Hermitage Exercise


Dia daoibh a chairde.  September  is over.  That means there is only one more month of harvest before we get to settle in for winter.   In the very sensible Irish calendar based on the agricultural cycle, we have moved into Deireadh Fómhair or the “end of Fómhar.”  

Harvest is always a busy season around here, but we also added a big construction/reorg project on top of all the other things I am not used to doing.   Add a corrupt webhosting database  and the last couple months  have been a little bit of a blur.  (But doesn’t my new website look nice?)

Not so much though, that I haven’t noticed that people are struggling.  Due to the current public health crisis, we are all kind of cooped up in our own secluded hermitages.  It seems to be getting to people.

This is an exercise I usually ask students to do, but you might also find it diverting if  you are feeling especially cooped up.  I was thinking that now would be a good time for me to start a new exploration, just because things are so different with the ash trees gone.

It’s really simple. Just find a spot you can sit every day and start to observe this spot as it changes through the seasons.  You might journal about it, photograph it, or even sketch it.   Try to notice as many details as you can.

This poem has always seemed to me to be the work of someone who was keenly aware of their ecosystem and I like to read it to as a reminder to appreciate the very simple things in my surroundings that make me happy.  It’s an Irish poem (shocking I know) written sometime in the 10th century and this is Kuno Meyer’s translation:

I have a hut in the wood,
None knows it save my God:
An ash tree on the hither side, a hazel bush beyond,
A huge old tree encompasses it.

Two heath-clad doorposts for support,
And a lintel of honeysuckle:
The forest around its narrowness sheds
Its mast upon fat swine.

The size of my pasture is tiny, not too tiny,
Many are its familiar paths:
From its gable a sweet strain sings
My lady in her cloak of the thrush’s hue.

The stags of Oakridge leap
Into the river of clear banks:
Thence red Roigne can be seen,
Glorious Mucraime and Maenmag.

Hidden, lowly little abode,
Which has possession of … ,
To behold it will not be granted me,
Yet I shall be able to find its …

A hiding mane of a green-barked yew-tree
Which supports the sky:
Beautiful spot! the large green of an oak
Fronting the storm.

A tree of apples – great its bounty!
Like a hostel, vast:
A pretty bush, thick as a fist, of tiny hazelnuts,
Branching, green.

A choice pure spring and princely water
To drink:
There spring watercress, yew-berries,
Ivy-bushes of a man’s thickness.

Around it tame swine lie down,
Goats, pigs,
Wild swine, grazing deer,
A badger’s brood.

A peaceful troop, a heavy host of denizens of the soil,
Atrysting at my house:
To meet them foxes come,
How delightful!

Fairest princes come to my house,
A ready gathering!
Pure water, perennial bushes,
Salmon, trout.

A bush of rowan, black sloes,
Dusky blackthorns,
Plenty of food, acorns, pure berries,
Bare flags.

A clutch of eggs, honey, delicious mast,
God has sent it:
Sweet apples, red whortleberries,
Berries of the heath.

Ale with herbs, a dish of strawberries,
Of good taste and color,
Haws, berries of the yew,
Sloes, nuts.

A cup with mead of hazelnut, bluebells,
Quick-growing rushes,
Dun oaklets, manes of briar,
Goodly sweet tangle.

When pleasant summertime spreads its colored mantle,
Sweet-tasting fragrance!
pignuts, wild marjoram, green leeks,
Verdant pureness!

The music of the bright redbreasted men,
A lovely movement!
The strain of the thrush, familiar cuckoos
Above my house.

Swarms of bees and chafers, the little musicians of the world,
A gentle chorus:
Wild geese and ducks, shortly before summer’s end,
The music of the dark torrent.

An active songster, a lively wren
From the hazel bough,
Beautiful hooded birds, woodpeckers,
A vast multitude!

Fair white birds come, herons, seagulls,
The cuckoo sings in between, —
No mournful music! — dun heath poults
Out of the russet heath.

The lowing of heifers in summer,
Brightest of seasons!
Not bitter, toilsome over the fertile plain,
Beautiful, smooth!

The voice of the wind against the branchy wood
Upon the deep-blue sky:
Cascades of the river, the note of the swan,
Delightful music!

The bravest band makes music to me,
Who have not been hired:
In the eyes of Christ the ever-young I am no worse off
Than thou art.

