…Or “It’s better to be a dog in a peaceful time than to be a man in a chaotic period.”–Feng Menglong (1627)
I think you will agree that we live in interesting times right now–our collective minds are focused on the current coronavirus pandemic and it is leaving a lot of us with high levels of anxiety, frustration, and depression. We are juggling a whole new way of living and may feel laden with a new set of responsibilities far out of our control. We are worried about ourselves and loved ones. We are trying to be healthy while our jobs may be on hold or even lost, while bills must still be paid. Our future doesn’t look so certain. All of this is occurring in the midst of social distancing which leaves us feeling isolated and caged in. Some of us may be working in essential services or healthcare settings where we are afraid of contracting the virus or giving it to our families. Whatever our story is, most of us are feeling a greater degree of stress, and this can imbalance any of our Chinese elemental constitutions–Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, or Fire, as well as impeding the flow of Qi throughout our bodies.
During this time of introspection and quiet, I meditated on some Asian wisdom. The Chinese word for “crisis” contains 2 characters–danger, and opportunity. I asked myself what the opportunities could be right now and decided to write an article about how to ease stress from a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective to help ease people’s minds.
I’ve noticed a lot of frustrated and anxious people on Social Media are not sleeping well, particularly waking up in the middle of the night not able to fall back to sleep. More than just a nuisance, stress and insomnia can impair our immune systems–something we really don’t need right now.
As I read more posts about insomnia it appeared that 3:00 am was a favorite time to be staring at the ceiling. This, in TCM, happens when people are suffering from what we term “Liver Qi stagnation,”* where excessive stress bogs down the ability of the Liver to smooth the flow of Qi harmoniously throughout the body, causing imbalance. In TCM our bodies hold our emotions, and in this particular instance where the Qi is stuck, the Liver holds onto anger, depression, frustration, and even hopelessness. When unbalanced a variety of other symptoms such as headaches, irritability, a sensation of stuckness in the throat, gastrointestinal upset, and menstrual difficulties can occur. When I check the pulse it is often wiry, and the tongue may have slightly redder sides.
It is not uncommon for the Liver to become more unbalanced in the Spring, as according to 5-element theory, this is the Season of Wood which governs the Liver and Gallbladder. I often see people with migraines and sleeplessness show up at my clinic this time of year. Add the concerns over the pandemic and it’s no wonder people are waking up in the middle of the night.
Wood energy can also overwhelm Earth energy, causing anxiety and worry. Here there are more digestive issues, paleness, fatigue, and loss of appetite. It may be hard to fall asleep. The tongue may be pale and have a scalloped appearance on the sides; the pulse, weak.
Most importantly in mental health issues, we must balance Fire element, which houses “Shen” or “Spirit” in our bodies and must exhibit clarity in order for wholistic health to exist. Shen is affected by imbalances in the other 4 elements. When excessive there is restlessness, agitation, insomnia, anxiety, panic, mania, and in some cases, hallucinations. The tongue will have a red tip. When weak, symptoms are depression and a low-energy, tired anxiety/insomnia. Here the tongue tends to be pale. A midline crack can exist in both cases.
While disharmony in the elements can cause mental suffering, the good news is there are things you can do at home to help alleviate your stress from a TCM perspective. They are effective in all types of disharmony.
In order to return to a healthy and balanced wholistic state, we must follow the wisdom of the “8 limbs”, where our spirit must first be attended to. Stress reduction is paramount, followed by exercise and proper dietary habits. In theory, if we follow these guidelines provided under the 8 limbs, we will not become ill. If we do, the addition of acupuncture and herbs in conjunction with the upper limbs may be required to help guide us back.
When it comes to helping ourselves relax particularly in the context of the Wood Element it is important for us to identify what we CAN control and to let go of what we can’t. A person with a Wood element constitution or imbalance needs to feel a sense of control over many situations in their life and this can lead to a huge amount of frustration when it doesn’t seem to be happening. Right now we have a respiratory virus that can infect anyone. How can we control that? We can’t control the nature of the virus but we CAN control our actions by social distancing and when we do go out, maintaining a 6-foot distance from someone else where possible. While we can’t stop someone else from carrying coronavirus, we CAN wash our hands for 20 seconds after touching a surface that may or may not be contaminated. We CAN clean those surfaces. We CAN teach ourselves to not touch our faces. By focusing on what we CAN do we are empowering ourselves and easing some of our stressful burden. Focusing on what we can do often increases our sense of confidence while decreasing anxiety and frustration.
