What a Chinese classic can teach us about health and wellbeing

Lone_tree

 

I have been embracing my culture. More precisely I have been trying to read the historical novel Three Kingdoms which is widely popular in China and neighbouring countries. Think King Arthur but older and grander.

 

I remember one Korean 12-year-old re-enacting excitedly a scene which involved sending covered boats down a river in the dark of night, camouflaged by mist. The enemy, thinking they were being attacked, aimed all their arrows at the boats and let fire. The boats were eventually recovered by the good guys, which were now completely covered with arrows they so desperately needed. This was one of the turning points for their fortunes and an example of strategy genius that has made many boys (and men) go into slight crises.

 

I had no idea what he was talking about.

 

So now, after almost a decade of trying, I’m finally midway through the book. I have been lucky enough to find a very good English translation (which is oh so important) and despite there being 15 characters introduced in the first chapter alone (some with other names they sometimes go by) I have to admit it’s been quite good so far.

 

To be honest, I dusted this book and gave it another try this time because there are just too many epic martial arts movies that are based on these events. There have been two which are particularly well choreographed with enough horsemen to scare off the LOTR series, but everything was just too complicated without any knowledge on the history behind it. So, bring on the original novel!

 

In chapter ten, Kongming, a counsel for one of the good guys (Liu Bei) was fighting off criticism for why his side hadn’t overthrown the enemy if they were as good as they said they were. Liu Bei’s men and resources at this point were vastly outnumbered by Cao Cao (one of the bad guys) and they were covering ground at a snail’s pace. Kongming retaliated:

“When a man is gravely ill, he must be fed weak gruel and medicated with mild tonics until his internal state is readjusted and balanced and his condition gradually stabilizes. Only then can meat be added to his diet and powerful drugs used to cure him. Thus is the root of the disease eradicated and the man’s health restored. If you do not wait until breath and pulse are calm and steady but precipitately use powerful drugs and rich food, the attempt to cure the patient is sure to fail.”

 

This brilliantly summarises the theories of Chinese medicine (and strategies of warfare so it seems) but it can also be applied to other things.

 

The main concept is not one of wait and bide your time, but of building a strong foundation:

  • A ballerina does not jump right into the Swan Lake, she spends years at the barre perfecting her technique.
  • The head chef doesn’t get to that level without knowing how to slice carrots thinly and quickly with dangerously sharp knives.
  • The accountant running the London Marathon for the first time will have spent months preparing for the event.
  • After recovering from a serious injury, the patient needs to undergo relentless physical rehabilitation before they can take those first steps again.

 

Nowadays with the constant access of information available 24/7, people’s perception of time seems to be somewhat warped. I get frustrated if I’m still waiting to be connected to a customer representative until I look and see I’ve only been on the phone for 54 seconds. I’ve spoken to people (not my patients) who don’t think that acupuncture / TCM / massage / physiotherapy / (delete as appropriate) worked for their chronic condition when they’ve only had two sessions. Sometimes we should just take a step back and realize that a house built carefully and with consideration is the strongest house on the street.

 

How else can you apply this thought to everyday situations? Let me know, and if you enjoyed reading this, feel free to forward it on.

 

Photo credit: martin_vmorris via flickr

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Grand slam your way to a sunny summer

Feet_in_park

 

First of all, I would like to personally apologize to everyone in London (and probably the entire southeast of England) who had looked forward to a nice lovely June (we did have a really brilliant May after all). This current bout of indecisive weather (all four seasons rolled into one day for those of you not fortunate enough to experience the schizophrenic climate) is actually my fault. Last weekend I got slightly delirious from the warmth and sun and bought a pair of light-coloured brogues, perfect for the summer. Which we might not get to experience now. Again, my apologies.

 

(If we do happen to see the sun for more than three consecutive hours, I would just like to say: I always had faith in you June, that’s why I got the brogues!)

 

So how is June panning out for you so far?