Though thou rejoicest in thy own pleasures,
Greater than any wealth,
I am grateful for what is given me
From my good Christ.

Without an hour of fighting, without the din of strife
In my house,
Grateful to the Prince who giveth every good
To me in my bower.

I would give my glorious kingship
With my share of Colman’s heritage,
To the hour of my death let me forfeit it
So that I may be in thy company, O Marban!

Hermit and King: A Colloquy between King Guaire of Aidne and His Brother Marban; Being an Irish Poem of the Tenth Century, edited and translated by Kuno Meyer. London: David Nutt, 1901.

Avoiding Seasonal Overwhelm

overwhelmTo switch gears a little, I would like to revisit managing stress, anxiety and anger. Over the years, I’ve written various posts about this topic.  If there is one thing that anyone who works in wellness can tell you, it is that chronic stress is one of the biggest challenges modern humans face.

Emotions can run high this time of year, as we approach the upcoming festivities with varying degrees of anticipation or trepidation.  Normal everyday stress is compounded by additional feelings this time of year that can create anger or anxiety for many people. It seems appropriate to do some proactive thinking about how to avoid those holiday meltdowns.

Anger is an emotion we all experience from time-to-time. Like the stress response, anger is also initiated by the amygdala. This structure is designed to trigger immediate physical reactions, long before any information reaches the cortex and good judgment takes hold. This is important to understand because it is why we often have irrational outbursts when we become angry.

When the amygdala is triggered by an upsetting event, neurotransmitters immediately trigger the release of catecholamines, which boost our energy levels but deplete our body of sugars. This is why some people shake when they are angry, or frightened. Soon after a cascade of reactions in the body trigger the release of hormones such as adrenalin and noradrenalin, prep our body for confrontation.

It is very similar to the stress response in that we are supercharged for action. Muscles tighten and tense. Our heart rate and respiration quicken. We might grind our teeth or clench our fists. Chemicals in our body, which cause blood to clot more quickly, kick in. A study done in 2004 showed that people who are habitually angry have a “10 percent greater risk of developing a heart flutter called atrial fibrillation” and are more likely to experience strokes. (1)

Anger affects mental functioning, as well. When we are in this highly charged state, memory becomes impaired. This is why it can be quite difficult to remember the things you say when you are truly angry. This adrenalin can stay with us for days. It can hinder our ability to concentrate and it shortens our fuse. We might notice that we start picking fights over things that would not normally upset us.

It can be difficult to distinguish between the stress response and the anger response. A significant difference is that instead of increasing alertness and awareness of our surroundings, anger may cause us to focus our attention on that which has made us angry-whether a person or a situation. Therefore, if you find your brain fixating on one person or situation, it is likely that generalized stress is not the culprit.

It is even more difficult to distinguish between anger and fear. Fear has a very similar physiological profile as anger. Some people even become aggressive in the face of fear which leads to anger being considered a possible symptom of anxiety. One way to differentiate fear from anger is by paying attention to the electrical conductivity of your body. People who are angry tend become hot and flushed, while people who are afraid are more likely to feel cold and look pale.

Thankfully, we don’t have to engage in too much deep introspection to be able to begin to address the physiological effects of these states of being. There are practices that we can incorporate into our daily life which reduce stress and feelings of anxiety or anger.  There is still time to incorporate some of them into your daily regimen, before the holiday overwhelm strikes.

Abdominal Breathing
Most Americans breathe improperly from the chest, which can limit the amount of oxygen we take in and may trigger the sympathetic nervous system. Breathing deeply from your abdomen is important to your health because it promotes optimal oxygen exchange. This in turn promotes relaxation and releases tension in the body. The diaphragm also serves a secondary role in helping to promote lymphatic circulation. It is a good to try to break yourself of the habit of breaking from your chest. If you find that difficult, even 15-20 minutes of daily focused abdominal breathing has benefits. It is especially useful to use this practice to calm down in a moment of overwhelm.

Remember to take time to relax.  There is so much truly lovely holiday music out there. Pipe calming soothing sounds throughout your day.  Take long candlelit baths.  Have a hot herbal footsoak.   Do Sudoku.   Whatever you find relaxing, take time to do it.

