How to Deal with Stress, Burnout and Sleep, According to an Acupuncturist

Our lives can get pretty stressful, I'm sure we can all agree on that. From long workdays to social and family commitments, it can hard to keep up with everything all at once. Oftentimes this feeling of pressure can lead to stress, disturbed sleep and ultimately burnout which leaves you with little energy to get on with your life. There are a number of ways to seek help when it comes to these areas, and acupuncture is one treatment that has been shown to yield great results for its patients. 

If you're unfamiliar with acupuncture, it's a Chinese medicine treatment that has origins dating back as long as five thousand years. Viewing the body as a whole, this Eastern philosophy takes a holistic approach to healing. Instead of simply masking the symptoms of stress or insomnia, for example, acupuncturists aim to directly investigate and address the source of the issue. After assessing things like a person's diet, lifestyle and medical history, these health professionals are able to gain insight into what's happening in one's body and mind, then tailor the treatment specifically to them.

We sat down with Lauren Curtain, Women's Health Acupuncturist and Chinese Medicine Practitioner to ask her about how acupuncture can help to deal with stress, burnout, and sleep.

Tell us a bit more about how acupuncture works.

When it comes to acupuncture, it is a tool we use in Chinese medicine to create tangible change in the body on the spot. There are channels throughout the body (closely related to the fascial planes) that all correlate to different systems of the body. Dotted along the channels are the acupuncture points—with each point having a different function and creating a different effect on the body.

Some are great for encouraging blood flow and circulation or calming the mind, while others have strong immune-modulating effects. By needling specific points we are able to interact with the body directly. The needles go into the fascia in points with great electro-conductivity, and the energy is able to send strong messages to the brain and the nervous system and as a consequence, all the other systems of the body, for a therapeutic effect. The points are chosen depending on the person’s presentation and what we are trying to achieve. 

What are the most common symptoms associated with stress that you see in your patients?

So many things! Because stress can affect every cell in the body, the symptoms can be wide-ranging. The most common symptoms I see with my patients in relation to stress are disturbed sleep, menstrual irregularities, digestive issues, headaches, chronic pain and anxiety.  

Can acupuncture really help to relieve stress and burnout? How?

Absolutely! In my experience, stress is one of the easiest things acupuncture can help with. It all comes down to the nervous system—there are two key branches of the nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system (our flight or fight response) and the parasympathetic nervous system (our rest, digest and calm state). Our bodies function best when we have more time in our parasympathetic state, with small bursts of our sympathetic/fight or flight state. However in our modern world with so many stressors to deal with, for most of us this situation is in reverse and we spend the majority of our time in our fight or flight state and less in our parasympathetic. 

Acupuncture can be wonderful in situations like this, as any time we do acupuncture, we help the body to make that switch into the parasympathetic rest, digest and calm state. There are specific points we can tap into that very directly calm the nervous system and allow our bodies to have a break from stress. 

What are the sleep benefits of acupuncture?

Acupuncture can be wonderful for improving sleep as it can help to train the body to access the parasympathetic nervous system more easily to allow for a more restful sleep. 

How often do you recommend getting acupuncture treatments?

Treatment frequency will depend on what we are focusing on. On average I will see my patients weekly initially to help get momentum going. Once we are happy with the results we begin to extend the time between treatments, going to fortnightly, then monthly. The goal is to sustain the results, so I will typically see my patients once a month for maintenance and then often going to once every three months, usually at the start of each season change to ensure their health stays in tip-top shape and address any imbalances before they arise. 

So...what does getting acupuncture feel like?

Receiving an acupuncture treatment should be a relaxing and calming experience. Most people imagine acupuncture needles are like the hypodermic needles we get at the doctor when we are getting an injection or blood test. However, acupuncture needles are very different! They are very small, flexible and thin (comparable to the thickness of a strand of hair). It is very common to feel some dull sensations or tingling when getting acupuncture, but there should be no pain. Many people relax into a meditative type state, fall asleep or simply enter deep relaxation and rest. 

Is acupuncture safe for everyone?

It sure is. Acupuncturists in Australia are highly trained and go through a minimum of four years of study with a bachelor degree or postgraduate study. An acupuncturist is able to determine what type of treatment would be best suited for someone at that time and tailor the treatment specifically for them to suit their current health and needs. Everyone at any stage of life can receive some form of acupuncture. 

Are there techniques/exercises that you recommend patients try between sessions to deal with stress and burnout, and promote better sleep?

Absolutely. My goal with my patients is for them to not need to rely on acupuncture to maintain better sleep and stress relief, so we often discuss ways in which they can maintain their results from home without me long term. This can range from assessing diet and modifying things like stimulants that may be impacting sleep (eg. coffee/soft drink/energy drinks).

Looking at sleep hygiene, how are they preparing themselves for sleep? There is a big benefit to creating the space to wind down and destress from the day and send a clear message to your body that it's time for deep rest. Avoiding technology and blue light before sleep and wearing blue blocker glasses after dark are simple ways to allow for optimal melatonin release for deep sleep and a healthy stress response.

Doing restorative poses like ‘legs up the wall’ pose before bed can help to calm the nervous system and prepare the body for sleep. Other simple techniques like diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve which is a key player for calming the brain and nervous system and allows for a calm mental state and restful sleep. Avoiding doing high-intensity exercise at night can also be helpful as some people can experience a cortisol spike and make it difficult to wind down and prepare for deep rejuvenating sleep.

If you are concerned about your health, wellbeing or sleep, your first port of call should be your GP, who will advise a correct treatment plan. 

Find out more about Lauren by following her on Instagram or her website.

While you're here, take a peek at what happens to your body when you don't get enough sleep.

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