 

It’s funny to think that your perception of things really does change as you get older (and wiser). Growing up, the last day of school was always around June 15 (I remember this because Mike-in-my-class’s birthday was always the day after, bless him). For me, the beginning of summer vacation was a mix of exhilaration (yeah, I can sleep in till 9am!) and uneasiness (boredom is a lot more daunting when you have almost three months of long, hot Greek summers ahead and the school library closes in July).

 

But as children, weren’t we all amazingly bendy and flexible in our attitudes and games? Within five days I would’ve finished all the books allocated for the summer (only to be reread a few more times over during the following weeks). Thereafter the summer was what we made of it: long walks into the depths of Panorama (before they built all the houses) armed with only that bottle of ice tea we used to buy from the shop furthest away from the neighbourhood in the hopes it would stay cool for more than 10 minutes.

 

Childhood for me, was an incredibly free and rewarding time. My friends and I were allowed to let our imaginations go wild and having been fed books like “Bridge to Terabithia” during the school year, we had the whole of summer to invent our own world where the two stray dogs that always accompanied us on those walks weren’t just dogs, they were Apollo and Poseidon- there to protect us from harm.

 

The world today for many of us is a lot more complicated. There are many things whirring in our heads, what with all the caps we wear for the different roles in our lives. Use this time to remind yourself of what you love best and maybe, just take a step back and breathe. Sometimes we forget to do that, but it’s an awfully nice feeling to remember.

 

Photo credit: Jonatas Cunha via flickr

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Health and Wellbeing | Can how you feel affect your health?

Emotion

 

I am what some would call, a geek. I don’t have Einstein hair, and my terrible myopia doesn’t seem to have come with an extraordinary dose of genius (so I’m not that kind of geek) but I do like cool non-cool things. Physics and chemistry were my favourite subjects in school and I’m still intrigued with giving myself self-induced furrows reading about the universe. “Bobby Fischer Goes to War” is one of my all time favourite charity shop purchases. I noticed Michael Bublé much later than everyone else, and then only because he had a great way of messing up songs, not because he has an amazing voice. I devoured my school library’s collection of Kurt Vonnegut novels and then proceeded to buy them over and over again, as I moved from country to country, leaving my books behind at each location.

 

But I don’t do sci-fi movies or TV shows. Star Trek? Nope. Star Wars? Nyet. Aliens? Nein. (Although I did enjoy Spaceballs with John Candy and Terminator 2, despite the headaches I get with Hollywood’s rubber rules of time travel.)

 

However for the past few weeks I have been watching Dr Who. I blame my boyfriend, who is also a geek (I have to insist here that our flat isn’t Geekopolis so don’t start planning any pilgrimages our way). Being British, he can’t help but be a fan of Dr Who but I have free will and so managed to live in a parallel universe where there was no Doctor. Last year the Boyfriend tried to introduce me to it with an episode about a crack in the wall being a crack in the universe, it was fun but no Homes Under the Hammer (told you I was a geek).

 

Then last month the Boyfriend played another episode in my presence and it was quite good. It was ridiculously scary featuring the Silence, creatures who have the eerie ability to make you forget about them the second you turn away. Like any kind of “brain-wiping”, too much of it and your mind goes a bit loopy.

 

I can imagine nothing scarier than being stalked by something I can’t remember once they are out of my sight. How can I defend against a non-memory?

 

Is fear damaging?

 

Much has been said about this series of Dr Who being the scariest ever and whether this was appropriate for children. The consensus is that children and adults alike enjoy being frightened out of their skin – why else would they love haunted houses and rollercoasters?

 

Extreme fear obviously has survival value, it is sudden and temporary and the adrenaline response calls for action. However, in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM, of which acupuncture is a branch) fear, or any prolonged emotion, is considered to be damaging.

 

For some people, the continual stress of modern living may result in a state of fearful anxiety that is less extreme but chronic. What does this mean? Well the person may have fear of being in enclosed spaces, fear of being alone or fear of being unloved. Chronic fear could then lead to panic or anxiety.