Daily exercise helps to alleviate stress and work off nervous energy. Walking is especially good for this if you can take the time to walk away from a situation in which you are angry. There are additional benefits to walking in nature. In recent years a great deal of study has been devoted to the effects of green spaces on human well-being, leading one group of researchers to coin the term “Vitamin G” in reference to time spent in green places. Spending time in nature, gardening or forest bathing, has shown to mitigate the effects of stress. Japanese researchers studying the traditional practice of forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku concluded “forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity.” (2) Swiss researchers found that gardening leads to decreases in cortisol which “promote neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress.” (3)

Traditional Meditation
Traditional Meditation involves cultivating stillness in the body and concentrating the mind on one thought. This website has some good tips for beginners. I admit that I personally do not resonate with traditional mediation practices, as I tend to have difficulties being still. I do find guided meditation useful at bedtime.

Moving Meditation
When I was taking a class on anxiety with Sarah Van Hoy a couple of years ago, class discussion turned to the fact that meditation can occur while moving. Yoga can be a very meditative practice. Tai Chi, Aikido and Qigong are all examples of ancient martial arts, which involve breath work, intention and flowing movements. There are also guided meditations specifically designed for use while walking.

Drumming as Meditation
The repetitive nature of the drum beat leads to a synchronous pattern of neural firing in the auditory pathway, which is perceived in the brain. Scientific studies have verified the physiological and psychological effects of this perception. In one study, researchers measured alpha waves by means of EEG to study response to tempo and mode of music concluded, “tempo was found to modulate the emotional ratings with faster tempi being more associated with emotions of anger and happiness as opposed to slow tempi, which induced stronger feelings of sadness and serenity.”  (4)  Another recent study successfully used alpha wave fluctuations to measure mood states. (5) Alpha waves are a brain wave which range from 8-12 c.p.s and are indicative of a state of “relaxed wakefulness” and are typical of the type of brain waves present during meditation. (6)

1) New York Times, “National Briefing: Science and Health: The Lethal Effects of Anger,” New York Times, March 2, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/02/us/national-briefing-science-and-health-the-lethal-effects-of-anger.html
2) Groenewegen, et al., “Vitamin G: effects of green space on health, well-being and social safety” BMC Public Health, 6 (2006): 10.1186/1471-2458-6-149.
3) Agnes Van Den Berg, “Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress,” Journal of Health Psychology 16(2011): 3.
4) K. Trochidis, and E. Bigand,  “Investigation of the effect of mode and tempo on emotional responses to music using EEG power asymmetry.” Journal of Psychophysiology, 27(2013): 146.
5)  Chen, X., Takahashi, I., et al.  “Psychological responses to sound stimuli evaluated by alpha wave fluctuations.” Journal of Psychophysiology, 27(2013):129.
6)  R McClellan. The Healing Forces of Music: History Theory and Practice. (Lincoln: Excel. 2000), 910.

Chronic Stress and Modern Holistic Interventions

So 2014 is starting out with a blast of cold air and negativity for a lot of folks,  from what I’ve been reading on the Interwebz. I don’t usually share my school work here on the blog because quite honestly it isn’t my favorite way to communicate my message.  However in light of the general mood, I thought I would share this with everyone. I’ve removed the in text citations in hopes of making it a little more reader friendly, but I left a list of references at the end for people who are interested in reading more.

Pathophysiology of Chronic Stress and Modern Holistic Interventions

The word stress is a frequently occurring term in healthcare.    The human stress response is a natural function of the central nervous system which evolved to protect us in dangerous situations.  This is sometimes termed psycho-social stress but biological stress may also contribute to illness, so chronic stress is truly a bio-psycho-social phenomenon.   Biological stress is generally attributed to oxidative stress.    Oxidative stress results when the body produces more reactive oxygen than it is able to easily detoxify.   This results in inflammation because the reactive oxygen that is not detoxified causes tissue damage which provokes the inflammatory response.    While oxidative stress may play a role in diseases associated with chronic stress, it seems more likely that it is a result of diet.   Pain is also a biologically occurring stressor however it is subjective and it has been found that the “single most salient component to defining the stressful impact of an event appears to be the perception of the event as aversive by the person.”    The focus of this paper will be on the physiological impacts of experience of long-term exposure to psychosocial stress.

Stressors are defined as events that “require a physical, mental or emotional adjustment.”  Stressors vary in level of intensity and they can be positive or negative.     In 1967, researchers Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe attempted to quantify certain life events such as marriage, personal injury, or change in residence, in order to use them as predictors of psychological and physical illness developed the Social Readjustment Rating Scale which was found to be predictive but with errors.  The model has been criticized because inherently assumes that all people are equally resilient in the face of stressors.   In 1983, Auburn University researchers determined that variables such as “higher levels of income and educational attainment” afforded an individual more resiliency. In recent years, modifications of this scale have shown that “the SRRS may be used as a scale measuring suicide risk.” While this information makes stress seem as though it is a purely sociological concern, it is far from that.  Stress has distinctly physiological impact on the body.

To begin to understand the implications of chronic stress we must first understand the stress response which evolved in order to enable our body to handle “acute physical emergencies.” It is a function of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system which means that these responses are instinctive and involuntary.

The stress response is modulated by the limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system and hormones known as glucocorticoids.    The role of the limbic system is often overlooked in this process, but it is the amygdala which is constantly scanning our environment for dangerous images and sounds.     Sensory information is processed by the lateral nucleus of the amygdala and if it is recognized as a threat, or a potential threat, the lateral nucleus generates an output to the central nuclei (CeA) which is then able to generate outputs which communicate to various components of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis initiating the classic stress response.  There is some evidence that the amygdala neurons which secrete noradrenaline and CRF are activated during stress.  Projections sent from the amygdala to the parabrachial nucleus are responsible for increasing respiration.  Projections sent by the amygdala to the hypothalamus are responsible for activating the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. Sympathetic preganglionic neurons then stimulate the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine and norepinephrine and small amounts of dopamine. 

The hypothalamus also releases corticotropin-relasing hormone (CRH)  which results in the secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACHT) from the anterior pituitary gland.   which then causes the adrenal cortex to stimulate glucocorticoids, such as cortisol.  The pituitary also releases releasing endorphins, vasopressin and prolactin hormones.  The release of other hormones in the body, such as insulin and insulin like growth hormone which slows digestion and growth processes, are suppressed  and that energy is diverted to the limbs.  Release of serotonin may also be suppressed as reduced serotonin levels seem to “increase responsiveness to stress” and the concentration of serotonin in the hippocampus seems to be higher during stress.

Ideally when the fear stimulus has abated the amygdala sends projections to the dorsal motor nerves of the vagus nerve which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and all body systems return to homeostasis. Chronic stress results when this fails to occur and the body exists in sustained periods of daily sympathetic stimulation lasting for weeks or months.

These neurotransmitters and hormones have specific effects on various body systems.    In the cardiovascular system cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine cause your heart to beat faster and vasoconstriction which results in a more forceful heartbeat.   These measures increase the oxygen levels in your blood. The arteries that lead to your muscles relax in order to increase blood flow to the muscles.  Vasopressin causes your body to halt urine production and reabsorb the water back into your circulatory system. While these functions serve well on a short term basis, the long term effect of chronic stress create wear-and-tear in your cardiovascular system.   Hypertension (high blood pressure) has the effect of over working the heart muscles and blood vessels causing them to thicken.  Thickening of the heart muscle wall is termed left ventricular hypertrophy which may lead to arrhythmia. It may also lead to injury to the “points of bifurcation” in your blood vessels which leads to systemic inflammation. Inflammation in the blood vessels results in inflammatory aggregates which catch fat, glucose and LDL cholesterol as they travel through the blood stream.   These substances become fibrous and eventually become what is known as atherosclerotic plaque.   Due to this link between inflammation and heart disease, C-reactive protein, a substance secreted by the liver in response to injury, has shown to be the most predictive marker of cardiovascular disease.

Sympathetic stimulation also impacts the metabolic system.   In an attempt to make as much energy as possible available insulin secretion is slowed so energy storage stops. Stress hormones also reverse other energy storage processes, breaking down triglycerides into more fatty acids, glycogen into glucose and non-essential muscles into their amino acid components to be utilized by the muscles that need the energy.   Additionally glucocorticoids work to decrease cellular sensitivity to insulin.  While these measures serve to meet the energy output needs of a situation during which one might need to run or fight, it is has negative health consequences when sustained. The first of these is that the elevated levels of glucose and fat in the blood stream contribute to the formation of atherosclerotic plaque as mentioned above.  The second is the idea that large amounts of the glucocorticoid cortisol (hypercortisolemia) circulating through the body contributes to the chronic diseases related to insulin resistance, including metabolic syndrome and obesity.   Abdominal fat cells are more sensitive to glucocorticoids which has resulted in the recognition of excessive abdominal fat as a symptom of insulin resistance.

