It's Not (ALL) In Your Head

Most acupuncture patients are not the prototypical, American white guy (even when they’re an American white guy) who refuses to talk about his feelings, chooses repression over expression, and will take from the cradle to the grave every variation of ignorance and denial of the connection between mind, body and spirit. I mean, dude, what does that even mean: Spirit?

Instead, most people who are open enough to go for acupuncture in the first place are generally “open” (regardless of demographic), and tend to err in the opposite direction. This is a classic western society pattern of over-compensatory extremes. We seem to all be either lazy couch potatoes or gym rats to the point of adrenal burn out, egregious consumers of fast food or full on vegans, devout Catholics or Atheists, racist Republicans or hypersensitive Liberals, or finally, cynics or faithful to a fault.

I have patients come into the clinic all the time citing the fetishized, Stress, as the cause of all their problems, hanging their head in an ironically prideful extension of self-awareness. And while I appreciate their responsibility, I always encourage them that there’s more to their story. Recall the connection: Mind, BODY and spirit. While it is admirable to acknowledge the importance of the first and the third, it is negligent to in doing so deemphasize the physical being. I often suspect it to be a way for some patients to absolve themselves of responsibility for lifestyle modifications. For example, if one is drinking lots of alcohol, eating sugar or not regularly exercising disease will eventually arise, no matter how at peace you are.

Personally, I began getting annual Gout attacks during the happiest time of my life, when I was 25 years old and beginning to succeed as a comedian. I couldn’t have been less stressed, though Dad had Gout, as did his father and my older brother. My diet and lifestyle was poor and I paid the price at a young age. Now I am 14 years older and a lot more stressed, yet I haven’t had one attack in over three years. Obviously I’ve never taken the medication the doctors insisted I’d have to forever, but instead gradually, radically transformed my diet. My genetic make up has not changed, nor will it, and my stress has gone from successful, post-college dude level to struggling, middle aged man; yet I remain Gout free.

I agree stress is the impetus to many ailments. It is also helpful diagnostically to know when stress is the trigger to acute flare-ups. However, in modern society we are always under some degree of stress, especially if we have dependents and/or live in or near a big city. If this is the case, then why does our condition select only particular moments to symptomatically appear? Are they necessarily always moments of such greater stress that finally tip the scale? Unlikely.

Why does stress express in one person as eczema, another as upset stomach, another insomnia, and others as migraines or back pain? The answer is “constitution.” Biomedicine refers to it as genetics and cites it in their diagnoses, but then neglects to regularly consider it in prescription and treatment – just one important reason to question biomedicine. I.e. Everyone with inflammation gets Prednisone while there isn’t one school of medical thought that disagrees with the basic concept that everyone is different.

We each come into the world with certain tendencies, certain weak(er) links in our bodies that come from the body type passed down to us by our parents. Acupuncture works with the organ channels, i.e. the kidney channel, liver channel, stomach, heart, lungs, etc. and every one of us has one or more channels that are more vulnerable than the rest. My family’s lungs and stomachs are ironclad strong, though I suspect our heart and kidneys to be “deficient.” When we get stressed it tends more to show in what Chinese Medicine refers to as “heart/kidney patterns.” However when our heart and kidney channels are strong and in harmonious circulation, normal stress should not break the camel’s back.

Another aspect is body climate. Why do acupuncturists always want to see your tongue? It is the only muscle in the body that we can see, and each muscle in the body can tell us a lot about its internal functioning. Look at ten peoples’ tongues and I can almost guarantee you’ll see ten different shapes, body types and colors. To write this off as insignificant is even more ignorant than thinking one’s symptoms are due only to stress. People with redder tongues tend to feel warmer than others. They’re the first to wear shorts and t-shirts once winter exits and the last to shut off the A/C in the summer. People with paler and/or puffier tongues tend to be colder. They’re “always cold!” They crank the heat up when it seems preposterous and begin heavily layering up outside as early as October. Believe it or not, these people should stay away from fruits, salads and most dairy, instead sticking to stews, meats and cooked vegetables (which is generally the advisable Chinese Medicine diet for most anyway). Other constitutions are damper or dryer, the former applicable to those who too easily gain weight, the latter to those who frankly, look dry (think most cigarette smokers), and/or can’t seem to gain weight no matter what. These are our foundations, our inevitable baselines that we enter existence with, and play as much, if not more of a role in perpetuating conditions as do stress or emotions.

The point is that to a point we should be equipped to handle stress. I try to remind patients all the time: You’re not going to ever make your parents not annoying. You’re not going to make taxes or rent disappear, and you’re probably even less likely to achieve spiritual enlightenment. For these facts, take care of yourself. Support the vessel forced to endure all this bullshit.

If our body climate and organ channels are properly balanced and functioning they should endure the brunt of a difficult day, week or month, and the fact that we’re experiencing the human condition and whole range of emotions that come with it. We’re supposed to feel sadness, as well as anger, joy and peace. In the modern world I am inclined to suspect the vices used to escape these emotions (medications, technology or drugs) as more culpable for our mini-downfalls than simple “stress.”

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