture helps reset your nervous system, takes you out of flight or fight and back to homeostasis.
Chronic stress is really taxing on your immune system. Your body is focused on being in fight-or-flight mode constantly, which takes energy and resources away from your body’s defense against pathogens. Not only will you get sick easier, but your recovery will be longer. Your body loses its resiliency over a period of chronic stress. Being in this fight-or-flight state also decreases your digestive processes, which leads to poor nutrient absorption and increased inflammation. On top of these symptoms, many people also have a decreased sex drive, increased irritability and difficulty concentrating. Adrenal fatigue is a concern after a long period of extreme stress and increased cortisol and adrenaline. To combat this, another great modality to try is herbal medicine. There are herbs called adaptogens that actually help modulate your body’s stress response. They fight to re-regulate your hormones and calm your nervous system. This helps to reverse all of the negative side effects mentioned above. Some of my favorite adaptogens include ginseng, certain mushrooms like reishi and cordyceps, ashwagandha and maca. Incorporating some of these into your daily routine can have a profoundly positive effect on your nervous system.
The last modality that heavily combats the body’s stress response is meditation. During meditation, you come back into your body and focus on your breath. This change of pace and lack of stimulation from the outside world lowers your heart rate and helps to lower stress and anxiety. Shutting out the outside world and taking breaks from constant stimulation have a positive effect on lowering cortisol and helping to strengthen your immune system. From a Chinese medicine perspective, this makes perfect sense, because your skin houses the first layer of your immune system’s response as does your lungs, and the skin is seen as an extension of your lungs. Both your lungs and skin are your first contact with the outside world through breath and touch, and both belong to the metal element. One of my favorite meditations to do when I only have a few minutes is alternate nostril breathing. This breath pattern helps connect the hemispheres of your brain and brings a sense of calm. You do this by taking your thumb and pointer finger of one hand and raising it to your nose, blocking your right nostril with one of your fingers, inhaling through your left nostril, holding your breath while you switch to blocking off your left nostril with your other finger, exhale through your right nostril, inhale back through your right nostril, hold your breath while you switch to blocking off your right nostril, exhale through your left nostril, inhale back through your left nostril, etc. Try it for a few minutes at a time and, if you like it, work up to doing this for 11 minutes. It is important to note that even if you do this for only a minute, you have successfully meditated. You do not need to sit there for 10 minutes right off the bat.
Start slow and see how you feel. As always, if you want a more specific plan for yourself, reach out to your local acupuncturist or healthcare provider. Please take care of your nervous systems this year after everything we have all been through these past two years!
About the Author
Isabel Meijering is an acupuncturist in Austin, Texas and is the owner of “Admiring You Wellness.” She has a B.S. in biomedical sciences with a minor in psychology and has a deep love for both eastern and western medicine, which started with her introduction to yoga and grew from there. She also has her master’s in acupuncture with a specialization in Chinese herbal medicine as well as cupping therapy and her doctorate in acupuncture and Chinese medicine.