A Chinese Medicine Perspective
Written by Nicole Bayes, Shiatsu Practitioner. Edited By Dinah John, Principal of Norwich Shiatsu College.
For many of us these days, the fast-paced world where we live and operate has normalised a high level of stress and anxiety. We may not even realise that anxiety has become our constant companion, even in some cases the driver of our decisions and of our lives. Often it isn't until we experience deep relaxation - and a return to greater internal rest or balance - that we realise just how 'wired' we have been emotionally, mentally and physically.
There is a state of excessive stress which is standard for many now, and the conditions of our society help to facilitate this, with ‘time poverty’ and high levels of expectation. This may be in the workplace, at home with our family and even socially with friends, creating consuming and pressured stresses and complexities to navigate or overcome. Chronic stress, as is well documented by the medical profession, is not good for our health or happiness. However it is often only when our anxiety levels reach an unmanageable level, or hit a breaking point, that we are moved to do something about it.
Stress and anxiety manifest differently for each individual, and in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) we can relate different common symptoms to particular energetic imbalances in the body, associated with the different qualities of the ‘Five Elements’. For example the Earth Element, which is linked to the digestive system, helps to keep us feeling grounded, centred, nourished, safe and secure. This Element is also said to ‘house the Yi’, our intellect, associated with mental activity. When imbalanced this may lead to our thoughts becoming ungrounded, our minds may race with continual ‘over-thinking’, or we may find ourselves becoming stuck in a particular ‘mindset’. The lack of a stable centre or sense of support can create a feeling of uncertainty, insecurity and lack of safety - so we worry excessively. As worry is said to ‘knot the Qi’ (energy) in our stomachs we may experience disturbed eating habits, we may lose our appetite, eat to excess or find ourselves with digestive sensitivities, nausea or symptoms such as IBS. We may also find we are frequently thinking negatively, being overly critical of ourselves and others or excessively concerned with what other people are thinking of us.
Another example of an imbalance which may lead to stress symptoms is in the Fire Element, which is related to the Heart. The Heart ‘houses the Shen’, our consciousness or spirit, and when disturbed or out-of-kilter this leads to us feeling unsettled and anxious. We might develop symptoms such as mental restlessness, agitation, insomnia or feeling overly sensitive, hyper-aware and jumpy. On a physical level tension may develop around the chest, an armouring to protect the Heart, which can create hypertension, palpitations and dizziness. We can become emotionally imbalanced if the Shen is unsettled - we might be hyperactive, perhaps easily overexcited or inappropriately cheerful despite distress or pain, or we may swing the opposite way, dropping into low spirits and depression. In more serious cases, disturbed Shen can cause mental health problems.
Any of the Five Elements of TCM may be involved in patterns of stress and anxiety – each with a slightly different quality. So if we are experiencing some of these symptoms what can we do to help ourselves?? Firstly I would suggest enlisting support, as none of us is an island and we all need a helping hand to change our habitual patterns. Shiatsu activates the parasympathic nervous system, the body’s natural ‘rest and repair’ mechanism, to allow deep relaxation and support for the body’s natural self-healing process. Shiatsu also helps to clear blockages and encourage re-balancing and harmonisation of the whole body/mind system to reduce stress and anxiety. Yoga is also very helpful for reducing tension and calming the mind, whilst Qigong can strengthen our whole Qi system as well as releasing emotional/energetic blockages. Tapping, or EFT, is an amazing self-empowering tool to reduce stress and anxiety levels – definitely worth trying! A simple mindfulness meditation practice is increasingly recognised as working wonders in lowering stress and anxiety.
Aside from therapeutic practices, simply creating space in our lives and slowing down our activities will not only give us time to relax, breathe and calm our system but also give us time to develop our self-awareness - providing an opportunity to become more mindful of our thoughts and emotional needs, enabling us better to meet those needs.
When we start to change our lifestyle and our habits to help reduce our stress levels, we can feel a stillness and contentment in body, heart and mind. Life will never be without its difficulties but we manage and experience those differently when we feel at ease. We are more likely to flow, surfing the waves of life with a relaxed perspective, enjoying being alive and present in the world.
Further reading books and resources:
* ‘Step by Step Tapping’ - Sue Beer and Emma Roberts
* ‘Acu-Yoga’ - Michael Reed Gach
* ‘Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world’ – Prof Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman