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Managing Stress with the Five Adaptation Types

by Charles A. Moss, MD


Susan was usually able to come up with creative solutions to problems and despite her rather prickly personality, was well liked by her friends and coworkers. Than she ran into a situation that deeply tested her ability to adapt. Her teenage son, who had an ADD diagnosis, started using drugs, altering his behavior and his grades. Susan, in her usual organized fashion met with his teachers, sought out a counselor and developed a program to rehab his wayward behavior. Unfortunately, none of her well thought out plans made any difference, leaving her extremely frustrated and impatient for results. As a result her medical issues began to boil over with worsening headaches, digestive problems and sleep disturbance. Despite her considerable skills and personal resources, Susan had become maladapted and increasingly vulnerable to significant health issues.

Stress has a way of blindsiding all of us if we are not well prepared to adapt to changing circumstances. The Five Adaptation Types provide a guide, based on the traditional Chinese medical system of the Five Elements, to understand the unique tools each of us has to effectively manage stress. Each of the Five Types has their own strategies and strengths as well as vulnerabilities to specific stressors. For Susan, who was a Wood Type, her adaptive powers included great creativity and vision, organizational skills and decisiveness. Despite these abilities, she was most vulnerable to stress when she felt out of control of a situation, her son’s behavior being an unfortunate example of just that.

The other Adaptation Types include Fire, where generosity, passion and enthusiasm are strengths, but under stress anxiety and fatigue are common. They are most vulnerable to loss of intimacy and relationship issues. The Earth Type often shines with empathy, understanding and consideration, but when maladapted they become self-absorbed, worried and dwell on problems. They are most vulnerable to feelings of insecurity and disruption of home and family. The Metal Type’s adaptive abilities include a strong moral compass, preciseness and a sense of self-worth. Under stress they withdraw, get depressed and cynical. They have difficulties with letting go of loss and holding on to regrets. The Water Type is resilient, with a deep sense of trust and faith as adaptive tools. When poorly adapted they feel overwhelmed, fearful and exhausted and are vulnerable to unexpected events.

When Susan first discovered the drugs in her son’s closet, she went into the fight or flight response, with release of adrenalin (epinephrine) which increased her heart rate and breathing, dilated her pupils and created the feeling that time has stopped. This ancient response, seated deeply in the oldest part of our brain, was often needed for survival in our distant past (you either got lunch or were lunch) and generally resolves quickly. However, for Susan and most of us dealing with longer term and less immediate threats, the stress mechanism of the midbrain and hypothalamus then switches to increase cortisol and other stress hormones made in the adrenal system

Cortisol helps us to survive a stressful experience through raising blood sugar, mobilizing free fats, shifting blood flow from the digestive tract to the muscles and eventually breaking down muscle for energy. With the type of stress we all deal with in modern society, often the midbrain continues the secretion of cortisol at high levels even if the original challenge is resolved. Cortisol increases appetite and weight gain around the middle, and leads to fatigue, and anxiousness. Over time, elevated cortisol levels are a major risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis and cancer.

To prevent these health catastrophes, a method of resetting the cortisol level is needed. Studies have shown that the brain can remodel and regain a healthy level of cortisol through psychotherapy and greater self-awareness. Power of the Five Elements provides techniques for each of the Adaptation Types to overcome their specific vulnerabilities and utilize their own adaptive ’tool box’. For example, Susan learned to appreciate what she could truly control, (her emotional response to her son), learned to let go of her anger towards him (anger and impatience is often seen with the Wood Type) and forgive him as well as herself. With these changes, her headaches and insomnia improved and she was on the road to regaining adaptation.

In the stressful world we live in, it is no coincidence that obesity and diabetes are epidemic since both are made worse with increased cortisol from stress and poor diets. There is no magic pill, or medical therapy that will help to overcome poor adaptation. Every person needs to find his or her own path to deal with stress effectively. With a diet to control cortisol, relaxation techniques and the right exercise routine, using the adaptive skills of each of the Adaptation Types is one way to stop the stress-induced epidemics of obesity, anxiety, insomnia and chronic disease. 

Charles A. Moss, M.D., specializes in integrative medicine and Five Element acupuncture at The La Jolla Clinic of Integrative Medicine, one of the first holistic health medical clinics in the U.S. He is the author of Power of the Five Elements and The Adaptation Diet: The Complete Prescription for Reducing Stress, Feeling Great and Protecting Yourself Against Obesity, Diabetes and Heart Disease, a guide to reducing inflammation, diminishing the impact of food allergies, improving the detoxification process, and reducing cortisol levels and biochemical stress. For more information on Dr. Moss, please visit www.PoweroftheFiveElements.com or www.IntegrativeMedicineLaJolla.com.


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