There are several meditations that can ease stress, and they need to be done on a regular basis to be most effective. We begin seated, with our feet on the floor, “checking in” to identify and gently accept any emotions we may be experiencing. We then do a quick scan in our bodies from head-to-toe, identifying any physical discomfort. Once identified, we gently acknowledge it, and change our posture if need be. We need at least 30 seconds to prepare our minds to deepen. Our eyes are closed, our just slightly open with a soft unfocused gaze.
One of my favorites is mindful breathing (awareness of breath). There are many ways to do this, but the key is to gently focus on the simple ebb and flow of your breath. While doing so, allow your lower abdomen to expand when you inhale, then let it relax on the exhale. This allows your parasympathetic (calming) nervous system to engage and promotes oxygen to flow more richly into your lungs, telling your brain to calm down. Although we generally do this seated, it is easiest to learn when you are lying down. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your tummy. Notice how your hand lifts with your tummy when you breathe in. When you breathe out, your hand falls. The hand on your chest doesn’t move much at all. With a little practice, this becomes effortless. There is no need to hold your breath or count while you do this. As you get better at this, aim for your belly to expand further and deeper on inhalations. Don’t try to force thoughts out of your head! When you find yourself thinking, acknowledge the thought then simply return to your breath. When you feel comfortable with this, continue for 10 – 20 minutes.
“Rescue” mindful breathing is also a wonderful way to decrease heightened anxiety or frustration during everyday life. Taking a few belly breaths refocuses our awareness, and tells our sympathetic nervous system to slow down, imparting us with calm. It is also helpful for insomnia, either when trying to get to sleep or in early morning awakening. If you find yourself planning your day around 3:00 AM (which is a common Wood imbalance), it’s really important you divert your attention to the breath, otherwise, you may be up for the rest of the night. You do, however, get much better results when you meditate regularly.
I teach a number of other meditations as well, including this grounding technique.
Have you ever felt like your head is spinning when you’re feeling anxiety or panic? Grounding helps to bring us out of our heads and back into our bodies, allowing the frantic emotion to naturally dissipate, transforming it into a deepening calm sensation. It is best practiced sitting down in a chair with both feet on the floor. Start this meditation with 2 minutes of mindful breathing. Bring your awareness to your tailbone and feet, and imagine roots from those areas penetrating the floor, concrete foundation, dirt, rock, as deeply as you possibly can imagine, reaching to the rich molten core of our planet. Feel the earth nourish and support you. Breathe in what serves you. Breathe out what does not. Keep your awareness in your tailbone and feet, sending more roots down as needed, and continue for 5 minutes. This helps us stay present and is deeply relaxing. I tend to follow this technique with an awareness of the breath or a mantra-based meditation for a total of 20 minutes.
Other methods include using a soft-focus of feeling into “gratitude”, mindfulness meditation (Vipassana), TM, the microcosmic orbit, dantien (hara), jade-pillow, 5-healing sounds, and chakra cleansing/balancing. These all can bring some light and happiness into a troubled mind, and remember, it IS possible to meditate. We are not trying to eliminate thoughts–we are simply reminding ourselves to return to our chosen technique once they arise. We do not have to be enlightened in order to be a great meditator. Some meditations resonate with us more than others and some days are easier than others. We just start from where we currently are.
Meditation for 20 minutes twice a day is often the goal, but if you can get 5-10 minutes in before you go to sleep it’s much better than nothing at all. It is best done on an empty stomach so your energy is not focused on digestion.
Pranayama, or Vedic breathing, also helps us still our unrelenting monkey-minds and can be really helpful when feeling panicky. It is often performed on its own or for a few minutes before meditation as it helps to deepen consciousness. Alternate nostril breathing is suggested:
- Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet on the floor
- With your right hand close your right nostril with your right thumb. Rest your right ring finger gently over your left nostril, keeping that nostril open
- Breathe in through your nose
- Breathe out
- Breathe in
- Release your right thumb
- With your right ring finger, close your left nostril
- Breathe out
- Breathe in
- Release your ring finger
Repeat steps 4-10 (“out, in, change”) alternating nostrils as you breathe. If you feel lightheaded, breathe normally then restart with step 1 and try again. Yoga with Adriene demonstrates this nicely. Healthline also has a good article on this as well.
When I use this technique my meditations are much more relaxing. It should be noted that people who have shortness of breath, asthma, COPD, and certain heart conditions should not do this.
A sense of spiritual connection is so important to many of us–online church services, prayer, art, and devotional singing or chanting are some ways to keep us attuned to our Higher Power. In Chinese Medicine, these actions enrich our Heart and Pericardium channels.
