In my corner of the world everything is blooming. Sleepy browns and subtle greens have been replaced with something vibrant, humming. The air carries a rich cacophony of smells and bird songs. Petals and seedlings whip through the air with every breeze, curling and scuttling along the pavement.
This is the Pacific Northwest, so an attitude change is noticeable too. People are making eye contact with each other, saying hello, discussing the weather, the flowers, anything and everything that creates a connection. We are no longer hibernating within ourselves but reaching our fingers upward to the sun. Reaching out to each other.
From a Chinese philosophical perspective, this is the transition from the quiet, internal depth of the water element to the creative, driven, reaching energy of wood. It can be a slow or rapid transition. Although the leaves take their time unfurling and the buds open on their own schedule, a blast of warm days can accelerate the whole process until you find yourself shedding layers in the sunshine, craving movement over food, running over movies, a strange desire to plant your hands in the earth.
The wood energy is represented in the body through the Liver and Gall Bladder organ systems. In balance, these organs manifest as creativity, courage, drive, uprising. The smooth flow of qi through the body makes it feel limber, flexible, ready. Out of balance, wood energy can look like anger, timidity, resistance, insomnia, headaches, muscle strain and sprain, tightness, dizziness, frustration. It is a time of year that reminds us of our abilities and our limitations.
Even in the city where I live, nature is looming, influencing our moods, our activities, our progress through the day. The natural world is procreating and that creative energy is infectious. We may find ourselves swept up in the desire to build, craft, mold, carve, weave, paint, mend and make. We may want to run, bike, swim, leap, cartwheel and dance. But life does not always make room for these new energetics. And the body is not always able to do these things. The frenzied energy of spring has its shadows too. When that creative, impulsive energy is suppressed it stagnates. It becomes Liver Qi Stagnation, Liver Wind Stirring, Liver Yang Rising.
As a clinical acupuncturist and Chinese medical practitioner, I see many symptoms spring up this time of year that are related to the wood energy of the Liver and Gall Bladder:
- Back pain
- Neck pain
- Leg cramps
- Itchy, red eyes
- Digestive problems
- Menstrual symptoms and more
I also see a lot of psycho-emotional energetics shift and change this time of year. People experience more:
- Panic attacks
- Body dysphoria
There is an elation and a relief that winter has ended. There are reasons to go out into nature, move the body more, socialize more, get sun on the skin and other activities that inspire good mood. But it can also be a tricky time of year for some, and an illumination of certain emotions that are exacerbated by the wood energy. Think rising, growing, reaching, upward energy, that when it is not grounded, can be alarming and difficult to balance.
It would be nice if everyone could get acupuncture this time of year to smooth and settle the transition. Yet, there are simple self-care steps you can take to help moderate these symptoms and feelings.
Exercise: The Importance of Moving Qi in the Channels
There have been a lot of studies about the impact of exercise on mood and they all have the same conclusion: exercise improves mood. It lessens depression and anxiety. Most of us know that when we are physically active, we feel better.
Physical activity means different things to different people and is based on access, ability, time and motivation. Most of us are lacking in at least one of those categories. A lot of my patients come in saying they know they feel better when they’re getting regular exercise, they just don’t do it. I’m guilty of the same thing sometimes.
I start people off easy. 10 minutes of stretching a day. Work it into your morning or bedtime routine. Focus on simple stretches that work the areas of your body that are most stiff, tense, or painful.
Consider walking or riding a bike if you are able to do that instead of driving or taking the bus. If you like to exercise at home, make yourself a playlist of songs you’ll be excited to listen to. Or for simple stretches try http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/7-simple-exercises-busy-people-can-anywhere-anytime.html
Recently a friend introduced me to 15 minute youtube workouts. If you have access to the internet, there are a ton of them aimed at getting your heart rate up and your body supple for the day in just 15 minutes or less.
You don’t need fancy equipment or clothes, an expensive gym membership or even very much time to get the qi moving in the channels and relieve the kind of frustration and muscle aches that comes from being still when the body wants to move.
Make sure to respect your body and your abilities and not push yourself beyond what you are capable of. Start where you are.
Diet: The Energetics of Food and Mood
The foods that nourish us in the spring are not the same ones that were nourishing to us in the winter. Different fruits and vegetables are in season and they illuminate the various energetics we need to cultivate in the spring. The right foods are often able to balance whatever the spring winds have stirred up.
Most of it is intuitive. If you feel a little manic, flighty, anxious - you can imagine that as an ascending energy (the rising, reaching energy of wood). It is considered a hot energy from a Chinese medical perspective. Grounding and cooling that energy can be helpful, with things like:
- Nuts and nut butters
- Dark leafy greens
Also avoiding or reducing hot foods that exacerbate those feelings: caffeine, sugar, alcohol, spicy foods that stir things up. For many people experiencing anxiety, food becomes unappealing and it is easy to go all day without eating. But eating is very grounding and brings you back to your body!
