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Stress Revisited

March 6, 2018

My practice here at Deep Root Medicine focuses a lot on stress management, particularly where this intersects with anxiety and depression. And so I think about these subjects a lot – they are, in many ways, how I got involved in acupuncture in the first place. New research is being done that speaks to my clinical and personal experiences of stress, anxiety, and depression, and it feels right to talk about them.

Stress and Political Economy

I recently read an article by Johann Hari on the remarkable effects of our political economy on rates of anxiety and depression in the broader population. I’m now reading his most recent book as well, because I found his argument compelling. While I definitely recommend you take a look at the article, in effect, he suggests, based on rigorous research, that neoliberalism as an economic model and as a sociopolitical ethos is the poison that is eating at us from the inside. Our consumerism, our growth-for-the-sake-of-growth mentality, our impossibility of being fulfilled by what we acquire, and yet struggling in passionless jobs to be able to afford things that become clutter and junk on our shelves, has led to a collective existential void, a crisis of values that leaves us in a place where the world we have built for ourselves makes no sense. We are alienated in our labor and isolated in our social relationships, we have no organic solidarity in our day to day lives with one another, and increasingly we feel alone, afraid, and insecure – the political-economy values of hyper-individualism have left us isolated, cut off, disconnected.

This strikes me as a necessary corrective to our common rhetoric about anxiety and depression. So long as our models, whether biochemical or psychological, assume that there is a primacy of our individual experience, and hence that anxiety and depression are in their most common expression problems to be solved at the individual biochemical or psychological level, we will forever be chasing these as problems of interiority. But where that may at times be the case, the research overwhelmingly suggests that our collective crisis of anxiety and depression, our overwhelming experiences of stress, have to do with our experiences that are far more about the exterior – debt and that cannot but must be paid, work that is overwhelming and unrelenting and always more demanding with less and less control or say both in the day to day and long term processes, and the suffering of our relationships as our life energies are spent more and more in developing or managing the productive capacity of our flagging and sagging extractivist economy.

Acupuncture and Stress

If that is so, then what do we do about it? First, we organize with those around us who can help us – looking for networks of mutual aid and communities of support where we can help one another through shared problems, giving wisdom and emotional-material support where we can. Hari makes the argument in his book that we have to work to rebuild our connections to those things from which we have become disconnected. I like that idea, in part because it sits well with how I approach stress, anxiety, and depression clinically. Acupuncture can be a really profound therapy for a lot of things, but the reality is that needles and herbs alone aren’t going to change some of the more structural components of anyone’s life that may be causing intense stress or anxiety. Economic hardship is real. Disconnection from nature and from our relationships are real problems, and need to be addressed with changes in how we live.

That doesn’t mean that acupuncture does not have a role to play, but it requires that we shift our understanding of how acupuncture helps, and what our goals are. If as a clinician I approach someone’s anxiety, stress, or depression as a problem with them, as something wrong with them that they need to be cured of, I promise you I will not get very far. These things are symptoms of something being out of balance. With acupuncture, the whole intention is to bring back to the body and mind a relative harmony, to bring stability and balance back into a person’s conscious and embodied experience. When this happens, it becomes possible for them to turn their energies, with new and revitalized clarity, toward these other more structural issues, and look at how to change them. If someone has been exhausted and overwhelmed for years, it is not reasonable to ask them to suddenly face down dysfunctional work and personal relationships, to make all the hard and “right” decisions, and to restart their lives. We all start, and continue to live, right where we are. The intention is rather to help someone find clarity, balance, and a sense of peace and stability, in both the short and long terms, enough for them to have the space to change the decisions, the actions, the patterns of thought and behavior that have been part of their lives. And to be frank sometimes that’s not possible. There are economic, political, social, and familial relationships or situations that may not be escapable, no matter how “good” a decision someone makes – an ailing parent, a child with special needs, a bad job that you need for the pay or the insurance, are all situations where there may not be better decisions to make. But in these cases acupuncture along with mindfulness techniques can help us weather the intense periods of chaos more skillfully and come out less damaged and disturbed on the other side.

Techniques for Stress Reduction

I have concerns with any approach to stress reduction that focuses solely on individual strategies. Our stress, anxiety, and depression are not rooted in purely individual causes. However, because we cannot avoid the experience of dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression in our own individual lives and ways, it helps to have techniques that can at least minimize the more negative aspects of these experiences in the short term. Obviously, I think acupuncture and herbal medicine are great options, and as a shameless plug, you can definitely schedule an appointment. I think meditation is absolutely core to how we become more mindful and aware of our world, interior and exterior. But there are other more straightforward and immediate things we can do, too. Helen Sanders, the chief editor at Health Ambition, has put together an article on steps you can take more immediately to help deal with stress, and each of these suggestions are worthwhile. I have also written on dealing with stress in a number of previous articles here, here, and here.

As always, I would love to hear from you, with thoughts, questions, comments or concerns!

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