We are communal beings so it is crucial at this time to connect in a time of disconnection. Thankfully many of us have the gadgets that allow us to do so. Reach out to friends, neighbors, and family. Offer kindness and service, such as picking up groceries for those who are quarantined or isolated–wonderful ways to stop thinking about what is out of our control. Humour is also a wonderful way to deal with stress. These activities nourish our Hearts, Pericardium, and San Jiao meridians.
Aromatherapy offers respite from stressful feelings. Diffused essential oils of lavender, frankincense, rose, jasmine, sandalwood, neroli, orange, ylang-ylang, and clary sage are deeply relaxing to the mind-body. Many calming blends are available online. If you don’t have a diffuser just add a few drops to a tissue and sniff when you remember, or just place the tissue beside your pillow. If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have any serious health conditions, check to see if the particular essential oils are considered safe for you to use.
Food too can have an impact on our emotions. In the context of an angry” Wood imbalance, it is best to avoid foods that are fatty, greasy, spicy, and highly processed. Caffeine and alcohol should be avoided. While a glass of wine may help you fall asleep or calm you, it can contribute to frequent or early morning awakenings. Drinking a tablespoonful of apple cider vinegar in a glass of warm or lukewarm water each day with a touch of honey taken daily is beneficial.
It is likely your Earth energy is imbalanced as well, either from too much Wood, and/or from over concern or overthinking. Cold/frozen foods should be avoided as well as dairy products and other phlegm producing foods. Congees, soups, and stews are recommended. Instead of eating raw, lightly saute your vegetables to ease your digestion, and try not to eat while distracted.
Make sure you are getting enough fruits and vegetables in all colors of the rainbow to make sure you are getting optimal nutrition. If you can’t get them fresh, frozen, canned, or dehydrated items are better than none at all.
Exercise is a wonderful way to relieve stress. In the context of a Wood imbalance where our Qi tends to stagnate, exercise pumps our Qi and blood throughout our bodies, giving us a sense of both physical and emotional relaxation. The enhanced breathing we see with exercise can aid the Metal element, relieving loneliness, and grief. It lightens up our Fire element, easing depression. Simple walking, yoga, pilates, Tai Qi, or Qi Gong are all beneficial; some people need more movement to ease their frustrated minds–treadmills, exercise bikes, rowing machines, online conditioning classes are of great benefit.
I highly recommend Qi Gong–it combines smooth body movement with rhythmic breathing. The Eight Silken movements (aka 8 silken brocades) is a wonderful place to start.
Of course, if exercise is new to you it’s best to consult your doctor before starting a new program.
Some more modern-day approaches to relieve stress, particularly insomnia, include turning off screens/using blue light filters in the evening, and turning your clock around so you can’t see what time it is. Try not to watch too much news. Journaling can be an excellent tool. Write down worrying thoughts that don’t seem to leave you be. Write down evidence that supports that worry, and evidence that doesn’t. Write down solutions. If you are artistically inclined, write a poem, pick up your guitar, sing, or paint. Engage in hobbies–start a knitting project. Get your garden planted. Dig those weeds. Get outside where safe. Mindful distraction can work wonders as it gets us out of our heads and into our bodies.
Chinese herbal medicine can be helpful–the herbal formula Xiao Yao San, or “Free and Easy Wanderer” powder is the most prescribed Chinese herbal in the entire world. When taken regularly it can alleviate many Liver Qi stagnation symptoms from stress to period cramps. Shells and stones containing calcium and/or magnesium are used often in TCM to calm. Homeopathic preparations, though not TCM, can be helpful too. I often recommend Passiflora composae. If you are taking any medication it is best to check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure taking herbs and supplements is safe.
Acupressure eases symptoms too. I find it best if it is combined with the mindful breathing technique. Some of the best points for stress to hold are LI 4, Lv 3, P6, Yin Tang, and ear Shen Men. Another point I like to use is Conception Vessel 17. This point is located in the center of the chest in the middle of the sternum at the level of the 4th rib (between the nipples in men).
For Liver Qi stagnation, feel along the bottom of your ribcage at the front of your body directly below the nipple line (4 inches out from the midline). Press gently. This is the Worsely location for Lv14. For insomnia, feel for a tender spot on the bony area behind where your ear joins your skull. This is “Bony An Mian”.
Points are held for 1-3 minutes, or until you feel them pulse or heat up. Tapping Ren 17 and the mid-brow point (Yin Tang) is another way to release these points.
These are the tools I have to offer you. I hope you enjoyed this article and have found something that eases your mind.
May you be well, and be the calm in the middle of the storm.
*when your acupuncturist tells you that you have Liver Qi stagnation, it doesn’t mean there is a physical problem with your liver. This is a diagnosis pertaining to your emotional state.