What is stress? Stress is the body's reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. When under stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as noradrenaline and cortisol to prepare the body for physical and mental action. We all know what it’s like to feel stressed - being under pressure is a normal part of life. But becoming overwhelmed by stress can lead to physical and mental health problems or make existing problems worse.
Research by the American College Health Association's National College Health Assessment indicates that in 2015, 42.8% students reported more than average stress in the past 12 months, with 10.7% reported being under tremendous stress. Furthermore, 30% of college students reported that stress had negatively impacted academic performance, and 76% of students reported feeling overwhelmed with all they had to do.
85 per cent of UK adults experience stress regularly. In severe cases, it can provoke a number of psychological and physical symptoms, such as headaches, chest pain, nausea and anxiety. Mental health charity Mind created the national day to raise awareness of stress. National Stress Awareness Day, the first Wednesday in November each year is a part of an annual campaign to promote stress prevention.
How do you know you are stressed?
You feel stressed. This is psychological stressed that you can feel mentally. Stress is not just psychological, but physical too. People often ignore physical stress. If you have these signs below and no specific causes are found for it, you could be under physical stress.
Hormone imbalance. Stress causes a surge of hormones in your body. Stress triggers the release of the hormone cortisol, which changes the body metabolism. These stress hormones are released to enable you to deal with pressures or threats. Once the pressure or threat has passed, your stress hormone levels will usually return to normal. However, if you're constantly under stress, these hormones will remain in your body, leading to the symptoms of stress, such as weight changes gaining weight or losing weight in short period of time. Also, you may see acne wouldn’t go away. Cortisol causes skin oil glands making more oil and if the oil is stuck inside hair follicles creating pimples.
Compromising immune system. Stress occurs when the body is responding to the challenging circumstances. This responding includes physical and psychological aspects. One of the systems that responds to circumstances is the immune system. When the stress persists, it can become chronic which makes the body stays in the fight and flight mode and creates chronic inflammation in the body. This compromises the immune system function and leaves the body more vulnerable to the any challenging situation such as injury, virus, and fungus infections. Stress supresses the immune system, cold would not go away or cold come back more frequently. Hair is falling too much because the immune system attacks hair follicles resulting hair loss.
Inflammation and tension in the body. The brain is not sharp causing memory problem because too much cortisol can also make it harder to concentrate. Have headache very often, stress creates muscle tension causing headache. Abdominal pain: stress causes more acid production in the stomach causing bloating and pain in the abdomen. Stress inflames bowels causing diarrhea and constipation.
Infertility. Physical and emotional stress can cause menstrual cycles changes such as irregular periods and it can affect fertility. Stress triggers the release of stress hormone cortisol, which changes the body metabolism. Cotisol is made from progesterone in female and testosterone in male. If under stress, the body keeps making stress hormone which would exhaust sex hormone and this compromise fertility. Research has suggested that high level of stress is associated with low level of conception.
Psychological stress has also been identified amongst factors that worsen acne. Recently a study involved in 160 students was carried out to investigate the association between acne severity and stress levels as well as the mechanism for this. They demonstrated a statistically significant positive correlation between increased self-reported stress and increased severity of acne.
Stress can cause insomnia. In the state of stress, the body releases stress hormones –chemicals such as glucocorticoids to help the body to cope with the situation. Glucocorticoids can disrupt sleep and make sleep difficult.
The symptoms of stress include following aspects:
Emotional: You may feel easily agitated, frustrated, moody and overwhelmed. You may also feel lost control and having difficulty of relaxing and calming your mind and feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed.
Physical: You may feel lack of energy, always tired, have headaches, upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation and nausea, aching, pain and muscle tension, chest pain and rapid heartbeat, insomnia, loss of libido. You may have frequent colds and infections. You may also have nervousness, shaking, hearing problem, cold or sweaty hands and feet, dry mouth and difficulty swallowing, clenched jaw and grinding teeth.
Cognitive: You feel become constant worrying, having racing thoughts, poor memory and disorganization, lack of concentration, poor judgment and being pessimistic.
Behavioural: You may find your appetite changed—either not eating or eating too much, avoiding taking responsibilities, or increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes; showing more nervous behaviours, such as biting nails, fidgeting, and pacing.
Everyone may have a little stress every now and then which is not something to be concerned about. If one is constantly under stress, it becomes chronic. This can make your existing conditions worse or cause new health problems mentally or physically such as depression, anxiety and personality disorders; chronic fatigue, cardiovascular disease sexual dysfunction, skin problem such as acne eczema, hair loss, IBS etc.
Stress can trigger muscle tension with pain. When stressed, the body produces hormones that increase muscle tension and pain sensitivity. This can be present in a few spots.
When stress strikes, it can cause tension headache. A tension-type headache is the most common type of headache and triggered by stress. It may feel like a constant ache that affects both or one side of the head. One may also feel the neck muscle tighten and feeling of pressure behind the eyes. Tension headaches are normally caused by muscle contractions in the face, neck and scalp triggered by heightened emotions, tension or stress. Pain system is sensitized resulting increased muscle tenderness and headache.