 

Using TCM syndrome differentiation, emotions tend to affect mostly the:

  • Heart: symptoms include palpitation, insomnia, and restlessness.
  • Liver: symptoms include irritability, distending pain in the hypochondriac region, belching, and irregular menstruation.
  • Spleen: symptoms include poor appetite, distending pain in the abdomen, and loose stools.

 

The theory of yin and yang that is the basis of TCM is often incorrectly simplified to represent a New Age abstraction. At its core is the fact that if the scales are balanced, our bodies will function properly. It’s not enough to only concentrate on one aspect of our lives even if we are passionate about it. TCM’s take on emotions merely highlights the fact we need to take care of our bodies by having good nutrition and exercise, as well as taking care of our mental state of mind by cultivating good supportive relationships.

 

What do you think? Are our emotions a symptom or the cause for our state of wellbeing?

 

Photo credit: Peter Dutton via flickr

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6 Ways to Help You Deal with Exam Stress

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As the days and weeks fly by (can you believe it’s mid-May already??) and Spring eyes her closet to see which outfit would be best for Summer’s homecoming gala, it may seem like serenity is the buzz word of the season.

 

During the lighter months of the year I relish in getting a window seat on the train home and seeing the London skyline as the tracks lead my fellow commuters and I southbound across the river. Book reading takes a back seat until October when the darkness drapes over the city like a giant curtain way before my belly grumbles for dinner.

 

The lovely whispering breeze wafting honeysuckle through the air.

 

I didn’t always used to have this love affair with spring, in fact my 16-year-old self would’ve positively hated it. May in northern Greece is a signal for all the pine trees to shed their shyness and flaunt their lovely yellow blush. In short, pollen galore. Thick, yellow powder that would cover every balcony, every garden chair, every doormat. The tears and sniffling and stifling headaches would have been a lot easier to handle if it hadn’t also been exam time.

 

Yes exams, remember those? As we all look forward to meeting with friends for an al-fresco meal after work, spare a thought for all the kids (and mature students) preparing for exams. And now that I think about it, what about all those people having their driving tests or citizenship tests? Read on for some tips to help with exam stress.

 

1. Be prepared. This may seem slightly condescending but it never ceases to amaze me how many people wait till the night before to revise. I always started the weekend before. Jokes aside, having a realistic schedule can do wonders to alleviate the stress levels. Some people prefer blocking a whole day for one subject, allowing time for different topics. I myself liked mixing 2 different subjects during the day. The boredom of history could then be alleviated by the wonders of physics. Whatever your preference, it’s best to remember that the schedule is a tool to help you study, not to procrastinate. Don’t spend hours drawing up a beautiful timetable with different highlighters and index cards.

 

2. Eat well. As tempting as it may be to order that pizza after a long day of brain activity, make an effort to eat healthily. The exam stress will invariably make your body weaker, so during this period you really need to keep your health at an optimum. If you really cant eschew the convenience food for nice steamed broccoli served with grilled pork chops, take a vitamin C tablet every day. To make an occasion out of it, drop an effervescent vitamin C tab in a glass of water instead of just swallowing a capsule.

 

3. Exercise. Physical activity is a great way to help cope with stress. You don’t have to commit yourself to an hour at the gym, just 10 – 20 minutes walking briskly can make a difference. My friend and I used to play catch with a tennis ball; each person had to name a cranial nerve in order with each throw.

 

4. Sleep. Many survivors who have come out victorious swear by caffeine (be it coffee, tea, Red Bull or caffeine pills). I recommend getting some rest even if it’s only 3 hours, as the refreshed you will be able to concentrate and focus so much better. Some people may have additional stress when they worry that there’s no time to sleep, but if the awake you isn’t functioning properly, I don’t think a few hours is going to matter.

 

5. Take a break. You need to take a short little break every so often. Get up and go pour yourself a glass of water, make a cup of tea, wash some fruit. The activity provides a definite break in your activity and is beneficial to helping you focus when you return to your books. Just make sure the break is just that, not a whole afternoon.