In addition to metabolic problem stress induced inflammation and suppressed immune function may work together to contribute to gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome.    Ulcers are now attributed to the H. pylori bacteria, however not everyone who is infected with this bacteria gets ulcers.  Lifestyle factors such as stress seem to increase susceptibility to ulcers possibly through the suppression of the immune system.

Chronic stress is also known to suppress immune function due to altering the leukocyte distribution in the body and suppressing cytokine and T cells.   Glucocorticoids will stop the thymus from producing new lymphocytes and may even trigger programmed cell-death.   Conversely while stress is known to suppress immunity, it is also known to exacerbate autoimmune conditions.

Additionally stress contributes to a phenomenon termed burnout which is a “work-related stress induced condition associated with memory problems, fatigue, a sense of inadequacy, and depressed mood.”  This set of symptoms is sometimes mistakenly diagnosed as chronic fatigue syndrome.  This set of symptoms has been theorized to occur due to the  suppression of neurogenesis of cells in the adult hippocampus by glucocorticoids released during the sympathetic stimulation.

The preceding is not an all-inclusive list and the links between stress and many other conditions are currently being studied.  Given the many negative impacts of stress, stress management is vital to improving health outcomes.    Many modern herbalists have turned to the use of adaptogens.  It makes sense that adaptogens are probably the most modern category of herbs given their use to treat a truly modern disease. In 1947 Russian scientists coined the term to as a “material claimed to increase nonspecific resistance of an organism to an adverse influence.  In 1958, a Russian researcher, Isreal Brekhman, began researching herbs which might have this effect and meeting the following criteria: “it must be innocuous and cause minimal disorders in the physiological functions of an organism, it must have a nonspecific action, and it usually has a normalizing action irrespective of the direction of the pathological state.”  Many herbs were identified by the researcher and his colleagues as adaptogens including, Eleutherococcus senticosus and Panax ginseng.    Today herbals abound with lists of adaptogenic herbs.    Withania somnifera is often recommended for stress.  According to one study this herb and other adaptogens “counteracts many biological changes accompanying extreme stress including changes in blood sugar, adrenal weight and cortisol levels”

Another holistic approach is to increase parasympathomimetic activity in conjunction with lifestyle modifications and stress management techniques.    According to herbalist Steven Horne, parasympathomimetic herbs work by “directly stimulating the cholinergic receptors [nicotinic and muscarinic] inhibiting cholinesterase and promoting acetylcholine release.”   Unfortunately few of these have been studied, extensively.  Pilocarpine found in a relatively obscure herb known as Pilocarpus jaborandi is a muscarinic cholinergic receptor agonist.  The Veratrum spp. contains the chemical veratramine which also seems to have muscarinic cholinergic activity.   Arecoline from Areca catechu is also a parasympathomimetic which activates the muscarinic receptors, however its use is not recommended due to possible toxicity although this information conflicts with the fact that the herb is commonly chewed on in South America.   Lobeline, a constituent in Lobelia inflata effects the nicotinic receptors as does (obviously) the nicotine in Nicotinia tabacum.

Anti-adrenergic herbs are another category which inhibit the signals of epinephrine and norepinephrine (usually classified as nervines) include among others the Anemone spp. Leonurus cardiac (often a specific in arrhythmia) and Cimicifuga racemosa.   In an animal study a root preparation of Cimicifuga racemosa demonstrated “myometrial relaxant effect which was potentiated after inhibition of excitatory muscarinic, alpha and beta adrenergic, H1-histaminergic and 5-HT receptors.”  Rhodiola rosea has also been classified as an anti-adrenergic herb.

While adaptogens are considered safe for long term use these anti-adrenergic herbs are not and should be used as a short-term intervention allowing clients time to re-evaluate lifestyle choices and learn new coping mechanisms for that stress which is unavoidable. For those providers following a bio-social-psycho approach to herbalism, we find that there other useful adjunct therapies.  Music therapy has been studied extensively for its ability to induce a calming effect in the body.   Exercise has been shown to be a useful adjunct therapy.  Breathing exercises such as those utilized in meditative practices and yoga have also shown to improve the ability to handle stress.

