Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Autumn: Grieving, Sorting, Letting Go

Autumn is my favorite season. I love the color in the leaves, the chill in the air, and the natural instinct to burrow in and nest. But I always find myself going broody and a little melancholy just as the summer heat gets that tiny tinge of coolness. For years, I chalked it up to the memories of school starting, year after year, in my childhood--the end of the freedom of summer, and for me the anxiety and discomfort of being an introvert thrown into a more social climate. 

While those memories may be a part of my "autumn blues," I now know there is a much more powerful reason I have these feelings, and why so many share them. In Chinese medicine, each season is associated with an element, which also relates to different parts of physical and emotional health. Autumn deals with the Metal Element, which is represented in the body by the Lung and Large Intestine systems. These systems deal with your immune system and breathing. But they also have an emotional component. They deal with the process of grief, of knowing what to keep and let go, and have a place in affecting how we organize our lives and set our boundaries.

Just as the leaves shed their leaves and begin to hunker down for the winter, drawing their nutrients inward, so we humans feel an urge to turn inward as the weather cools. Autumn is commonly a time for introspection and review. We look over our year, our relationships, and our homes, deciding what works well, and what does not, and letting go of those things that no longer serve us. We pack away our summer clothes, pull out the comforting shield of our sweaters and blankets, and review our yearly plans. And many of us, for reasons we cannot quite understand, feel the need to pull out old hurts, old problems, or old memories, figuratively running our fingers over our life scars.

This behavior is perfectly natural, and can be beneficial. When we suffer a loss--whether it's a loved one, an injury, a financial setback, or just a vision of ourselves we fail to live up to--we need time to process the change in our circumstances. We grieve a death, or a breakup, or a new reality after illness, and move one. But as a year or two or ten goes by, sometimes we find there are still issues to process. We reach the age of a parent when they died, we find a new romance, or find our health deteriorates further--or, sometimes more frighteningly, improves, bringing new opportunities but also new responsibility. We have grown and changed, and now we need to revisit that old hurt. Is there something new to learn from our old experience? Is there some new way to let go of a limiting belief or behavior? If we do not revisit our story, we may never know.

Of course, everyone has a friend who is stuck in time. They pick a moment of their life, either for its joy or pain, and refuse to leave it. They dress too young, or continue to make teenage choices into adulthood, because growing up threatens the safety they feel in their perceived youth. Or they keep a room or wall or life revolving around a loved one who has left, or died, unable to accept a new opportunity because they cannot let go of the past. For these people, the natural need to grieve and release has gotten bogged down. Sometimes they obsess on the grieving process; other times they avoid it, distracting themselves with work or vacations or play. If they let their mind go blank they risk the pain of memories welling up, so they choose distraction after distraction to avoid discomfort. For either approach, getting help to grieve properly is important. A mature friend or counselor can help stuck grievers go through the process of sorting memories or circumstances and deciding how life has changed around them, and also how to make changes so they can move on to the next stage of life.

Autumn is still my favorite season, even tinged with grief as it can sometimes be. The other side of grief is nostalgia--a happy memory of earlier times that can be a firm foundation from which to launch an amazing life.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Part Four of the Five Taxations: Sitting Needs Moderation

Just  because I'm happy doesn't mean I should be sitting

Not long ago, I started a series on The Five Taxations--five activities that wear out your system when done in excess. Here is our progress so far:
Our next Taxation is "excessive sitting, which injures flesh." 

Sitting has become the new no-no in our culture. Type "dangers of sitting" in a search engine, and watch the articles pop up. Sitting for long periods is linked with increased likelihood of disability, heart disease, poor posture, and muscle pain and weakness, and, if you are exercising by sitting on a bicycle, sitting is linked to impotence. Chinese medicine doesn't think much of over-sitting, either.

In Chinese medicine, "flesh" is considered to be the stuff that covers your bones that is meaty. While some in Chinese medicine equate flesh and muscle, others see them as separate. Either way, flesh is primarily governed by the Earth element, which consists of the Spleen and Stomach and the body functions they manage--the breaking down of food, the sense of self and ability to think, remember, and focus appropriately, management of "dampness," affecting everything from achy pains to edema or bloat, and the creation of energy and phlegm. An injury to the flesh will also compromise these functions by stressing the Earth energy. Sitting injures the flesh by impeding the free flow of blood and qi, both by the pressure of sitting on the meridians and by the lack of movement caused by being still.

The obvious way to avoid excessive sitting is by moving around. Get up from your desk at least every couple of hours (every half hour is better) and walk--to the restroom, breakroom, around the parking lot, to deliver an item to a co-worker--whatever you can do. Standing and treadmill desks  are all the rage now, making it possible to work at a computer without sitting at all.  

We Chinese medicine practitioners would add the caveat that anything done in less than moderation will have a down side. In fact, the final two taxations are excessive standing and excessive walking. So perhaps in addition to giving yourself the option to work at a computer while standing, consider taking time away from the computer completely. And time away from work. And time away from walking. Take some of your sitting outside, where you can connect to the ground and watch the birds, or clouds, or tiny little ants doing their thing. And then go for walk in fresh air.

Coming soon! Our next taxation: "Excessive standing, which injures bones"

Articles mentioned in this blog: 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Be Who You Are: Moving Past Trauma

Photo Credit: Teresa Y Green
Like many people, I've had traumas in my life. The specific type of trauma is not important for this post, and I lived through them, worked through the pain, and came out the other side a strong woman. But it left scars, and one of the scars was not knowing who I was--knowing my personality instead of my shields.

I sometimes think I'm a walking feeling. It's not that I cannot think logically, I just feel first, then think about it. I have fought this part of my personality for most of my life. Feeling is dangerous in a traumatic situation. It leaves you vulnerable to pain, both yours and that of the people around you. Feelings make it hard to rationally analyze a physically or emotionally dangerous situation and get yourself to safety. Feelings make you react, when you need to be in charge of your actions.

But feelings also inform all the good things in life. The joy of love, of friendship, or something beautiful--you cannot analyze the way it feels to have a loved one take your hand and get the most out of it. At least I cannot. Even hard feelings, like anger and sadness, have a good place. Anger fuels action, and directed properly, it leads to appropriate self-defense. Sadness allows you to sift through events and relationships, and know what to keep and what to release.

The degree to which I neglected my feeling side in my youth came to me recently when I read a poem. When I was younger, I had a hard time with poetry, especially the best poetry, which layers visceral images to create a feeling. I loved complete sentences. I liked Emerson over Whitman. I disliked songs with lyrics that didn't make a coherent story. When I got married, my husband introduced me to poetry with feeling--disjointed phrases that teased my subconscious, that spoke in whirling scenes instead of paragraphs, that I felt in my body instead of dissecting in my mind. 

It took a few years, but gradually I integrated the two. Embracing my feeling side along with my thinking side has made me a more whole person. I do not have to second-guess my reactions as often, because I am not approaching life while hiding half of myself. 

Part of acknowledging your whole self is learning to be honest. When you live through trauma, especially as a child, or for a long time, you learn to hide the scary parts of life from yourself and others. You learn to be ashamed of your circumstances. So you lie--if not in word, then in deed. You pretend things that bother you really don't; you let people believe you are in control of life when you aren't, and you deny vulnerability at every turn.

The energy you spend lying keeps you from seeing the truth. Most things that bother or irritate you are not the big deals you make them in your mind--and the ones that are completely unacceptable are usually easy to solve once you get past the initial terror of upsetting someone. When you spend a lifetime pretending to be in control, you never see that no one is completely in control of life--by its nature, life is uncontrollable. We all learn on the job, so to speak--some people are just able to walk an unknown path with confidence, others have to learn confidence by tiptoeing into new things. And it is only in our vulnerability that we really grow and live. Acknowledging you have something to lose makes life precious--pretending you are impervious to harm locks you away from everything that gives life wonder and awe and fun.

In Chinese medicine, we talk about "pathogens" that sometimes get caught inside of the body and can't escape. Illnesses like malaria, strep throat, and shingles are sometimes described as "an evil" that gets into your body, and then your body clamps down to protect itself, and the evil cannot get out. So you may recover, but the symptoms recur, over and over. You may never fully expel the pathogen, but you can learn to build your system, deal with physical and emotional things that stress you, and get appropriate help from the outside in the forms of herbs and acupuncture, you can greatly improve. The same is true for recovery from trauma. Few people completely lose every effect of a traumatic event. But if you reach out to professionals and others who have walked the same path, learn to use proper self-care, and address the things weighing you down in life, you can get better. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Four Ways to Make the Workday Smoother

Image Credit: Free Images.com

I absolutely love my work. I get to help people for a living, and work in an office full of upbeat, creative people who care about our patients and clients. But sometimes, I get a little burnt out. I feel the weight of others' suffering, or get discouraged because I don't meet some of my goals or my plans seem a long way from completion. The patient with the easy-to-treat problem does not improve, or the printer refuses to work when I absolutely need to print out a form.

