Monday, March 29, 2010

Let's talk about stress

In my previous blog entry on painful periods, I suggested eliminating stress around the time of your period, or, for that matter, in your life. One of my readers brought up a good question about stress: 
"The sneaky thing about stress is that most of us have been so stressed for so long that we think it's a normal state of being (especially if we're surrounded by similar people). Some individuals, like you, are lucky enough to learn to slow down early on and others realize it late in life when their body "screams" with chronic illnesses. How would you advise people to reflect on and accurately assess the level of stress in their lives so that they can make necessary changes?"
Awareness is the first step. Pay attention to where you feel stress in your body. Do you tend to feel tension in your stomach, neck, shoulders, head, low back? What causes you to feel these areas tighten, ache, or burn during the day? Is it driving in traffic, fighting with a close family member or spouse, certain scenarios or people at work? Try to zero in on the specific events that cause your head to ache, nausea to rise, or adrenaline to surge, and ask yourself if there are any measures you can take to avoid or eliminate these triggers. For example, what about riding your bike to work instead of driving, or leaving slightly earlier or later to avoid rush hour? Often there are simple changes you can make to adjust stress levels, even slightly, that will make a big difference.

When I'm talking with patients, often they will consider unpleasant symptoms "normal." Some examples include:  gas and bloating after eating, frequent tension or sinus headaches, seasonal allergies, PMS symptoms, light-headedness when hungry, fatigue, insomnia, and so on. These are the whispers I was talking about. These are not normal symptoms to be experiencing on a regular basis. This is your body giving you its first warning. Listen! 

9 times out of 10, if your body is still at the whisper stage, and hasn't started screaming yet, reducing stress will help diminish your symptoms significantly. Here are some great ways to de-stress: 

  • Lavender: Get a little vial of lavender essential oil from the health food store and always keep it with you. Dab a drop under your nose with a cotton ball or tissue. Or sprinkle a couple drops on your pillow at night before you go to sleep. Lavender instantly relieves anxiety and promotes a feeling of calmness and relaxation. Plus, it smells good! (Above is a photo I took of a field of lavender in Northern California. I took all these photos of Hearst Castle, Sonoma, Occidental.)
  • Foot bath: In the evening, an hour or two before bedtime, fill a large pot with hot water and soak your feet for 15 to 30 minutes. In Chinese medicine, your Spleen, Liver, and Kidney meridians begin at your feet. Warming these channels will help you feel more relaxed and sleep more soundly. 
  • Dr. Bach flower remedies: Find these flower essences at any health food store. Spend a few minutes reading through the descriptions on each bottle, and find the flower essence that is right for you. Put a few drops in your water bottle for the day, or simply put a couple drops beneath your tongue. The formulas are clear, odorless and tasteless and they are known to improve your emotional state of being. Rescue Remedy is their most popular formula and is wonderful for anxiety in adults, children, and even pets. 
  • Think happy thoughts: Most of us have gotten WAY too tolerant of negative thoughts making themselves at home in our heads. Practice prevention and think of things that make you happy. Think of a time in your life, or a person, or a thing--anything--that brings a smile to your face. Focus on that feeling, and try to make it grow. See just how good you can feel. Feel it in your arms and hands, chest and stomach, legs and feet. Do this exercise as often as you can. You will create an energetic environment in your body and mind that will not be able to host negative thoughts (or disease). 
  • Write it down: If there's something stressful you simply can't stop thinking about, write it down. Get a spiral notebook and start journaling. You'll be surprised how satisfying it will feel to "get it all out" and you may come to some enlightening conclusions in the process. If you're afraid of someone seeing what you've written, find a safe place to keep your journal, or dispose of the pages after you've written them. 
  • Schedule time for yourself: "Free time" doesn't mean "available time." If you're anything like me, you fill your schedule to the gills. Before saying "yes" to everything that comes your way, take a minute and evaluate your free time for the week. Block out some time that's just for you. During this time, make sure to do something that makes you happy: take a walk, listen to a favorite album, watch an old favorite movie, give yourself a facial or pedicure. Do something that feels nurturing and relaxing. 
  • Eat mindfully: Make eating a healthy ritual. It is important not to eat and feel stressed at the same time. This is how food allergies get started! Avoid stressful discussions or thoughts during mealtime. Put on pleasant music, light a candle, or cut some fresh flowers. Get out the matching salt and pepper shakers, the cloth napkins, the nice dishes--whatever makes you happy. Eat slowly, and focus on the feeling of eating good food that is nourishing your body. 
  • Acupuncture: Getting an acupuncture treatment puts your body in a deep state of relaxation and is known to significantly reduce stress and anxiety. Regular acupuncture treatments can help your overall feeling of well-being. 

Advanced stress-awareness tip: Look for the literal, underlying message, too. For example, if you are having digestive issues, ask yourself, what am I having trouble "digesting" in my life? Or, how am I nourishing or not nourishing myself mentally, emotionally, spiritually? Write about the symptoms you are experiencing, and then see if the description reminds you of something else going on in your life. 

Above all, be kind to yourself. You deserve to feel happy and relaxed all the time. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tips for painful periods

When I was a kid, my mom always stressed the importance of listening to my body:  "Obey the whispers, or you will hear the screams."

So true, Mom.

This may sound ridiculous, but recently I realized how stressed out I am. Well, actually, my period told me. (Sorry, guys.) Honestly, my period has never been a walk in the park, but it was starting to feel more like a walk down a dark alley with a gun pointed to my head.

So, I began to investigate. I had no other choice--the scream was deafening. "Okay, Body, I hear you. What is it you want to tell me?" (I promise, I'm almost done with this metaphor.)

I'll save you the long, drawn-out gab fest my body and I had, and I'll summarize. Basically, it told me to SLOW the heck down.

In Chinese medicine (there it is!), stress causes your qi to stagnate. Qi stagnation, particularly Liver qi stagnation, is one of the main causes of painful periods in women.

If you are experiencing painful cramps or irritability before your period, here are some quick tips to help smooth out your Liver qi:
  • The week before your period, only consume moderate amounts or completely avoid red meat, dairy, salt, sugar, alcohol and caffeine. These foods lead to constraint of Liver qi which will make your PMS symptoms worse. 
  • Get moving! The Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of qi throughout the body. We can help the Liver do its job by participating in mild, consistent exercise. Walking briskly five times a week, for 30 to 40 minutes, yoga (not hot yoga, it will drain your yin too much), and tai chi are great examples. 
  • Drink a mug of warm water with fresh squeezed lemon juice every morning. The sour quality of lemon is known in Chinese medicine to address and relieve the Liver.  
  • Stress is the number one cause of Liver qi stagnation. This may sound obvious and impossible, but I'll say it anyway, try to eliminate stress as much as you can around the time of your period -- and, for that matter, in your life. 
  • And, of course, make sure to get regular acupuncture treatments and a Chinese herbal prescription from your acupuncturist that will specifically address your symptoms. Acupuncture is known to help regulate women's cycles and diminish PMS symptoms significantly. This I can tell you not only as an acupuncturist, but from personal experience. 
Coincidentally, Liver is related to the element Wood, which corresponds to the season of Spring! And here we are on the cusp of this beautiful season, full of new energy poking up through the ground.

I took these photos last summer in the Redwood Forest, while studying the powerful presence and nature of Wood with my Five Element class.

Welcome Spring, keep your Liver happy, and listen to the whispers.