I’ve recently experienced a few of the most stressful weeks I’ve had in years. For the most part – although I get a lot done in a day and have a fair bit on my plate – my life is pretty relaxed. I’m an acupuncturist after all and getting acupuncture on a semi-regular basis has always helped me manage my stress levels and depression. However, this was a heightened amount of stress. It was interesting to observe what came up for me physically and emotionally as I did my best to navigate these stressors.
The quality of my sleep decreased and I noticed a huge increase in cravings for foods that are definitely less than healthy. Neither of those are terribly surprising to me. Sleep is one of my weak links physiologically and when we sleep dopamine – the feel good hormone – is replenished in the brain. When those levels are low we typically seek out other ways to bring our dopamine circuits back into. Food is one way of doing this. Typically, it’s the sugary foods – foods that I normally stay away from – that give these dopamine circuits a good turbo boost. I found myself craving sugar like it was my job and feeling insatiable when it came to consuming it.
I was starting to feel depressed. And I know depression…well. I have seen the darkness of it, I have felt the detachment from life it provides and the sadness of not knowing how I’m going to keep moving forward. I have wanted to take my own life and in Grade 9 I tried. It took me years to get to a point where I could experience a low and not automatically think to myself “I’m done, I can’t do this anymore.”
Recently, I learned about this fascinating study in my Biopsychology of Behavior class. It showed that people who feel as if they have control over their situation did not suffer from the maladaptive effects of stress the way that people who DO NOT feel like they are in control did. What researchers found was that people who DO NOT feel like they are in control of their situation have smaller adrenal glands from an excess of the glucocorticoid hormone cortisol – a stress hormone – in their system. Bottom line, feeling a sense of control over ones situation helps reduce the effects of stress.
After about a week and a half of feeling like life was bowling me over and letting all those familiar murky feelings seep into the cracks I decided to take back my sense of control of my own life. After years of testing this hypothesis, I am clear that everything in life is about perception. I may not have much control over what is happening on the outside world but what I have complete and unequivocal control of is my emotional response to it.
Sounds great doesn’t it?
If you are anything like me, theories always sounds great…in theory…but how does that make a practical difference in my life and the lives of others?
1) I decided NO MORE! I chose myself over the things that were creating stress in my life. This is actually a really important point. It is challenging to choose ourselves. We hold onto so many stories around feeling selfish…I can’t choose myself, I am a good person and a good person always puts people before themselves. I call BULLSHIT. Putting yourself first DOES NOT make you a bad person. Just ask my daughter how pleasant I am to be around when I’m tired and stressed out. If I was organized enough to make a graph of all the times she said she wanted to go live with her dad, I’m pretty sure there would be some strong correlational evidence that it was the weeks I was stressed, cranky and being a monster bitch. ALWAYS CHOOSE YOURSELF.
Acupuncture is outrageously effective at allowing our body to shift from the sympathetic stress response to the parasympathetic – the system responsible for rest. When we rest, we heal. When we heal our body brings itself back into homeostasis. When we are in homeostasis all things, including our hormones and brain chemicals are in balance. When our brain chemicals and hormones are in balance, we feel good, we make good choices, we sleep and we are generally happy people. Easy peasy. Knowing this I increased the amount of acupuncture I was getting.
3) Sleep Hygiene became my priority. According to Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture theory, the Liver/Gall Bladder system is the one most responsible for mediating stress. Acupuncturists have noticed a huge correlation between the Liver organ system and the Autonomic Nervous system – which includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems we talked about earlier. Liver/Gall Bladder time is between 11pm and 3 am, so getting to bed by 10 is one of the best things you can do for this organ pair as well as for combating the effects of stress. For more on how important sleep is click here to read my blog on it.
4) I let myself be in the in-between space of transition. I am so used to being “proactive” when things in my life are changing. I preface that word with quotations because sometimes the most proactive thing you can do is to do nothing. Have you ever had the experience where you feel like you are fighting an uphill battle to get things done and to figure out your next step? I have, many times. I fight against and every step of the way life throws more obstacles at me, thus reinforcing my belief that life is throwing a ton of crap my way. It’s a terribly vicious cycle and it’s bloody exhausting. So I’m learning to take a pause and be ok in the mystery. It feels weird, I’m still new to it. But something deep inside of me knows it’s the right thing to do right now.
5) Meditation – Of course. They positive effects of mediation on stress levels are numerous. Click here to read about the positive impacts that just 8 weeks of meditation can have on your brain and your life.
If studies interest you you can also check out this study on Acupuncture’s effects on the Autonomic Nervous System
I’ll tell you after almost a week of practicing the above 5 steps, I can breathe again. I no longer feel a sense of despair, I’m sleeping like a champ and I’m eating and craving healthy foods again. So something’s working and who am I to question which one. I think it’s all part of living in a balanced way.
With Love from Kelowna, BC,