The Slow Burn

There's always that one person in every family that gets called upon when the heat is on, and in my family that has always been me. Since I can remember, I was the one who had to relay bad news, staunch the flow of particularly bloody wounds, and make snap decisions about what type of issues warranted a trip to the ER. I just tend to cope with emergencies well. The worse the calamity, the calmer I get. When you get used to living a certain role, it comes as a rude awakening when someone paints you in another light. I still remember a day back in grad school, when I was told by a classmate and friend that I didn't seem to handle stress well. It had been a long week; I was working seven days a week and taking 9 classes, plus interning in the school clinic. My car was having serious mechanical problems. I was broke. My mother was having health issues. I was doing okay, taking everything in stride. On this particular day I lost my credit card, spilled coffee all over myself, and accidentally deleted a paper that I had been working on all week. When I went to the bookstore to purchase a book that I desperately needed for a class, it was out of stock. That was it, the proverbial straw. I went into high blood pressure mode and couldn't seem to calm myself down. For the rest of the day, every tiny little thing that didn't go my way set off a bitchfest, and the more I complained, the more overwhelmed I felt. My motto had always been, "If you can't change it, there's no point in worrying about it." But now, all of those worries and fears and nuisances that I had been keeping buried in the back of my mind came out full force, magnified times 100. And that's when I got the comment about my lack of ability to cope with stress, and of course it just added fuel to the fire.

I have often noticed that patients who have been through some sort of major trauma do seem to cope better than those with lots of small, seemingly inconsequential (but endless) stresses. I have treated patients who have been through hell and back, and while of course that suffering leaves its mark, it's the small stuff that seems to really get you. I never understood how this could be; how someone who lost a child could do better at coping than someone who despises their job, for example.  But this is where the body and mind's protective mechanisms come into play.

There is a theory called the Region-beta paradox, which states that intense states trigger psychological defense processes that are not set off unless a certain level of emotional or physical discomfort is reached. Think of it this way: which is worse, a paper cut, or a broken hand? Your first instinct might be to say the broken hand, because it is a more significant injury. However, there are tools to cope with the broken hand. First and foremost, there are medical interventions to ease the pain and speed the healing process. That paper cut is a a slow, constant, infuriating sensation that you just can't get your mind off of. No one is going to give you Percocet for a paper cut. Nor will you get much sympathy or attention. The two injuries rank very differently on the pain and trauma scale, but for one of them, there are methods at hand to help you to deal with the suffering.

Mental-emotional stress is much the same. Say someone loses a loved one. It is difficult, yes, but the mind has ways of helping you to survive and function throughout the pain. Then you have the person who, every single day, gets berated by their supervisor. This may be demoralizing and stressful, but the trauma isn't great enough to trigger any sort of mental coping mechanism. And so it builds, day by day. That steady, slow, mental paper cut. Every day that we experience fear, stress, or anxiety is another day that we program our nervous system to exist in a state of being constantly amped up.

This is where acupuncture really shines; it brings your nervous system back to a state of equilibrium. You can actually feel yourself settling down into a lower gear. We sometimes forget what a "normal" state feels like, because in this culture we just go, go, go. Stress is rewarded here; we have far more respect for those who work 70 hours a week, take care of a family, and manage to squeeze something into every possible moment than for those who live a life of ease. We may envy these peaceful souls, but we perceive overachievers as hard-working, successful, ambitious. No one is giving anyone credit for squeezing in a nap every day.

We may not have the option to work less, to take more vacations, or to retire early. But we can take care of ourselves so that we can better enjoy the time we do have. All of the small stresses that come as part of the package deal with life don't need to break your spirit, if you take time to tune up your nervous system.