Posts filed under ‘Emotional Health & Sleep’

Smoothing the Winter –> Spring Transition

Happy Spring, and Happy Daylight Savings Time! Turning the clocks ahead is one of the best events of the year, in my book — I just love the longer, lighter evenings and the promise that spring really is coming.

In that erratic, New England way, but it’s coming. As I write this, it’s April 1, the front yards in my neighborhood are practically carpeted with crocuses, and it’s snowing. Need I say more?

I’ve been feeling a bit erratic myself — both more energetic and a bit more impatient. Which makes sense, actually. From a Chinese medicine point of view, our bodies are little microcosms of the world around us. In early spring, energy that’s been dormant all winter starts to move, but hasn’t had a chance yet to burst forth.

It’s common for people to feel lighter and more optimistic this time of year, but it’s also common to feel really cranky or discouraged. (For all we know, the tulips are feeling the very same way as they wait to come out.) If this is happening for you, don’t worry, it’s just the change of seasons.


What to do?

Here are some suggestions for moving through the slower winter energy and into the exuberance of spring!

Do Some Spring Cleaning
. I’ve been having this crazy urge to de-clutter and organize. Suddenly it seems very important, and satisfying, to buy new storage bins and get everything in order, and ditch the stuff I’m not using. There’s a reason there’s an age-old tradition of spring cleaning — it moves all the energy that’s stuck in the clutter, and makes room for the movement and growth of spring. I highly recommend it, if the mood strikes.

Up Your Exercise. There’s more energy available this time of year, and it’s a good time to move from gentler exercise into something more vigorous. If you’re feeling tired or resistant, it’s more likely right now that it’s due to your energy being stuck, rather than depleted. Push yourself a little to do some aerobic movement — you’ll probably feel more energetic and happier.

Look For Where You’re Stuck. Often if our energy is low, there’s something in our lives or hearts that is blocking it. Take a minute to get quiet, and go inside and ask yourself, what’s getting in the way? Be willing to be surprised. Some things you might find: decisions or changes that need to be made; conversations you’re avoiding; people or activities you’re done with and need to let go.

And while you’re inside, ask yourself what kind of support or help you need to clear those things away. It’s usually not a small task to make changes like these, and you deserve some patience and assistance.

Eat Lighter: In the winter we crave, and need, heavier foods like proteins and starches. In the spring, these foods can literally clog our energy flow. Try adding more vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and avoid dairy and fried foods. You’ll feel lighter and more energetic. Eating just a little bit less also helps keep things open and moving.

Do Something New, Different, Fun, or Funny: Having fun and laughing are, quite seriously, the very best things you can do to get energy moving. A new activity or new place does even more to get you out of a winter rut. Make this a strict appointment in your schedule, just like a medical appointment. You’ll get just as much out of it.

Have a Seasonal Acupuncture Tune-Up. I highly recommend this, especially if you’re having a hard time with irritability, muscle tension, or erratic energy levels. The winter to spring transition can be the roughest of the year (because of that “stuck” dynamic) and an acupuncture treatment can help get your energy moving and bring you more in tune with the changing season. Let me know if you’d like some help with this.

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April 1, 2011 at 4:58 am Leave a comment

It’s not so much WHAT you eat…

A number of years ago I took a nutrition class taught by a macrobiotic counselor. He told us a story about two women who were so excited about their results with macrobiotics that they gave gift certificates to their husbands, whom they were sure would feel so much better if they just ate better.

These guys were hard-working McDonalds and Taco Bell kind of guys. They were not going to touch steamed pumpkin, barley and hijiki seaweed with a ten foot pole. So the counselor told them this: Eat whatever you usually eat. Just do two things. First, eat at the same times every day. Second, when you’re eating, sit down and just eat, nothing else.

Two weeks later they came back raving about how good they felt. Their energy was great, they were sleeping well, their digestion had improved, and they were both in great moods.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But it does kind of speak to the mystery of how we can make a good effort to eat healthier foods, and still not feel that much better (or still not lose weight). There’s so much more to eating than just what we eat.

Chinese dietary therapy does have a lot to say about what we should eat — based on body type, season, and any symptoms or imbalances in the body. Interestingly, though, it has even more to say about when and how we eat (see the next post for more on this).

On a physiological level, the logic behind this is pretty simple. All the energy we use to function comes directly from food. If the digestive system is tense and contracted when we’re eating, or overloaded with too much food, or doesn’t get a steady supply of nutrients, the process doesn’t go so well and we don’t feel good.

