Feeling stressed? Welcome to the Modern Human Club. According to the American Institute of Stress, America’s #1 health problem is stress. And no wonder after the past two years we’ve collectively experienced—pummeled by a pandemic, rocked with economic uncertainty and weighted by prolonged burnout and isolation. Chronic stress induced by the constant psychological tension of modern living can impact our health in a myriad of ways–from headaches and stomach aches to increased risk of heart attacks and diabetes.
What can parents do to safeguard themselves and their children from the over-stressed world we live in? Start by railing this blog, listening to the podcast and by learning about the wellness benefits of Integrative Medicine (and how to integrate them into your life).
What is integrative medicine?
Integrative medicine blends modern biomedicine and traditional Chinese medicine to empower you to take control of your health and manage chronic conditions. This collaborative approach between the two disciplines treats each person as a whole, rather than the sum of their parts, and optimizes wellness by focusing on the connection between the mind and body.
An Integrative Medicine approach to Eczema
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which views the body as an integrated system, has been practiced and refined over the last 3,000-plus years. Through this lens, it’s not surprising that imbalance or inflammation in our body can manifest as skin conditions like eczema, including baby eczema. Where modern biomedicine focuses on targeting the symptom(s) of disease, TCM sees symptoms as clues to a larger systemic problem. It’s the difference between asking how can I make this stop now versus why is this happening?
For example, from the perspective of western medicine, an infant with eczema is an otherwise healthy baby with a skin problem — the same skin problem as up to 20% of infants.
On the flip side, TCM seeks to uncover the physiological circumstances each individual baby experiencing eczema. Does it get better or worse when the mother consumes certain foods? Do skincare products with certain ingredients bring relief? What environment is the baby exposed to? From this point-of-view, each infant with eczema could theoretically receive different treatments individualized to their circumstances.
Both approaches are useful to resolve the eczema (or whatever the health concern) and restore balance to the whole body.
Whereas biomedicine is in general more focus on treating the symptoms, TCM would also work on dealing the root causes.
What is stress and why is it important to manage with holistic strategies?
Stress is an emotional or physical response to external situations or demands that we perceive as exceeding our resources or abilities to cope.
In short, it’s how we respond to “too much” mentally or physically. Unlike anxiety, which is characterized as sustained worry even when the trigger is no longer present, stress is meant to be temporary.
Yet, stress defies definition precisely because its effects are so individualized. What causes us stress and how we respond to stressors varies from person to person. This is why a more holistic and personal understanding of what makes our minds and bodies tick can be useful in managing our stress—and the oft-serious consequences of stress to our mental/emotional and physical health. Here’s a brief recap of the types of stress commonly experienced:
Eustress is a positive form of stress (yes, some stress is good for us) that can benefit our motivation, performance and emotional well-being.
Distress is defined as pain or suffering affecting the body or mind or a state of danger, desperation and need. It implies an external and typically temporary cause of strain.
Hyperstress is, like it sounds, caused by extreme pressure like being overworked.
Hypostress on the other hand is the result of extreme boredom or having nothing to do for a long period of time.
Stress can also be acute (sudden and short), chronic (continuous or repetitive) or episodic (occurring at intervals). Whatever type or duration of stress you experience, it can show up in our bodies in very different ways.
Understanding both your triggers and your body and mind’s responses to stress can help you identify and manage your stress and control your wellbeing.
Stress responses aren’t all bad but they’re being duped by modern triggers
Our stress response evolved for very good reason—to keep us safe from, say, saber-toothed tigers. When we feel threatened, our sympathetic nervous system, or flight-or-fight response, kicks in by releasing a flood of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. Our heart beats faster, muscles tighten, breath quickens and our senses sharpen. All so we can make quicker decisions in the moment and prepare to either flee or fight.
But stressors in our modern world tend to be more psychological than physical—and for that reason more constant and less identifiable. Our brains and bodies are not meant to stay in a state of stress but stay we do because that sympathetic nervous system isn’t going offline when under constant pressure from traffic jams, never-ending work and communication overload. As increasing clinical research is revealing, chronic stress is anything but benign. The effects of chronic stress on our bodies and our minds are well documented.