Having a well-established support system, is  vital.   Researchers have determined that “lack of social support and recognition by the environment is one of the most consistent risk factors” of stress related disorders.   The latest research on mitigating this factor seems to be researching how the hormone oxytocin interacts with stress as a means of treating PTSD.  Oxytocin, mostly recognized for its role in breastfeeding, also plays a role in the stress response in that oxytocin system enables us to find “repose and respite” by helping to activate the parasympathetic response.   The release of this hormone also  makes people more likely to seek social affiliation during times of stress   due to the fact that the hormone oxytocin instills “greater confidence in others as well as a feeling of bonding.”  Production and release of oxytocin is stimulated by pleasant social contact such as conversation, massage, sexual intercourse or playing with a pet.   In cases where chronic stress is a concern, building community may seem daunting in light of a busy lifestyle.    Making supplemental therapeutic recommendations that in turn stimulate oxytocin release such as massage, might also stimulate a client’s interest in seeking support networks.

A novel approach which seems to be favored by those who spend their time with plants is to recommend spending increasing amounts of time outdoors.   In recent years a great deal of study has been devoted to the effect of green spaces on human well-being, leading one group of  researchers to coin the term “Vitamin G”  in reference to time spent in green places.    Spending time in nature gardening or forest bathing has shown to mitigate the effects of stress.  Japanese researchers studying the traditional practice of forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku concluded that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity.”   Swiss researchers found that gardening leads to decreases in cortisol which “promote neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress”.   This may occur due to increased time outdoors or exercise.  The argument could also be made that it is possible to have a pleasant conversation with your plants.

While using herbal preparations and adjunct therapies may alleviate some of the effects of chronic stress, there are still ethical questions concerning this approach.  Alternative care providers may want to consider if mimicking the medical approach of reducing the effects of stress with pharmacological agents and coping mechanisms is truly the best approach for alleviating stress?  

Are there systemic changes which need to occur in the American workplace such as shorter work weeks, longer vacations and higher wages which might better address the problem of chronic stress in our society?   These questions are beyond the scope of this paper, but excluding them from consideration when discussing this topic would be remiss. 

In arriving at answers to these questions,  practitioners should consider the following statement by herbalist Sean Donahue, “Soviet scientists pioneered the use of adaptogens to make factory workers work longer and harder. The marketing of adaptogens to help people power through stressful lives in an economy that demands working two or three jobs to keep afloat is the capitalist equivalent. In both cases, to quote Dorothy Day, ‘Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.’ And until we can remove the obstacles to cure our solutions will be palliative at best.”


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What Relaxation Does for You


Your body is an amazing device.  It wants to create balance–known as homeostasis in biology nerd circles– in your life.    The two divisions of your autonomic nervous system serve to maintain this balance.    In the same way that the sympathetic nervous systems actions can be described as “fight-and-flight”,   the parasympathetic nervous system actions can be termed “rest-and-digest”.    Thus relaxation helps your body to restore itself.

When your parasympathetic nervous system is triggered, your blood begins to travel to the periphery and blood sugar levels normalize.  Your blood pressure drops and your breathing rate slows.     Your digestion system also comes back online.   Salivation increases and the activity of your stomach, pancreas and intestines increase.  The gallbladder is stimulated to release bile.  Consequently, your digestion improves.  If you think about this anthropologically it makes complete sense,  the sympathetic division prepares you for the hunt while the parasympathetic division prepares you for the feast.

People who complain of digestive disorders may be experiencing stress overload.   For some people stress may also lead to a decrease in appetite.    This would explain why some people lose weight due to stress.   That isn’t always the case due .  People under chronic stress  are not  digesting foods properly.  Also, cortisol slows the metabolism and low bile production results in improperly  metabolized  fats.  There is also the emotional aspects of turning to “comfort food” to consider.   Few people consider veggies and salads among those foods that support them emotionally.   So honestly, the weight issue can go out-of-balance in either direction due to stress.

The neurotransmitter effector of the parasympathetic division is acetylcholine.    In addition,  acetylcholine helps stimulate the hippocampus to make memories which would explain why  difficulty with memory and learning can also be a symptom of  stress.   Sometimes this works to your advantage in helping you forget traumatic event such as an injury or childbirth but again long-term stress is a different creature entirely.  When stress-related memory difficulties persist, they can lead to performance issues at work or school.

Common Misconceptions about Relaxation

“I get plenty of relaxation ,  I am sitting at a desk or  watching television for hours every day.”