I think it’s so much more than that, though. Often, the way we feed ourselves reflects (and affects) the way we nourish ourselves in other ways. If we act like feeding our bodies isn’t worthy of time or effort or enjoyment, it’s quite possible we’re doing the same thing with other needs — like rest, creativity, love, intimacy, or celebration.

It’s so easy — believe me I know it’s easy — to give this stuff short shrift. We’re under a lot of pressure out there. But making the space to eat in a way that is really relaxing and nourishing can be a way in — a way to practice allowing ourselves to be human in other ways too.

And that is even better for our health and balance than a big plate of steamed kale. ūüôā

February 22, 2011 at 10:26 am Leave a comment

Dealing with the Darker Months: Wisdom from Chinese Medicine

When I was in college, I did a 6-month off-campus study program in India. Being so far south, the hot season was can’t-move hot, and during the “cold” season you might need a light sweater in the evening.

Living near the equator also meant that the length of the days didn’t change much at all from season to season. The sun rose at 6:30 AM and set at 6:30 PM, year-round. Of course, it took several months for me to notice this, but I was amazed how disorienting it was to be without the usual (for me) rhythm of long, luxurious summer days where it’s light until 9:00, and deep winter nights that begin in the midafternoon.

While I do love the seasons I grew up with, I’ll have to admit they can make it difficult to regulate energy and mood throughout the year. Sometime in October I start wanting to go to bed at 6:30. Usually that passes, but it remains harder for most of us to find the active energy and enthusiasm that seems so available in the lighter summer months.

Chinese medical texts recommend surrendering to these seasonal changes. Winter is a more “yin” time of year, marked by stillness, quiet, and more internal pursuits. It’s natural to sleep more, go out less, and attend to our home and personal lives. This time balances out the “yang” of summer, where we tend to be more active and engaged.

Still, it’s important to take care of our energy level and our spirits during this time of year. Slowing down is okay; exhaustion and unhappiness are not. Winter is an ideal time to focus on our own physical and mental health. Yet there are so many things that distract us from self-care: all the things we need to get done, first off, and then a culture that values productivity more than it values people. But the truth is we offer to the world what we have within ourselves, and so we need to care for that. Try making your well-being a priority this winter.

Here are my Top Four Ways to Thrive in the Winter:

1. Get as much light as you can. Early in the day is best, because it helps reset your internal clock. Going out for a walk early in the day can make a huge difference in your mood and energy. Another alternative is to use a light box. This is especially helpful if you suspect you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD (see sidebar). For more information on light therapy, go to www.cet.org
2. Schedule active time. You’re less likely to go out for a spontaneous bike ride after dinner, so it’s helpful to make standing plans to go out, exercise and/or see friends. A dance class, a regular date with a gym buddy, a midwinter party, a weekly or monthly dinner date, or tickets to concerts or plays, will all help you combat cabin fever.
3. Find enjoyable quiet activities. We are actually supposed to be more contemplative, creative, and inner-focused at this time of year, so make the most of it. Often in the summer we’re too busy or restless to devote ourselves to meditation, knitting, reading books, journaling, cooking, or art, all of which can be deeply satisfying activities for those lower-energy days.
4. Reach out for support. If you’re feeling low, it can be hard to find the energy to let others know and to ask for help. Whether it’s low-level winter blues or full-on debilitating depression, you deserve support. Let your family and friends know if you’re struggling. And be open to finding professional help as well. Therapy, support groups, bodywork, and Chinese medicine can all relieve depression and help you manage difficult times.

January 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm Leave a comment

Six Ways to Relieve Stress During the Week

Many of us (who, me?) are in the habit of ignoring our feelings and needs during the week, in favor of being “productive” — which can lead to a big backlog of stuff (that’s a technical term) when we hit the weekend. If you tend to get headaches or other physical symtpoms on the weekend, it’s an even bigger problem (see the post on weekend headaches if this describes you!). But for all of us, it’s just plain healthier and feels better to stay at least somewhat balanced during the week — it improves both your week and your weekend! Here are some suggestions:

1. Formal awareness practices – meditation, tai chi, yoga – were developed specifically to keep us in touch with our bodies, minds, and feelings. Try doing one of them, once or twice during the week. (Be aware, though, that some yoga classes are essentially aerobics in disguise – pick one that guides you back to your own body, rather than pushing you through a workout.)

2. Take time for “active relaxation” during the week. By this I mean a leisurely walk, a fun cooking project, making music or listening to music, dancing, or a relaxed dinner with friends. Unfortunately, watching TV doesn’t count. It does help you forget about work, and slow down physically, but it’s basically a way of shutting off your mind. It doesn’t get energy moving, or bring you back to yourself.