How stress shows up in the body and mind
Chronic and cumulative stress can have serious health consequences. The list below includes some of the more common stressed-induced conditions, many of which are explored in UCLA’s integrative east-west medicine summer course.
Mental effects including anxiety, irritability, depression, decreased concentration, and memory loss.
Low quality sleep or insomnia happen when we are stressed. If you’re mind won’t stop racing, or if you are waking up around 2 - 4am everynight, it’s likely due to stress.
Skin and hair concerns such as acne, eczema, grey hairs, or hair loss.
Immune system suppression from a decrease in the body’s white blood cells which help fight infection. It has been proven that stress lowers our immune system’s ability to protect our bodies. The lower the cell count the more at risk you are for viruses, including the common cold and cold sores.
Digestive/gut-related issues ranging from nausea, stomach pain, heartburn and weight gain to diarrhea and constipation.
Reproductive impacts such as irregular periods, painful periods, reduced libido and reduced sperm production.
Heart concerns like increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased risk of high cholesterol and increased risk of heart attack.
Other health issues including fatigue, muscle aches, bone density loss and increased risk of diabetes.
Stress, inflammation and our immune system
Inflammation is our immune system’s first responder to infection and irritation. We might feel or experience it as redness, heat, swelling and pain—or in extreme cases organ dysfunction. Like stress, inflammation isn’t inherently bad. After all, it means our bodies are aware of and addressing a bigger issue. However, also like stress, when inflammation becomes chronic it can depress the immune system.
When stress decreases our immune response it impairs our recovery from illness.
The stress hormone, corticosteroid, that our bodies release in response to stressors lowers our lymphocyte count—the white blood cells that defend the body from antigens—which can suppress the effectiveness of the immune system. Indirectly, stress can also affect the immune system via unhealthy behavioral coping strategies, like increased drinking or overeating. Short-term suppression of the immune system is not dangerous. However, chronic suppression leaves us more vulnerable to infection and disease.
Self Care: 5 tips to manage stress for the whole family
By some estimates, 75 to 90 percent of all primary care visits are related to stress. Job stress is the leading source cited by adults, but kids, teenagers and college students are also reporting ever-increasing levels of stress—especially in an increasingly digital world where social/peer pressure isn’t contained within their physical environment. But lifestyle changes and diet choices can play a significant role in recalibrating our sympathetic nervous system to give our stress response a much-needed break.
1. Create a checklist
What helps you destress? Is it a massage, a yoga class, meditation, talking to somebody, or maybe a long walk? Try to identify which activities help reduce your stress and when stress rears it’s ugly head, use some of these tools to help bring down your stress levels.
2. Make sleep a priority
Replace pre-bed screentime, like family movies or iPhone scrolling, with meditative or mindfulness practices that relax rather than stimulate the nervous system. Bluelight from our screens especially can be disruptive to the circadian rhythm that helps us fall asleep and stay soundly asleep.
3. Modify your stress load
In a society under constant pressure to do more, it can be a radical act of self-love to say no more. Practice valuing time without an agenda over filling your (or your kids’) schedule to give your go mode a chance to go offline for a beat. Yoga, tai chi and deep breathing are all effective techniques for relaxing in the moment and letting go of the “I should be doing ____” mantra of modern life.
4. Regular self-care
From professional massage and acupuncture to therapy and just-for-fun socializing, self-care not only helps us shed stress but provides the connective experiences that help make us more resilient to future stressors. Doing something you love that just for you—like facials, yoga or listening to music—or sharing intentional time with loved ones on a trip out of town can help lower stress levels and return you to a more balanced state, enabling you to better manage stress as it comes.
5. Eat well, live well
In both biomedicine and TCM, the saying goes “food is medicine.” What we put in our bodies doesn’t just fuel us, it has a system-wide effect on our mood, health and quality of life. Especially when under stress, what we eat matters. To start, opt for fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs and grains and avoid heavily processed foods like ice cream, deep-fried foods, red meat, spicy foods, refined sugars and alcohol.
Self-care isn’t just doing something nice for yourself. It’s taking the time and doing the work to prioritize health and wellbeing. Addressing stress triggers in your daily life and how you can manage your stress response will set you up for a healthier, happier and more stress-resilient you day after day. To take control of your wellness journey, register today for UCLA’s summer session on Integrative East-West Medicine for Health & Wellness.