In the natural health world, we often focus on the "soft skills" or actions that build health. Rather than recommend a dramatic treatment, we advise the people who come to see us to adopt simple strategies to give their minds and bodies room to grow health. I have adapted those strategies to my workday. Here are some tips that help me get back on track when discouragement sets in:

  1. Start with the right thoughts. Every morning, I read. A lot. I read sections from the Bible, articles on relationship and books on living your purpose and goals. Poetry, scripture, affirmations, inspirational books can also put you in a good frame of mind to start your day.
  2. Exercise. I am not a great athlete. For a long time, my health left me exhausted after even moderate exercise, and I'm only just now challenging the idea that I cannot do vigorous activities. But I know the importance of movement, both for physical health, and for emotional well-being. So I do lots of little exercise as often as I can. I wander around the neighborhood where I work and a local botanical garden. I stretch, or spend five minute intervals doing small muscle-building exercises. Not as much as I need to, yet, but I'm improving. And guess what I've noticed? The days I do more little intervals of exercise, the happier and more productive I am. 
  3. Meditate. Taking a moment or two to calm your mind will minimize anxiety, improve brain function and help you make more thoughtful decisions, improve your endocrine function, and help your heart health. Even if you only meditate for a minute every couple of hours, you will find yourself more calm and able to handle challenges more easily. This website has great one-minute meditations.
  4. Show gratitude. Thank the people around you for the wonderful things they do. Keep a gratitude journal. Look for things to enjoy and that make you thankful. Gratitude has tons of health benefits, and also encourages positive action. So jot down things that you appreciate. And tell those around you that you appreciate them--share the good feeling!
These four points are not rocket science, but they will keep you in a better mood. Burnout is hard to deal with and miserable to experience, so taking simple steps to prevent hating your daily routine makes sense. Please share your tips below.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Action Heroes Have Incidents

Photo Credit: Bizior

I saw the latest Captain America movie while family was visiting last week. Poor Cap. Without giving away the plot, let's just say all his fancy serums, shield, and let's face it, pretty amazing looks, did not keep him from falling on his face here and there as he saved the world. He used all his talents, but still managed to wreck half the cars in Washington, DC, suffer emotional losses, and have problems he might have avoided if he had made better decisions earlier in the movie.

Thinking about the movie brought a surprising realization. When I do things like Captain America, I usually feel like a failure.  If my plans don't follow an orderly sequence, if each step does not end in an uncomplicated success, I see it as "bumbling," even if I get the final result I wanted.

Do you do the same thing? Do you assume your action-adventures are less-than-perfect if you have incidents? Even if no buildings were destroyed, or killer robots unleashed, or evil geniuses allowed to escape, do you consider a project a failure if it has a setback? Think about the super heroes and action heroes. They get parades and medals and accolades for their successes, even if by the time the movie is over, most of a planet is destroyed. Maybe reaching your goal, or learning good lessons from not reaching it, is worth a pat on the back--especially if you didn't have to change the space-time continuum to get to where you are now.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Pain Breaks Us

Photo Credit Free Images.com
I hate pain. I treat people in pain in my practice. And usually I can help them. But I hate the pain. Pain--whether it's physical or emotional--breaks us. At a low level, we can tolerate it, although it wears us down. But when the level is high--when your nervous system overrides everything with distress signals, when everything hurts, or when your mind cannot escape the loss or betrayal that seeps into every moment of every day--something snaps. We become frightened animals, fleeing something so horrible we cannot grasp it. So we run. To doctors, to medication, to alcohol or drugs, to shallow relationships that offer some kind of temporary oblivion but are unwise and hurt us in the end. When we're too tired to run, we fight, or withdraw--or begin looking longingly at ways to end our time on earth.

Pain rips into our every vulnerability. And, horribly, we often have the fewest resources available to us when the pain is at its worst. Even the kindest doctor or practitioner can only do so much, and in the age of prescription medication abuse, a person in pain often has to overcome a wall of suspicion before getting help for their discomfort. Those of us in the healing arts alternate between keeping a sometimes nearly inhuman distance from our clients and patients and allowing their pain to envelope us and suck us into despair. I sometimes have to hide in the bathroom and cry when someone comes to me in their most broken state.

How can you cope when your pain is at its worst? I don't have a pretty pat answer. In my own life, I long ago gave up on suicide as a way to end my own pain. And thankfully, I have very little pain now. But when it was at its worst, all I could do was endure. I turned to my faith, friends, and family--but there were dark times when none of them seemed to help. So I trudged on. I rested as much as I could, and then just kept putting one foot in front of the other, one minute after the next, and finally outlasted the pain. I won. 