Sympathetic stress reactions can occur due to physical, mental or emotional stress; however the reaction always results in an adrenaline surge which creates excess physical energy.  If you haven’t managed to  release whatever sort of pent of energy is coursing around in your body, it often comes out when you least expect it.    Thus  irrational, sometimes violent,  outbursts are considered a symptom of stress.  Anxiety and panic attacks may arise due to pent up stress, as well.

“I relax when I sleep.”

You might think that you are relaxing when you are sleeping,  but that is often not the case.   If pent up energy doesn’t come out during the day,  it often comes out at night.    This occurs frequently to me.   I am troubled by insomnia despite being utterly exhausted, mentally.   I toss and turn fitfully and am frequently awakened; sometimes by dreams that have triggered panic attacks.

“A few drinks every evening helps me to relax.

It is possible that  a glass of red wine or two will help counteract stress, however then one gets into the dangerous position of using alcohol as a coping mechanism.  For those who don’t have addictive personalities,  this isn’t necessarily a problem.   But it can be the path to alcoholism and create more problems than it solves.

“Sex helps me to relieve stress.”

This isn’t really a misconception, having sex is a great way to work off stress.  I just wanted to see if you were really paying attention.   Sex as a stress release only becomes a problem if it leads to self-esteem issues , due to compromising your morals,  or if you are having unsafe sex.  My professor pointed out that  people who have difficulty achieving orgasm may be suffering from  stress related symptoms, because it is   parasympathetic nervous system which causes orgasmic contractions.    If this is an issue for you,  you should work to find ways to resolve the problem because  having sex without climaxing can also leave you with pent-up energy which expresses itself through other outlets.   There is a reason for  the term “sexual frustration.”

So you can see that it is very important to your health and well-being to achieve balance between the two divisions of your autonomous nervous system.     I will begin to address methods of reducing stress and relieving the symptoms of stress tomorrow.

Herbs for Stress

I’ve had a few questions since my last two posts as to where I am going with all this. I’ve been catching up on friend’s blogs since I’ve been done working on my classes and I’ve been reading a series of entries on my friend Kristine’s blog with great interest. She is documenting her observations and reflections about a blog article written by Gail Faith Edwards on the Tenfold Path to Becoming a Community Herbalist. I have also been giving a great deal of thought to where I am on this path and Gail’s advice about cultivating hope and listening to your “clients” speaks to me, deeply.

In listening to my family,  I have sensed that our underlying problem is that we are a household of beings who are just burnt out.   In  listening to my clients and friends, I sense  that many people are suffering.  As a society, we are are stressed and burnt out.  We have lost our connection to one-another and to our greater purpose as families and communities.

Many people think that since I am into herbs my posts should talk about adaptogens – herbs which somehow enhance our ability to process stress, but that is only half the story. While I suppose I could do the expected thing and recommend nettles for adrenal fatigue and withania as an adaptogen,  that would be a disservice to my clients.   Just as there is no little white pill that will cure this situation, there is no miracle herb which can do a bit of good to someone who isn’t willing to make lifestyle changes. Besides, recommending herbs is a subjective art; best done on a case-by-case basis to meet each clients unique needs.

My intuition tells me that these problems stemming from stress in our lives are the first issues which need to be addressed before one can move on to address other lifestyle concerns. Some herbalists might choose to first address issues of diet or exercise, but to me this seems counter-intuitive. What is the use of good food or nourishing infusions if the digestive system is not functioning properly due to an overactive sympathetic nervous system?

Granted, the argument could be made that the crap that most people funnel into their bodies, is a source of stress but I would also make the argument that I have seen people allow their concern about adhering to the “perfect” diet to become a significant source of additional stress.

Furthermore, I’ve seen two cases in which a food sensitivity was misdiagnosed as a source of a digestive ailment. The more likely explanation was that the ailments were the result of highly stressful situations. When the situations were resolved, the food sensitivities, magically disappeared.

It think it is safe to say that if a client is routinely experiencing symptoms of stress such as anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks or depression,  that their body is in a state in which the sympathetic nervous system has been overactive for some time.

It is also important to keep in mind that the stress responses mentioned before are not an issue of a system that is not working properly but rather that of one which is working properly by responding appropriately to external and mental stimuli.

One cannot fix what is not broken. It isn’t the being that is broken, rather it is conditions that the being is living under which are in need of repair.  As a clinician we must help our clients brainstorm ways to address the  stressors causing these reactions, before we move on to address other concerns.