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Are You in Control?

by Susanna Dowie(more info)

listed in stress, originally published in issue 129 - November 2006

“It’s stressful being a journalist,” Michael tells me, and then goes on to remind me how he used to wake every morning with abdominal pain and diarrhoea, which would be there until at least lunchtime. Acupuncture works well for IBS, and Michael now comes for treatment only once every few months, his pain having vanished, and his bowel movements normalized.

But what is stress? “A mentally or emotionally disruptive or upsetting condition occurring in response to adverse external influences and capable of affecting physical health.”[1] I have long held the view that it describes any kind of emotion that people find uncomfortable, and maybe prefer not to name. It is in keeping with our system of conventional medicine that emotions are largely swept under the carpet, or labelled cranky and untouchable.

So I asked a small sample group of 15 people to describe briefly what stressed them and was quite surprised how they responded: each one, quite independently, used the word ‘control’. The central cause of stress, they told me, is not being in control. Small wonder, then, that stress is a disease of modern society. Even rats in cages will exhibit profound stress if they are obliged to live too closely together. The illusion of ‘freedom’ in our society belies the constant constraints that surround our daily lives.

Alongside the issue of control, were personalized descriptions of what caused people stress:

•    Being hungry or tired: that is not having my basic needs met;
•    If there is a problem in more than one area of my life: relationship, family, home, work;
•    When I have too much to do;
•    Too many deadlines or not having the resources to complete them;
•    Meeting deadlines and having too much in my head;
•    If I am trying to prioritize one thing over another;
•    I worry about not performing to expectations;
•    Anticipatory anxiety – I get anxious before something is due to begin;
•    I have a horror of being misunderstood: that I might not be able to get my message across;
•    If I do not have time to do all the things that I need to do;
•    If I think I may drop one of the balls – forget something;
•    I can’t bear the thought of letting people down.
I went back to Michael and asked him what stressed him. “When I have deadlines and I can’t make the writing flow, I feel completely out of control and overwhelmed. I can’t cope. I’m frightened of not having the energy to complete the task.” If I hadn’t already arrived at this conclusion via another route, I would now know something else about Michael: the words he uses, the manner in which he says them, and the energy he exudes, all tell me about fear: a fear of lack of resources. In terms of Chinese Medicine, Michael is telling me clearly about his Water element and, if I had no other tools at my disposal, I could use this little snapshot alone to make my diagnosis and treatment strategy. The Water element is the element which in the natural world is predominant in the winter, when the sap is drawn back to the roots of the plant, when it is time for hibernating, conserving resources and resting. The fear that insufficient reserves have been hoarded, that there are too few resources in the energy banks, is a scary one: a bit like knowing that you are spending more than you earn; that when you go to the cashpoint, there will be nothing there!

There is insufficient space in this article to explain each of the Five Elements in turn, but suffice to say that the descriptions given me by those who told me about the causes of their stress were graphic Five Element indicators. Using this system, one can diagnose a patient’s physical or emotional condition, as well as evolve a strategy for treatment. It also sheds light on those patients whom, as practitioners, we find difficult to understand or in some way unresponsive.[2-3] For a system that is at least 2,500 years-old, it doesn’t do badly in a modern world!

In a western sense you could see the alleviation of stress through physical activity as being related to the increased serotonin level in the brain, the brain’s natural opiate. In Chinese Medicine terms, any physical or emotional stress may cause localized or widespread stagnation of Qi – the inability of the life-force energy to flow freely. This also may be partially alleviated by physical activity. But in both cases there is a viewpoint which advocates searching out the root cause of stress and dealing with it. One of the most profoundly useful things that most complementary therapy systems have in common is a returning to the patient the power to search out the cause of their problems, and to deal with it at source, rather than being the powerless victim of their symptomatology.

So next time you feel stressed, you might try questioning the cause. What is it exactly that leads YOU to feel out of control?


2.    Kaptchuk T. The Web that Has no Weaver, Understanding Chinese Medicine. Contemporary Books. 2000.


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About Susanna Dowie

Susanna Dowie, MA, LicAc, MBAcC, HonMRCHM has been the Principal of the London College of Traditional Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (LCTA: URL in Finchley, London, since 1995 and has run a private practice of Chinese medicine for the last 20 years. She has a Masters Degree in Complementary Health Studies from Exeter University and is an Honorary Member of the Register for Chinese Herbal Medicine. She can be contacted on Tel: 020 8349 3225;

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