For those who may never fully escape their pain due to injury, illness, or the nature of the emotional trauma they have suffered, I say be kind to yourself. Give yourself understanding. And I ask the rest of us to reach out. Not with trite phrases and over-optimistic attempts at cures. But with a soft hand and a soft word, like we would a terrified puppy or child. I ask that we all remember that pain makes it hard to think and hard to be nice, and perhaps if we can endure the sharp edges of another's pain, perhaps we can blunt their suffering just a bit.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Is Illness Your Only Time Off?

Photo Credit: Channah
Years ago, I saw a patient wanting help dealing with migraine headaches. He had these headaches almost daily, sometimes so severe he could not function and had to stay home, highly sedated and in bed, until they finally went away. We worked for several weeks, with slow, gradual improvement to his symptoms. One day, he came in with a strange look on his face. "For the first time in decades, I've been days without pain." He canceled his next few treatments, and never came back to my office.

I wish I could say acupuncture cured his migraines, but I don't think so. I think he has headaches as bad as he ever did, and when push came to shove, decided he needed his headaches. He had a co-worker who was constantly causing problems, and my patient ended up dealing with the consequences of his co-worker's mistakes. Because of his relationship with this co-worker, he hated his job and hated going there each day. His work environment was demanding, and taking time off was discouraged. Everyone in the office knew about his severe migraines, and when he had a headache he could go into a quiet office and work uninterrupted. If the headache was really bad, his boss would suggest he go home, and compliment him on all his hard work. My patient even told me several times during our sessions that he felt "the migraines aren't all bad--they're my only break from my toxic work environment."

So I was not terribly surprised when my patient suddenly stopped his treatments. As much as he hated the pain and limits his migraines put on him, he hated the environment at work more. He's not alone. I often see people who come in for various health problems, who have one thing in common: for whatever reason, they do not believe they can create boundaries around their life, so their bodies create boundaries for them. Headaches, digestive problems, recurring head colds, anxiety attacks--for some patients, these are the bane of their existence and also their only way to feel safe taking some much-needed rest.

I've been in their shoes. For many years, my only time really off from my demands was when I caught a virus. I may have had days that I didn't work, but I had social obligations I did not like, or that were more challenging than my limited resources could handle. I wanted to feel "productive" and "reliable," so I kept making commitments I did not want to make, and doing things I felt I "should" do, even if I was exhausted. If I was honest with myself, I would have realized a day on the sofa reading a favorite book was much more rejuvenating to me than going out with friends to see a movie. But I wanted to think I was "having fun." 

So I got several colds a year, forcing me to take time off from work. Since I was sick, I spent the days sleeping and--you guessed it--laying on the sofa reading a book. After more years than I would like to admit, I started scheduling down time. I have a lot fewer colds now. But I still sometimes feel guilty about making time for my decompression.

How about you? Do you go and go until something forces you down? One of the areas I try to focus when talking to patients is extreme self-care (thank you, Cheryl Richardson, for introducing me to the term). You are the most reliable asset you have, since you are the only one you can completely control. And if you are not functioning well, nothing else in your life will, either. Do you care for yourself at least as well as you care for your pets--or your car? Do you give yourself play time, good food, and maintain yourself with regular fuel, and time to repair when you are sick or injured? If you don't because you have children, is your example of constant self-sacrifice and suffering what you want your children to follow? If you are giving because you must, even though it hurts and damages you, are you showing your family the outpouring of love that you imagine? How much better a gift is it to let your family learn to manage some chores or problems, and have time to go on a picnic or take a walk together?

I am still learning the wonders of self-care. Doing nice things for yourself is harder than it seems. I've learned that it is better for me to care for myself by not eating wheat and sugar than it is to give myself a tasty treat that leaves me feeling jittery and tired for the next three days. That sometimes I need to stay up late and sing along with Pandora, and sometimes I need to go to bed early and feel my husband's arm around me as I sleep. That I can enjoy real time off better if I schedule time to clear my desk of extraneous paperwork instead of leaving early. Self-care is not simple decadence, even though I think a too-rich-to-believe chocolate truffle on occasion is a great way to be nice to me. It is taking care of your vehicle to be who you are--mind, body, and spirit. I hope you are on a path to take good care of yourself, and not force your body and mind to make you ill so you will take some time looking out for you.

*Details of the patient histories have been changed to protect privacy.