The neck and shoulder
When stress strikes, neck and shoulder can be very tense and painful and the tension and pain can radiate to the arms.
When stress strikes, you can have abdominal cramps. You may also suffer from diarrhea and/or constipation.
The face and jaw
When stress strike, you might tighten your facial and jaw muscles or clench your teeth. jaw muscles can be painfully tight and tender, pain is worse when chewing. Prolonged both emotional and physical stress can affect your face from the skin to the contour. Stress causes facial muscles tension which wrinkles the skin and makes the skin sagging. Also the tension blocks facial blood circulation and makes the skin dry and pale, collagen production is reduced and existing collagen is damaged which contributing to creating wrinkles.. Tensed muscles drag the face down and make one look old and tired. Mind and face are connected via nerves system. The tension level of the occipitofrontalis muscle was detected under stress condition. Trigger points can be found in this muscle. One at the forehead just above to the eyebrow and another one at the back of the head under the skull. Muscle tension can also be found under palpation.
Stress and abdominal pain
When stress attacks, you can have abdominal cramps accompanied with diarrhea and/or constipation. Stress causes more acid production in the stomach causing bloating and pain in the abdomen. Stress inflames bowels causing diarrhea and constipation. In irritable bowel syndrome, sustained cortisol activity during stress is associated with an increase in gastrointestinal symptoms. Functional gastrointestinal disorders affect 35% to 70% of people at some point in life, women more often than men. The symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating and discomfort with or without diarrhoea and constipation. Stress plays an important role. Stress can trigger and worsen gastrointestinal pain and other symptoms, and vice versa. The brain connects with the body through nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system triggers fight or flight response while the parasympathetic system calms the body down. Both sympathetic and parasympathetic system help regular digestion. Psychological stress act at these systems causing digestion problem. When one is stressed, this trigger fight or flight response, digestion slows down, and the body uses all its blood and energy to fight causing abdominal pain and other related symptoms. Vice versa persistent gastrointestinal problems can heighten anxiety and stress.
Release stress with acupuncture
Research confirmed that acupuncture is effective for reducing stress
Research evidence for acupuncture on stress is emerging in recent years. For example, Huang W et al studied the effectiveness of traditional Chinese acupuncture (TCA) for chronic stress in adults. In this study, 18 Participants with high self-reported stress levels were divided into 3 groups. Group 1 received weekly acupuncture for 5 weeks; group 2 received weekly attention only for 5 weeks and group 3 acted as a waiting list control. The study suggested that may be successful in treating the symptoms of stress, through a combination of specific and non-specific effects. Another study by Pavoa TS et al investigated the effects of acupuncture on stress-related psychological symptoms and cellular immunity in young adults and elderly subjects. 6 sessions of acupuncture at LI4, SP6 and ST36 were offered. Psychological variables (depression, anxiety and stress) were investigated by means of self-assessment inventories. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells were isolated and cultured in vitro to measure mitogen-induced T-cell proliferation as well as cellular sensitivity to dexamethasone. All data were assessed before and after the intervention. Result has shown that acupuncture was able to significantly reduce depression, anxiety and stress scores. The intervention also increased T-cell proliferation, with greater intensity in the elderly group. The conclusion was that acupuncture was efficient to attenuate the psychological distress as well as to increase an important feature of cellular immunosenescence. Another study of HT7 acupuncture point for stress has shown that the stress scores were reduced 44% after four weekly acupuncture sessions.
Another research studied effectiveness of acupuncture in the perception of stress specifically in patients who study or work on a large urban college campus. All participants were allocated into two groups: acupuncture group ad control group. Each participant completed the Cohen's global measure of perceived stress questionnaire at five timepoints: prior to treatment, at 6 week treatment, at 12 weeks which is the completion of treatment, 6 weeks post completion, 3 months post completion of the treatment. There was no difference in mean stress score between acupuncture group and control group pretreatment. Significant improvement of the stress score was observed in acupuncture group started from 6 week treatment and last for 3 months when the study completed.
Acupuncture can help reduce emotional stress
Emotional stress is emotional tension or mental strain. This is a common feeling for many people. There is a link among emotional stress, depression, anxiety, mood changes, irritability and anger. Emotional stress can be caused by many factors, relationship is one of the most common causes. Conflicted relationship has great impact on emotional wellbeing. Other factors include financial problems, unpleasant work environment etc. Emotional stress can be particularly painful and be challenging to deal with. There are many ways to tackle emotional stress, such as meditation and other relaxation techniques. Acupuncture can help you to reduce emotional stress and go through the difficulty times. For example, there was a study investigated the effect of acupuncture on emotional stress. Participants received weekly session for average 5 weeks. The emotional stress was significantly reduced.
Huang W et al Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2011 Feb;17(1):16-21. doi: 10.1016/j.ctcp.2010.05.013. Epub 2010 Jun 19.
Pavoa TS et al Neurosci Lett. 2010 Oct 22;484(1):47-50. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2010.08.016. Epub 2010 Aug 13.
Chan J et al Acupunct Med. 2002 Aug;20(2-3):74-7.
Sochos A, and Bennett A. Altern Ther Health Med. 2016 Mar;22(3):8-16.