 

6. Sometimes you may need a bit of help from the outside. The exam stress may be tiring you out, or you may have trouble sleeping. Some people get incredibly irritable and lash out, which doesn’t help as that adds a new weight on your mind. You can try

  • Aromatherapy (lavender is very calming)
  • Acupuncture to help you relax and feel revitalized,
  • A counsellor from school/uni for a bit of talking therapy or
  • A nice massage, just to treat yourself.

 

On the day, remember to have a light bite to eat and breathe, knowing that you’ve done everything possible to best prepare yourself.

 

Photo credit: Katy Warner via flickr

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Saying thank you is good for you.

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Sunday just passed was Mother’s Day in many parts of the world (except the UK where mothers get their day of appreciation in March). I remember the numerous art projects I subjected my mother to throughout my elementary years. My proudest moment was presenting her with a papier mache apple, complete with stalk, painted ruby red and dotted with bright yellow spots (let’s not dwell on the significance of giving the woman who bore me an apple afflicted with measles).

 

Next month will be Father’s Day in all parts of the world (I’m quite sure everyone celebrates it in June), but experience tells me there will be slightly less furore over the third Sunday in June. Aside from the local pizza chains and other Italian eateries offering 2-for-1 meals to “make Dad happy” and supermarkets showcasing DVDS “that Dad would love” (Die Hard 3 anyone?) Father’s Day tends to be the slightly quieter cousin to the more popular Mother’s Day. I blame it on the fact that schoolchildren are given art projects every spring, but by the time June rolls around these same schoolchildren are preparing for the end of the school year- if they haven’t already embarked on a months-long summer vacation.

 

Despite not being really one for Hallmark holidays (Valentine’s Day just isn’t enough to excite me in a dreary, grey February) I think it’s sweet we get to be publicly reminded to thank our parents (why isn’t there Parents Day?). It’s true, without them none of us would be here so in a way we’re all celebrating ourselves as well. Sweet, I say.

 

Then yesterday I found out that in the US, May 9 is Lost Sock Memorial Day (I sincerely hope for just a minority of people). This got me wondering. I’ve heard of Teacher’s Day, Grandparents’ Day. Secretary’s Day, and Boss’s Day but why do these days exist?

 

The cynics will say, “Well it’s another way for companies to get consumers to buy more to mark a made-up, non traditional, secular event. Duh!” Yes, but why do people buy these cards to give to their children’s teachers or to their boss? Unlike Valentine’s Day where it may be relationship suicide not to acknowledge it (depending on your partner’s attitudes) these C-list occasions aren’t so mainstream that a person could feel guilty for not offering a token gift.

 

Everybody has a moment where they want to express thanks. Gratefulness and gratitude are emotions no one should be embarrassed about. Studies have suggested that being grateful is good for your health and wellbeing, by experiencing less depression and stress (or symptoms associated with it like headaches and stomach problems). A recent series of studies has shown that the recipient of your thanks can benefit as well. I say thank you to the little boy who held the door open for me at the juice bar; to the suited man who let me get off the train first; to the bespectacled lady handing me the receipt; to the Northern voice returning my call.

 

It’s quite easy to thank people in the general outside world, but what about the person educating your child, whose influence will significantly mould him/her in ways unfathomable? Or what about your colleague who shares the ups and downs of your working day, in ways your friends never could? Or your superior (at work, in religion) who you go to for advice and lectures you for your own good?

 

Imagine if all those cheesy card shop cards were just replaced with a nice scripted “thank you”.

Thank you for putting me through college.

Thank you for using your spare time to help me build that website.

Thank you for being so supportive while I chase our dream.

Thank you for emailing me that Youtube link because you know I like silly cats.

Thank you for reading this.

 

And thank you for never making me celebrate Lost Sock Memorial Day.

 

Photo credit: Nate Grigg via flickr

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Health and Wellbeing | Keep the royal celebrations going

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So the bunting’s come down and the royal wedding has been a success. The world has watched and delighted in all the colours and uniforms, the horses and pageantry, the ceremonial and the helium balloons tied to the back of the Aston Martin.

 

A celebratory spirit in the air.

 

I am not very knowledgeable on the British royal family. The arrangement of titles (Duchess of this, Earl of that) baffles me, especially when they all seem to relate to the same person. I did enjoy the examples of marketing genius on display; who knew I could buy Royal Icing Sugar or Royal Massage Oil? My favourite was from Krispy Kreme, which diverted attention from the royal couple with the tagline under an image of two glazed donuts: “Don’t forget the rings, Harry”.

 

Union Jacks abounded and it did seem like April this year has become Christmas by proxy, what with the London Marathon at the beginning of the month, the Easter bank holidays and the Wedding (complete with its own twitter #rw2011). I admire the crowds who camped out overnight (some of them a few nights) to get the best view, and was quite astonished to hear that a lot of them came from quite a way away.

 

The general public cheeriness gives us all a respite from the continuous strains of modern life. The flags will come down and the souvenir mugs will be put away but we don’t have to put the uplifting mood to the back of the closet.

 

Keep the party mood going in other areas of your life.

 

Social community is important, whether it be your local pub, the weekly zumba class or your knitting club. As I’ve written before, loneliness affects our health a lot more than we think.

 

Keeping your body and mind agile with exercise and crossword puzzles is excellent but it’s also nice to give your brain a sense of anticipation. So meet up with your friends for a chat even if it’s only once a month, or go watch that 3D Werner Herzog movie about the Chauvet caves. Financial and family commitments mean you might not be able to go for spa weekends away every three weeks but you can plan little events in your diary to help you de-stress. Some people have weekly acupuncture treatments to help them feel calmer or more energized. Others look forward to their hour of bliss having a facial and there are those who love nothing better than meeting up for Thursday poker night.

 

Even if you don’t believe in the monarchy, believe in all the newspapers and magazines and supplements and leaflets telling you that last weekend was party time and have that as a running theme. It is inevitable that some days will be more overwhelming than others or you may lay awake some nights but it’s easier to bounce back up if you take control.

 

What do you think? Is it unrealistic to try to maintain the anticipation and excitement leading up to the culmination of a joyous event all the time?

 

And for those of you who have perhaps overindulged in too many Easter eggs or drink these past two weeks, try some root ginger in your food or in a glass of honey water. Your stomachs will thank you.

 

Photo credit: Nick Richards via flickr

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Health and Wellbeing | “Are you happy? It’s the only way to be, kid.”

Laugh

 

As an acupuncturist, I don’t limit myself to seeing patients with just knee pain. I do offer pain relief but I also get to see people with no specific diagnosis and not feeling quite themselves.

 

I suppose back in the day (when we all lived in a little house on the prairie, in the depths of the middles ages, in a cave with Neanderthal décor?) the usual response would be just to shrug it off and get on with it. I’m not saying trying to run away from a hairy predator that I would also like for dinner is a lifestyle to be envious of, but I do think the simpler days made stresses on our mind and body so much easier to handle.

 

With life’s stresses, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself.

 

However, ignoring your problems and just carrying on is no longer a viable option in today’s world. The physical discomfort of pain tend to mean people are more likely to seek help whether it be acupuncture, massage, medication, exercise, yoga… the list goes on. When the slightly off feeling is more abstract, then people have more difficulty putting a finger on it making it harder to see what exactly it is that needs resolving.

 

A traditional acupuncturist can help you have a better sense of wellbeing by removing or regulating qi stagnation, allowing you to feel more calm yet revitalized.

 

If the mind is at ease, the body will follow.

 

I am often reminded by my patients’ attitudes how important a positive outlook has on your health and appearance. Constant worrying and anxiety will lead to a subtle (often unconscious) tensing of the face muscles resulting in lines and wrinkles. Excessive comfort eating will lead to weight gain and detrimental effect to your health. Stress from work and other situations beyond our control cannot be helped, unless you are willing to walk away from your job and settle somewhere far far away, but little unnecessary irritations should be avoided.

 

My boiler had spent the last month acting like a temperamental teenager – it felt like I saw the plumber more often than my boyfriend. I could have flown off the handle and demanded he sorted it out then and there, but a) that wasn’t possible or practical due to parts and b) I didn’t let it affect my mood. There was still heating (although not at the times I’d set) and I was still warm, and also it was nice to have an amicable atmosphere in my hallway than one of tension and blame.

 

What else can you do to dilute the effects of stress? Find pleasure in things around you:

 

Go to the library or bookstore and enjoy some Dr. Seuss or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Bleach manga or a Mills and Boon novel.


Turn off the news. I don’t mean bury your head in the sand, but there is a distinction between knowing the news and watching the constant flood of images 24/7. There is just no need.


Treat yourself to the gorgeous triple chocolate caramel shortcake from that stall in Greenwich Market. Or that lovely crusty bread lavished with butter or tickets to see the comedian even though you could watch their DVD (there is a difference!) or that chunky mustard cardigan or a night in with some bad straight-to-TV movies on a Friday night. Whatever it is, make it a small treat that your body and wallet would appreciate.


Set yourself a goal. Run for charity and try to raise the target you set or aim to complete the half marathon or learn to roller-skate or grow a tomato plant or spend more time catching up with friends.


Smile when you first wake up, at your partner or flatmate or children, at the train driver, at the person serving you coffee, at the pizza delivery driver. Smile!

 

“It’s not the destination. It’s the journey.”

 

What do you do to remind yourself that the cliché isn’t just cheesy, it’s also quite true?

 

Photo credit: Gillian via flickr

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Can loneliness affect your health?

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Image: D. Sharon Pruitt

 

Whether you think Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to show your love and appreciation for someone or is just another example of terrible commercialism, it cannot be denied that the signs and banners and posters all around us can be an unwanted reminder for some that they are alone.

 

Who is alone and who is lonely?

 

Many people choose to be alone by staying away from other people, whereas lonely people often feel a lack of support and a great sense of isolation. You don’t have to be Robinson Crusoe shipwrecked on a deserted island to feel the effects of loneliness.

 

According to a report from the Mental Health Foundation, loneliness affects men and women of all ages, but the younger you are the more likely you are to feel lonely on a regular basis. On the other end of the spectrum the Campaign to End Loneliness (a campaign group of charities) is calling for greater awareness of loneliness among the elderly calling it the “hidden killer”.

 

Our lifestyle in today’s society is probably the biggest culprit:

  • Increased activity on online social networks rather than face-to-face interaction
  • The fact that more and more people choose to marry and have children later in life
  • Cheaper airfares allowing people to live farther away.

 

In the case of the elderly, isolation can occur when lack of mobility and the loss of family and friends result in them being trapped in their own homes.

 

How can feeling lonely affect your health?

 

The negative effects of loneliness on your wellbeing are similar to that of excessive smoking and alcohol, and exceed the effects of not exercising at all and obesity. This is due to the fact that lonely people tend to

  • Drink more excessively
  • Have unhealthier diets
  • Exercise less often than socially contented people.

 

A study at Princeton University study at Princeton University in 2006 concluded that rats kept in single occupancy cages were much slower at producing new brain cells than rats allowed to socialize, despite all of them having frequent exercise. No one knows if the same thing happens in humans (the rats were sacrificed) but it is well documented that loneliness affect the brain’s cognitive functions leading to depression, Alzheimer’s, stroke etc.


What can you do to prevent loneliness?


1.  Be active in your local community. This doesn’t mean you have to have full schedule, but consider joining a sports club or book group or you could volunteer for a good cause.

 

2.  Get offline. Try to make a conscious effort to have real-time interaction with friends and family instead of spending most of your communication online or texting.

 

3.  Don’t be embarrassed to talk about it. You can seek professional support from your GP, mental health services, youth workers or therapists. Remember though that sometimes it’s best to have help from a friend than from a stranger. 

 

Other posts you may be interested in: 

Six ways to de-stress your life

Are you feeling irritable and cranky? | Acupuncture isn’t just for back pain