Feelings of depression are common in the spring season. Depression, as the word would imply, is a descending, heavy energy and can be improved with light, uplifting foods:
- Fresh herbs
Foods to reduce or avoid are ones that create a heavy or “damp” (as we call it in Chinese medicine) energetic in the body:
- Other heavy, sticky starches
Tonifying the Liver and Gall Bladder organ systems with food is also a good approach. Here are some foods that resonate with the wood element and should be consumed in the spring:
- Sesame Seeds (black or white) and Flax Seeds
- Tarragon, Rosemary, Basil, and Parsley
- Raspberries, Black berries, Plums, Strawberries, and Lemon/Lime
- Spinach, Seaweed, Beets, and Parsnips
Preparation styles can change with the season as well. Light cooking - steaming, sautéing, braising and grilling - are ideal forms of spring cooking. Not to mention fermentation! Generally, lightly-cooked and mildly-seasoned, fresh, in-season vegetables complement the energetics of spring.
Perhaps the most important way to care for your mental health in the springtime- or any time- is to come up with a cultivation that works for you. I meditate, but I also do ceramics, garden, hike in the woods and find moments to connect with my breath while waiting to cross the street or just before falling asleep at night.
Consider the time you spend worrying as time that could be spent cultivating. Worry in itself accomplishes very little to change whatever situation is threatening your wellbeing. And it is not an easy process to interrupt. It takes work to change the way the mind functions. But research now shows that through neuroplasticity we are able to change the way our minds work. But it takes practice. It takes cultivation. For some that is meditation, for some it is mantra, for some it is prayer. For some it is in listening to music, carving wood, pounding nails, assembling engines, washing dishes.
I find my mental peace in the smell of the lilacs, the feel of little warm breezes in the hair, the rays of sun against my skin. It’s not likely that cultivating will fix your problems or completely rid your life of stress, pain, anxiety or fear. It won’t pay the bills. But it can help you ride those waves with grace and connect you to a wider perspective, reminding you of the earthly joys. Some guidelines on mindfulness: http://tulane.edu/health/wellness/upload/MBSR-Workbook.pdf
Community: Opening Up to Yourself and the World
Connecting with other humans and animals can inspire a sense of wellbeing. In fact studies have shown that connecting with others reduces stress and blood pressure, is a key to feelings of contentment and even leads to longevity. Be they family or chosen family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, strangers, most of us have frequent encounters with people in our lives. Many of us feel alone when we are under stress and strife, but reaching out to connect with others can remind us that we are not. Doing activities with other people, even making eye contact and saying hello can get you out of your head for a minute and into the world.
The Mind and Body
In the Chinese language there is no vocabulary to differentiate between diseases of a physical, mental, emotional or spiritual nature. It is assumed that if something is happening on one level, it is happening throughout. Even in English we have many sayings that indicate the crossover between the physical and mental. “I am shouldering the stress of the family.” “My heart aches.” Pain and illness can originate from any of these places and healing can likewise come from any level. Working on mental health can lessen physical pain. Cultivation can help with digestion and sleep.
The statistics vary, but between 1 in 10 and 1 in 4 American adults are thought to deal with diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives. This article is meant to empower us to do what we can to acknowledge, honor and shift the pain, frustration, stress, worry and mental illness we experience. For many, these tactics are not enough and seeking help is essential. If you cannot boost your mood through exercise, food, cultivation and community, you are not a failure! I encourage the patients who come to see me for mental health issues to see a therapist or find a cultivation teacher, take herbs and supplements and maybe even anti-depressants if needed. It is important to me as a healthcare practitioner to shift the stigma around mental health.
There is a lot we can do to take control of our own wellbeing. Making sure the body (and mind- for they are inseparable) gets what it needs to function at its best, and creating space for self awareness and perspective can greatly improve the quality of life. It’s never the wrong time to find balance and shift your way of being.
Here are more resources on what’s been discussed in this article:
More on fermentation:
More on herbal medicine for mental health and self-care:
More on food energetics:
More on connection with self and others:
An important article about grief:
The Paleo Cure by Chriss Kresser
The Tao of Healthy Eating by Bob Flaws
Changing Seasons Macrobiotic Cookbook by Aveline Kushi and Wendy Esko
Anything by Pema Chodron, including: Start Where You Are and The Places That Scare You
Solid Ground: Buddhist Wisdom for Difficult Times
Wood Becomes Water: Chinese Medicine in Everyday Life by Gail Reichstein