The Stress Connection: An Acupuncturist’s Perspective

Part 1
January 21, 2014 Updated: January 20, 2014

Have you ever experienced repeated occurrences of acute pain, or the exacerbation of chronic pain, especially when you are feeling stressed? 

For instance, you just got up from a chair or the couch and all of a sudden you can’t move! You wrack your brain trying to figure out what could have caused it. You can’t think of anything you did out of the ordinary. Underlying stress could be the culprit!

Signs of stress include back pain, neck and shoulder pain, headaches, abdominal pain, and anger and irritability. We can explain these problems using the diagnostics of acupuncture and Chinese medicine. A system of medicine that has been used to successfully treat a majority of the world’s population for over 3,000 years, it sees the human being as a microcosm of the larger natural environment in which we live. 

Just as a river, when there is a free flow of qi, or vital energy, your system can function optimally. The result is that you feel good and are not in pain! 

When there are blockages of the qi in your system, you experience pain and other health problems. There is a wise Chinese saying, “Tong Zhi Bu Tong, Bu Tong Zhi Tong,” which means: When there is pain there is no free flow, when there is free flow there is no pain. This constrained qi, as termed diagnostically in Chinese medicine, causes pain and other symptoms of imbalance. 

Your Natural Healing Ability

Your body and mind know how to maintain your health when your system is functioning well. This concept is called homeostasis in western medicine. Common western medical treatment will often mask the pain with strong medications. 

However, a major goal and approach of acupuncture care is to determine where the blockages are in your energetic system and help to restore its free flow. This allows the natural healing ability of your body and mind to resolve the pain as well as its underlying causes. 

My patients often experience relief not only from the symptoms they sought treatment for, but also notice an improvement in other functional health issues as well.

The Role of Stress

How does stress come into this picture? It is the emotional, physical, and chemical stresses that we are under that cause constrained qi in the first place. In fact, it disrupts the important free flow of qi (energy), blood, and fluids in your body. To function optimally, every cell, organ and muscle must get what it needs. Blockages do not allow this and you experience symptoms of pain or illness. 

If you tune in to how you feel when you are upset or worried about a deadline at work, you are actually feeling the blocked energy manifested by the tension starting in your shoulders and neck, the headache, the pain in your lower back, or the queasy bloated feeling in your stomach. They may all be related to your stress levels. 

As I always say to my patients, I can’t do much about the sources of your stress, but acupuncture can help change how your system handles the stress. And, it may help your body dissipate its stress by restoring the free flow of qi. 

Using the five element system of Chinese medicine as a filter, we can relate the lack of free flow to an imbalance in the wood element, with the corresponding channels of the liver and gallbladder. When we are under stress, usually the first organ to be affected is the liver, which is responsible for maintaining free flow of the qi, blood, and fluids in your system. 

The liver energy becomes imbalanced and its ability to function optimally is impeded. In addition to maintaining free flow, the liver stores blood, rules the tendons, and opens to the eyes. Anger, irritability, and depression are some of its corresponding emotions. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM style), this imbalance is identified as the pattern of “liver depression qi stagnation.” 

In the coming weeks, we will take a closer look at common types of pain such as low back pain, headaches, shoulder and neck pain, joint pain, and abdominal pain. Maybe you or someone you know will relate to the experiences, symptoms, and treatments that will be discussed. 

Cindy E. Levitz, M.S., L.Ac. is a Diplomate in Oriental Medicine, NCCAOM. She has been in private practice since 1996. Specialties: Stress/Anxiety & Pain Reduction, Women’s Health Issues. Complimentary consultation: