Holiday Prescription

Here we are, smack in the middle of the holiday season. It’s still hard for me to register 50 degrees as a December day, but as I’m writing this it’s 4:15 and the sun has already gone down, so it must be true. In just a week the days start getting longer again, and we’re about to step into the year 2011.

This month-plus of holidays — Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Christmas, New Year’s — is a tricky time. It can be a reminder to cherish family and friends, and to enjoy and appreciate all the blessings we have in our lives. It also can become a time of painful self-evaluation, or a sad time when we feel our losses even more acutely than usual. For most of us, it’s a mixture of these things.

Whichever holidays you celebrate, or ignore, I have 3 prescriptions for you:

First, give yourself permission to really enjoy what you enjoy about the holidays, and to dump as much as you can that feels like obligation. It’s really okay if you don’t do everything, or if it doesn’t look the way it’s “supposed” to.

Second, be gentle with yourself and leave some time for the things that nourish you most — even, and especially, when you feel too busy. No matter how well things are going, everyone has some tender spots this time of year, and we need our friends, yoga, dancing, meditation, art, long hot baths, you-name-it, at least as much as we ever do.

Third, and perhaps most important: evaluate your life some other day. If you’re not satisfied with your family situation, or you think you should have accomplished more this year professionally, or whatever — be kind to the pain you feel, but don’t try to analyze and fix everything right now. January’s plenty soon enough, if you want to make some changes. For now, just relax into the next few weeks and find joy wherever you can find it.

And, if I don’t see you between now and then — best wishes for a peaceful, joyous beginning to 2011!

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December 14, 2010 at 2:32 pm Leave a comment

The Weekend Headache

I have a client who gets a migraine headache almost every weekend. He works hard at his job, which is pretty stressful, and comes home at night with just enough energy to eat something and crash. Then, on the weekends, when he wants to relax and have fun, he spends a couple days consumed by migraine pain. He recovers in time to make it to work on Monday morning and start the whole thing over again.

Actually, I have several clients in this situation. And a bunch more who suffer from stomach trouble, neck pain, or intense anxiety and depression, only on the weekend – just when they ought to have a chance to enjoy themselves. It’s hard to imagine a bigger rip-off.

What’s up with that??

Have you ever been in an emergency situation – anything from a near-accident on the highway to an all-out disaster – that you handled with calm and competence… until it was over and it was safe to fall apart? That’s what we do: we’re wired to step up and do what needs to be done, and thank goodness for that. Then, once the crisis is past, it hits us and we get the shakes, or freak out, or throw up, or collapse from exhaustion and shock.

And that’s pretty much what’s going on with the weekend headache.

Work isn’t exactly a life-and-death emergency, but it sometimes gets treated like one. Lots of workplaces cultivate a tone of urgency and crisis, rather than a sense of perspective and calm. In the short term it’s a pretty good way to get things done quickly. And probably it feels like a crisis to them, too, so it’s hard to blame them. (This attitude can happen even if you work for yourself. Trust me on that one. And it definitely can happen if you’re unemployed!) And, for all kinds of reasons — anxiety, outside pressure, self-protection in a hostile workplace, or simply the habit of getting stuck in overdrive — we end up shutting our feelings out and just getting our work done.

The problem is, shutting down parts of ourselves — especially for days at a time, or longer — shuts down the flow of energy in the body. If you’ve heard the term “qi stagnation” or “Liver qi stagnation” in Chinese medicine, that’s what we’re talking about. This stagnation can cause all kinds of problems by itself, from depression to fatigue to IBS. And then when we finally relax and the energy starts to move again, all hell breaks loose. Imagine all the stuff you’ve pushed down or set aside all week, finally busting out all at once and rushing up to your head. If you’re already prone to headaches, this really doesn’t help!

What does help is to keep your physical and emotional energy moving during the week. If you have a lot to get done, and you’re in the habit of doing it in survival mode, it’s a big change. But not really that hard, once you know how. Start by doing one or two of the things suggested in the next post. Whether you’re a headache sufferer or not, you’ll likely feel better in all kinds of ways.

September 30, 2010 at 9:28 am 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

Keeping Cool in Summer

Summer heat can feel great; or, sometimes it can be a bit much. If you’re feeling cranky, exhausted, lethargic, yucky-all-over, or just plain too hot these days, you’re not the only one! Try these suggestions for keeping you happy, healthy, and cool when it’s hot and muggy outside:

1. Check out the list of cooling foods below, and incorporate them into your diet (watermelon is actually listed in ancient texts as a medicinal substance for a condition called “summer heat,” which is similar to sunstroke or heat exhaustion).

2. Try eating cold soups.  I’m a new convert to this one — they’re light, cooling, and a great way to get vegetables when you finally get tired of salad.  Try the cucumber-yogurt-walnut soup here: http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2008/06/cucumber-yogurt-soup-recipe.html. — it incorporates several of the cooling foods listed below.  Or surf around and find a recipe for gazpacho, minted pea soup, or chilled avocado soup.  Let me know what you find!

3. Who can resist ice cream? I can’t.  But do try to keep it reasonable, especially if you tend to feel nauseous, stomach-rumbly, foggy headed, or heavy and lethargic in this weather.  Ice cream is a triple whammy for your Spleen — it’s cold, sweet, and dairy-based.  All three of those things (which, admittedly, are the whole point of ice cream) are hard on the Spleen and make it more difficult for your body to cope with the humid weather.  The same goes for those latte-like frozen concoctions from Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks.

4. Get up earlier, stay up later, and rest at midday if possible (you can tell your boss I said so!); Chinese medical texts suggest this as a way of living in harmony with the season. (Countries that do afternoon siestas are way ahead of us on this one!)

5. Sleep cool. Even those of us who love the steamy weather have trouble sleeping in it.  If you have air conditioning, night is the time to use it.  If not, make sure you close windows and blinds during the heat of the day, and use window fans to bring the cooler night air in when you go to bed.  A cool (not freezing cold!) shower before bed can also help.

6. An ice pack behind the knees can do wonders to cool the whole body; one of the main acupuncture points for clearing heat is located there Just make sure you wrap it in cloth so you don’t give yourself frostbite (this has happened before!).

7. Drink lots of water.You know this, of course, but it’s easy to forget to do it.  And, go easy on alcohol, caffeine, and sugar, which are dehydrating.

8. Headaches in this weather? A recent study found that the likelihood of getting a headache goes up by 7% for every 5 degrees of temperature increase (this probably isn’t news for those of you with migraines).  Try this home remedy:  1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon sugar in an 8-ounce glass of warm water helps balance electrolytes and fluids to get rid of a headache.

9. Take care of yourself in air conditioning.  As lovely as it feels, it can be shocking to the body to go back and forth between hot and cold air — especially if you’ve gotten sweaty outside.  According to Chinese medicine, cold can invade your body through your open pores, causing colds, headache, neck pain, and muscle pain.  Try to keep indoor and outdoor temperatures as similar as possible, transition gradually if you can, and keep a sweater handy so you don’t get chilled.

10. Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine are appropriate if you’re still way too hot after trying these things; if your mood, sleep, appetite, or energy is significantly affected; or if you have health conditions (such as headaches, digestive issues, skin rashes, or dizziness, for example) that get much worse in summer. A large part of Chinese medical diagnosis centers around the balance of heat and cold in the body. Treatment can help cool down an overly-warm constitution, making you healthier and more comfortable.

COOLING FOODS FOR SUMMER

These foods, according to Chinese dietary therapy, help cool your internal body temperature and lessen the impact of hot weather.  Most of them are in season now; I suggest stopping by your local farmer’s market to get the freshest and tastiest available.

Apricot
Watermelon
Cantaloupe
Lemon
Peach
Orange
Asparagus
Sprouts
Bamboo
Bok choy
Broccoli
Chinese cabbage
Corn
Cucumber
White mushroom
Snow peas
Spinach
Summer squash
Watercress
Seaweed
Mung beans
Cilantro
Mint
Dill

July 12, 2010 at 10:01 am Leave a comment

Acupuncture for Neck Pain

Neck pain is, unfortunately, an extremely common consequence of our modern lifestyle. Between car accidents, our computer habits, and our stress level, it’s something almost everyone experiences at least occasionally.

Our necks have a tough job: they have to hold the weight of our head (about 10% of the body’s weight), and still be flexible enough for all the finely tuned head and neck movements required as we interact with our world. Actually, the lower 5 neck vertebrae account for about 50% of the flexibility in the entire spine!

And, the neck is where we stash a lot of tension. It’s instinctive, actually, to tense and protect the neck whenever we’re feeling threatened in any way. We also spend a lot of our time typing, driving, and generally handling things in front of us, which can tighten neck and shoulder muscles. And, the neck is highly prone to injury in car accidents, sports, and other physical activities. If these injuries aren’t treated effectively and allowed to heal completely, they can translate into a long-term vulnerability to neck pain.

Acupuncture treatment of neck pain can be marvelously effective. There are several “empirical points” for neck pain, mostly on far-away locations like the hands and ankles, that can often provide instant improvement in pain level and range of motion, especially in acute cases. (“Empirical” points are those that have been found to be highly effective, even though there is no good theory to explain why they would be so). Local treatment, such as needling, cupping, heat therapy, or tui na (massage) can help release muscle tension and bring healing circulation to the area. Even degenerative structural changes such as arthritis, disk problems, or bone spurs can respond well to treatment over time.

Of course, treatment also addresses underlying causes of neck pain. This may include tension, pain or misalignment in other parts of the spine, which affect the neck and head. Bringing the body’s internal systems into balance helps assure that the muscles are well nourished and strong, and that excessive tension is not being held in the body. Overcoming neck pain may also mean making changes in posture, work habits, exercise, and stress management. And, I’m always happy to make referrals if there is a structural problem better addressed by another modality, such as craniosacral therapy or chiropractic.

There are many ways you can take good care of your own neck. See the article below!

June 5, 2010 at 2:41 pm Leave a comment

Six Ways to Be Nice to Your Neck

At the Computer: Make sure you have a good ergonomic setup. The keyboard should be at about waist level, and the monitor should be at eye level. If you spend a lot of time on a laptop, it may make sense to plug in a separate keyboard when you are at home or the office. And, take breaks once in a while to reset the forward creep our head tends to do when looking at the same thing for a long time!

While Driving: Be conscious of keeping your head in alignment with the rest of the spine. If your headrest forces your head into a forward position, consider placing a pillow behind the back to correct for the curvature this causes. And, be conscious of your tension and aggravation while on the road!

While Sleeping:
Make sure you have a good, supportive mattress. This is a main factor for pain anywhere in the spine. The pillow is also important. I suggest either a molded pillow with built-in neck support to align your spine, or a feather pillow that can be bunched up under the neck to provide support. It may take some experimentation to find what works for you.

Out and About: keep your neck covered in chilly or windy conditions. This sounds weird to the Western ear, but in Chinese medicine one main source of neck pain is the “invasion of wind into the channels of the neck.” It does seem to be true that sensitive neck structures go into spasm easily in a cold draft. In the summer, we come in and out of air-conditioned spaces a lot, which can make the neck vulnerable. Consider keeping a scarf handy, or wearing a shirt with a collar.

At the Beginning/End of the Day: Incorporate some stretching or yoga into your routine. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or take a long time. It’s a good idea to stretch the whole body, especially the spine, since tension elsewhere in the body often refers to the neck. And, the increased flexibility and circulation will help healing and prevent degenerative changes.

All the Time: Attend to your stress level. The neck may be the first place you notice that your mind and heart need some attention. Whatever works for you — talking to a friend, exercising, meditation, music — remember that your emotional well-being is key to your health, and not an over-indulgence or luxury!

June 5, 2010 at 2:38 pm Leave a comment

Acupuncture for the Eyes

It’s quite easy to take our eyes for granted, most of the time — we rely on them so continuously as we move around, take in information, and relate to others. If the eyes function beautifully, we tend to forget about them until they complain somehow; and if we have problems, we correct them as best we can, and then adjust to whatever blurriness or eyestrain remains.

Spring is a good time to enjoy and take care of your eyes. The Liver organ system, which nourishes and “governs” the eyes, is most active this time of year. And, there is so much more to see and for the eyes to do!

Have you ever noticed how much stress and fatigue affect your vision? The Liver system is very sensitive to tension, worry, pain, and muscle tightness; any of these may make it harder to focus, read, or see at a distance. Simply relaxing and soothing the eyes can make an enormous difference (see the post on giving your eyes a rest, below); if problems are persistent, acupuncture or herbal treatment that balances the Liver can be very effective.

People often have other visual problems like blurry vision, dry eyes, or floaters; these are often worse when we are tired, overworked, or not eating well. In Chinese medicine, this is due to insufficient “Liver blood” not nourishing the eyes, and can be treated with diet, herbs, or acupuncture.

And, this time of year, problems like red, itchy, or painful eyes often arise along with other allergy symptoms. For more information on treating allergies with Chinese medicine, see the posting on allergies under the category “respiratory”.

Acupuncture can also be surprisingly helpful for much more serious eye diseases, such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, and other diseases that threaten the eyesight itself. It goes without saying that these conditions should be primarily under the care of an eye doctor. However, acupuncture can be a tremendous help in supporting the eyes and relieving symptoms.

For example, acupuncture has been shown to be very effective in decreasing eye pressure in glaucoma, and is often used by people who have not responded well enough to medication, or who want to decrease their medication due to side effects. In degenerative diseases, acupuncture can help alleviate symptoms like eyestrain, visual disturbances, night blindness, and sensitivity to light. By helping to nourish the eyes and increase blood flow to the area, acupuncture may also help slow the progress of disease and facilitate healing.

May 6, 2010 at 12:47 pm Leave a comment

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