Long Term Physiological Effects of Psychological Stress According to Nei Jing and Modern Research

The physiological effects of psychological stress can linger long in the life of an individual.  The measurable effects from stress begin instantly and endure:

“The stress response can be viewed as an intereactional process that causes psychophysiologic reactions that are immediate and can occur up to and including physiologic events three weeks after confrontation with the stressor.” 1

Modern research is beginning to explain the connections between the “body-mind”  and the effects of stress on the body:

“The “body-mind” functions as a single psychosomatic network of information molecules; thoughts, feelings, sensations and the biological feedback of digestion, heart function and elimination are just one.” 2

The reaction to stress is commonly simplified into the two functions of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS); Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), “Fight or Flight,” and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), Relaxation.  

“Dysregulation of this critical balance between the differeing functions of the ANS is clearly responsible for a number of psychophysical disorders.  The hyper functioning of the SNS, will in general terms create restlessness, aggression, palpitations and suspicion.  Hyper activity of the PNS will cause withdrawal, lack of interest and anhedonia.” 3

Yet, the human body is still more complex when hormones and neurotransmitters are factored into the equation.   

“Stress response hormones cause a number of other biochemical and physiological changes, which in the short term are vital, but if the stressor is chronic then these stress hormones can start to undermine wellbeing.  This stress response is designed to be mainly short term.  In the long term these hormones cause blood clotting to increase, and blood cholesterol levels to elevate increasing the risk of many diseases such as heart disease, stroke ans angina.  While stress hormones stimulate the immune system immediately, they weaken it in the long term.  Increases in blood pressure are another long-term effect of these stress hormones increasing the risk of stroke, heart attack and kidney disease.”  3

Elevated levels of certain stress hormones can also affect the levels of vital neurotransmitters such as serotonin. 4, 5

Medical practice described in Nei Jing is true holistic medicine.  The importance of inquiring about the psychological state, and how long term stress affects the patient is emphasized many times.  Nei Jing: Su Wen, chapters seventy-seven and seventy-eight, list principals that will allow the practitioner to make a proper diagnosis, at the same time, explain the long term effects of stress on the body in eastern medical terms.  Here are two of the principals:

1. Failure to Gather a Thorough History of the Patient’s Life

A proper history is the first step in making a proper diagnosis.  The many events in a patient’s life can have a long lasting effect on their health.  The first instance that Nei Jing lists is the trauma associated with the change from rich to poor.  In the second paragraph of chapter seventy-seven, Huang Di explains,

“必问贵后贱,虽不中邪,病从内生,名曰营;富后,名曰矢精;五气留连,病有所并。医工之, 不在脏府, 不变形, 之而, 不知病名;身体日, 气虚无精, 病无气, 酒酒然时, 病者, 以其外于卫, 内于。良工所失, 不知病情, 赤治之一过也.”

“You must ask whether the patient was once rich then poor after, although not the central cause of the disorder, disease arises from the interior, this is called ‘peeling away the nutritive,’ To have wealth at first then to become impoverished is called,‘Losing Jing.’ When a middle level doctor tries to make a misinformed diagnosis, they cannot tell if the disease is in the zang or fu organs, they cannot tell if it has changed the body shape, they diagnose the accompanying symptoms, they do not know the name of the disease.  The patient’s body deteriorates day-by-day, the qi becomes deficient and the jing empties, the disease deepens until there is no more qi left.  This is the first mistake in treating.”

In this case, the subject was change from wealth to poverty.  There is one more example given later in this chapter, “If a person was a high ranking official then demoted…”  The practitioner should not be so ridged in thought to think that these are the only types of experience that can affect a person in such a profound way, there are many different traumas that can adversely affect the health of the patient, especially the long term health of the patient.  Huang Di reiterates later, “虽不中邪, 精神内伤,身必败亡。” “Although not the central pathogen, their jing, shen, and internal organs are injured, the body can weaken and die.”  This is why thorough history taking is very important to making a proper diagnosis.   

2. Failure to Gather Information on the Patient’s Diet and Emotional Status

This principal requires the acupuncturist to ask the patient about their emotional status regarding their lives and their diets.  Yet, in the following passage, they add an extra point, knowing proper treatment method once a diagnosis is made.  

“凡欲诊病者,必问饮食居处,暴乐暴苦,始乐后苦,皆伤精气。精气竭绝,形体毁沮。暴怒伤阴,暴喜伤阳,厥气上行,满脉去形。愚医治之,不知补写,不知病情,精华日脱,邪气乃并, 此治之二过也。”

“When making a diagnosis, the doctor must ask the patient about their eating, drinking habits as well as how they are getting along in their daily life, if they are suddenly happy or suddenly sad, if they start off happy then later become sad, all of this can harm jing and qi.  The jing and qi are exhausted, the body is destroyed.  Sudden anger injures the yin, sudden joy injures the yang, and then deficient energy will rise to fill the channels and the form of the body leaves.  A lower level doctor cannot treat the disorder, they do not even know how to properly tonify and sedate, they do not know pathology, the patient’s jing diminishes day-by-day, as the pathogen gets stronger.  This is the second mistake in treating.”

This paragraph emphasizes the strong influence that emotion and diet have on health, regardless of the prominent symptoms that the patient is showing.  The doctor must remember that this patient had previous experiences that have left a weakness in the body.  Therefore, the patient’s history must be remembered when making a proper diagnosis.

The previous passages demonstrate the ancients’ understanding of the long term effects of stress on the body.  This blog post would be too long if each eastern medical term is explained. Modern research is only adding the evidence proving right the knowledge of the ancients.

1. Robinson, L. (1990). Stress and Anxiety. Nursing Clinics of North America.
2. Pert, Candace. (1998). Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mindbody Medicine: Simon and Schuster
3. Weber, Daniel.  (2010). Chinese Herbal Medicine and Psychophysiology: Vagus Nerve; Psychological and Neuropsychological Dysfunction: Panaxea Publishing
4. McCance, K.L. (1998). Pathophysiology, The Biological Basis for Disease in Adults and Children: Mosby
5. Niehoff, Debra. (1999). Biology of Violence: How Understanding the Brain, Behavior, and Environment Can Break the Vicious Circle of Aggression: Free Press

Published by Raul Ramirez, L.Ac., Ph.D.

Physician, Catch Wrestler, Kickboxer, Vegan, Progressive

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