3. Give yourself a mini-weekend: do something really fun, partway through the week. Preferably something that makes you laugh your head off. (Okay, this is the one exception to the TV-and-movies-don’t-count rule!)

4. Exercise during the week is a great way to get energy moving. Just make sure you’re not bringing the same attitude of forcing yourself through it so you can check it off your list. Or watching the TV at the gym and trying to ignore that you’re exercising. Try to relax and actually feel your body moving. If you pick something fun, or exercise with a friend, double points!

5. Connect, connect, connect. Spend time during the week with people who know who you are outside of work, even if it’s just on the phone. Get some support if you need it. You may not want to tell people at the office that you’re worried about your kid’s health, or scared you can’t do this project at work, or feeling vulnerable in a relationship, but having a place to talk about those things during the week is super-important.

6. Be aware of your body and your feelings during the work day. It really is possible to bring your whole self to work, and still get things done. It’s actually okay to go through the day feeling sad, and writing a report at the same time. This takes some practice. Begin by just taking 30 seconds to notice your feet on the floor, take a deep breath, and check in with how you’re feeling. You don’t have to do anything about it, just know that you’re there. Some people set an alarm on their computer every hour or two to remind themselves; others use outside interruptions, such as the phone ringing, as a cue to take a minute and drop in. Cultivating a formal awareness practice (see #1) can also help build this skill.

September 30, 2010 at 9:25 am 1 comment

Feeling Grouchy?

Irritable lately? Or a little depressed, lethargic, or restless? That’s a sign of spring on its way.

Winter is ruled by the water element: deep, cool, and still. Spring is ruled by the wood element, which represents growth, change, and movement. As we begin to shift from winter to spring, that dynamic energy starts to stir. But because it’s really still winter, it’s hard for that energy to flow well, and we may feel pent-up, frustrated, or inexplicably tired.

To help smooth this transition, try doing things that help move your energy and “soothe the Liver” (the Liver organ is associated with spring, and the movement of energy in the body, as well as emotional flow). Here are some suggestions:

1. Eat Sour Foods: The sour taste is associated with the Liver, and helps smooth the flow of qi/energy in the body. Pick up a jar of sauerkraut, add pickles to your sandwich, squeeze a lemon in your drink.
2. Change the Scene. If you can get to the Bahamas, go for it. Otherwise, anything outside your normal setting can refresh. Last weekend, after the Veterans Clinic, I walked around Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood I almost never visit. It’s remarkably restorative. (I suppose climbing the 294 steps in the Bunker Hill Monument probably helped move the qi, too!).
3. Have a Glass (Just One!) of Red Wine. Wine affects the Liver (we knew that already!), and was often used in classical Chinese herbal formulas to increase their qi-moving effect. Over-indulging in alcohol, however, is taxing to the Liver and results in major stagnation, so be careful!
4. Get Some Vigorous Exercise. Nothing moves the qi better or more directly than moving your body. Trying a new activity will shake things up even more.
5. Have an Acupuncture or Massage Treatment. These modalities help increase the circulation and flow in your body, and release areas where energy may be stuck.

March 5, 2010 at 3:15 pm Leave a comment

Chinese Medicine and Stress

It’s official. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that 80% of Americans are stressed about the economy, 60% are angry about it, and 52% are having trouble sleeping.

It’s not news that most of us are stressed out about the economic situation. But these numbers suggest a serious health concern. In the West, we tend to take stress for granted. We are used to being under pressure, and we often think about stress as a kind of unimportant background noise, or as something that is inevitable and therefore acceptable. Or worse, we may see it as a sign of our virtue or importance. It’s quite common to hear people actually brag about how busy and stressed out they are.

Chinese medicine views stress as a very important health issue. The physical and mental tension that accompanies stress inhibits the flow of qi, or energy, causing body systems not to work properly. Stress in Chinese medicine is considered to be the source of many diseases, and to complicate and aggravate any existing imbalance or poor health.

The American Institute of Stress has estimated that 75-90 percent of visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related problems. In my opinion, Chinese medicine’s success as a preventative medicine is largely due to its effectiveness in reducing stress and its impact on the body.

Of course there is always stress in life. If you are participating in the world, and stretching your limits at all, there will be some stress, and that’s a good thing. But if it’s affecting sleep, appetite, mood, relationships, pain level, or the frequency or severity of symptoms like headaches, asthma attacks, or digestive problems, then it’s not just unpleasant, it’s important to address. See below for a few suggestions!

First Aid for Stress

Here are some suggestions from Chinese medicine to help reduce your stress level and maintain balance.

  1. Get regular acupuncture treatments, especially if you feel stress affecting you mentally or physically.¬† It’s easier (and takes fewer treatments) to prevent stress-related health problems than to wait until they really take hold. And, it will make you feel more relaxed and balanced throughout the week.
  2. Do acupressure on yourself, or with a friend.¬† Your acupuncturist can show you some pressure points to do at home to help extend the effects of your treatment (there are also many books available on this subject).¬† One good point for stress is Liver 3.¬† For instructions on using this point, look on this blog under “emotional health and sleep” for a post entitled Acupressure for Stress.
  3. Chinese herbal medicine can also be a good support.¬† There are some great formulas for reducing stress, depending on your constitution and how stress affects you.¬† The most famous is named Xiao Yao Wan, or “the Free and Easy Wanderer”, because it releases your spirit from tension and allows you to roam happily through the world.¬† Most of these formulas are available in pill form, so they are easy to take and inexpensive. Ask your practitioner for suggestions.
  4. Exercise. I know, I say this all the time.¬† But it’s one of the best things you can do to blow off steam, promote relaxation, and help your body and mind stay balanced.¬† Often exercise is the thing we cut out when our schedule gets tight.¬† Make it a priority, even if it’s just fitting in a short walk or dancing around the kitchen!
  5. Maintain some kind of balance between action and allowing.¬† It’s tempting to think we should eliminate our stress by fixing whatever it is we’re stressed out about.¬† I’m all for constructive action, but it needs to be balanced with relaxation and self-care, or it becomes yet another source of pressure.¬† Some things we can’t fix by ourselves (the economy, for example), and other things take quite a bit of time to change even with our good efforts.¬† In the meantime, it’s actually more important to accept how things are at the moment and be kind to ourselves in the midst of it.
  6. Do things that make you happy. Anything you enjoy will help get your energy flowing.  Spend time with people you love; eat your favorite foods; go dancing or hiking; get a massage; see a funny move; you get the idea!

March 8, 2009 at 9:08 am 1 comment

Acupuncture for Insomnia

Everyone, at some point, has experienced a period of not getting enough sleep, whether from insomnia, sleep disruption (kids and pets are famous for this), or simply not having enough time to sleep. And, the effect of sleep deprivation on mood, energy, focus, and overall quality of life can be profound.

Insomnia can take many forms, including trouble falling asleep, frequent or early waking, difficulty falling back to sleep, and restless or unrefreshing sleep. In Chinese medicine, the specific pattern of sleep disruption points to the underlying imbalance, and to the correct treatment. Unlike most Western treatment for insomnia, the main idea of Chinese medical treatment is to balance the body and mind so that good sleep begins to occur naturally and regularly.

There are many underlying “patterns of disharmony” that can cause insomnia. For example:

  • Insomnia with¬†restless sleep, night sweats, hot flashes, and dry eyes may¬†be due to¬†Kidney yin deficiency.
  • A person who lies awake worrying and has sweet cravings, sensitive digestion, and fatigue may¬†have underlying¬†Spleen qi deficiency.
  • Feeling restless, tense, irritable or agitated when trying to fall asleep may indicate¬†Liver qi stagnation;¬†there may¬†also be¬†chronic pain, PMS, irregular periods, irritability, or chest pain.
  • Someone who sleeps lightly and wakes early, and has anxiety, heart palpitations, and dizziness, may have Heart blood deficiency.

Most people, of course, exhibit a combination of patterns, and acupuncture treatments and herbal formulas are adjusted to your particular situation. Acupuncture and herbs can help calm the nervous system and interrupt the cycle of disordered sleep, without the grogginess and potential for dependence that come with pharmaceutical sleep aids. More importantly, acupuncture and herbs can correct many of the actual causes of sleep disturbance, so that healthy sleep patterns continue long after stopping treatment.

Sleep can also be disrupted by physical symptoms, such as pain, digestive problems, or frequent night urination. In these cases, treating those health problems is often the key to improving sleep. And, the body heals much better when it is getting adequate rest, so sleep is also often the key to making progress with other health issues.

In addition to treating insomnia with acupuncture and herbs, there are many things you can do on your own to improve the quality of your sleep and address insomnia. See the article below for suggestions.

November 22, 2008 at 8:47 am Leave a comment

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