Achieving optimal health involves more than eating right and exercise. It means taking care of yourself in additional ways, including taking time for yourself. Making room for down time, fun time, family time, time with your partner, with friends, and alone time, are all important for your spirit, mind and body. Down time gets you off the hamster wheel, interrupts the repetition of thought, and provides a break from your never ending, and always increasing to do list. Genetic testing shows that occasional stress kicks in the healing gene sequence to repair DNA, while chronic stress causes damage. Taking down time, creative time, going new places, having new experiences, trying something out of your comfort zone, or taking time for meditation, Acupuncture, or activities such as yoga, Tai Chi, or Qi Gong that put you in an Alpha state, all repair DNA. This means investing in your future health.
So how do we do this in our busy lives? Whether you’re working or retired, people in the US are often too busy, with little or no unstructured time. We seem to have inherited the Puritan work ethic that says you have to be constantly productive and feel guilty if you aren’t. But we’ve lost the parts of our past that allow for down time. Rocking chairs, front porch swings and passing the time with neighbors for example. Thanks to electricity, long winter nights no longer mean shorter work days, or more time to sit around the fire telling stories, reading together, or making music with family and friends.
Common religious practices used to require a Day of Rest where little or no work was done. Now, most working people have just two days to run errands and do chores for the week. Whether you work for yourself or Corporate America, more than a 40-hour workweek is typically required. Individuals, or families, usually don’t have the luxury of servants, or a stay-at-home wife or mother, taking care of chores and errands for them. And today’s stay-at-home moms have much more to do than a generation or two ago. The job of full time chauffeur, running children to friends’ houses and countless activities, was unheard of when I was a kid. Not to mention monitoring computer and cell phone activities. So a Day of Rest has become an antiquated concept for most Americans. Carving out time for yourself has become increasingly difficult.
And folks, vegging out in front of the TV or computer doesn’t count as down time. It can disrupt brain waves and create more stress. When viewed after dark, a lighted or back lit screen can disrupt our circadian rhythms and impair sleep. Our bodies naturally wake up when its light and get more relaxed, then tired, as it gets darker. Bright lights, at night, interrupt our natural rhythm. Tinted computer glasses can help by mimicking candlelight. But going for a walk after dinner, or reading a book before bed are some healthier alternatives than screen time.
We work more hours and have less vacation time in the US than most other industrialized countries. And that mind set, of keeping overly busy, often carries over into retirement.
I love the story of the university professor who arrived in his lecture hall with a large glass jar. He set it on the front desk, took out a bag of rocks and filled it up. “Is it full?” he asked his students. “Yes!” They chorused. He then took out a bag of pebbles and poured them around the rocks in the jar. “Is it full now?” “Maybe,” they replied. He next took a bag of sand and poured it in the jar. “How about now?” “Probably not,” was the hesitant response. He finally took a pitcher of water and poured it in. “Now what’s the point?” he inquired. “That you can always pack more in!” one eager young man volunteered. “No!” the professor explained. “If you put the water, sand, and pebbles in first the rocks won’t fit, because the contents of the jar will overflow and you’ll have one big mess.” Life’s priorities, including eating right, exercise, and stress relief are the rocks.
Life is ever changing. Work demands, family demands, personal demands shift. Making sure the rocks go in first is a series of dances that start and stop. We get on track, get a routine or rhythm going, and life happens, little or big events that throw us off. That’s okay. That’s as it should be. It’s all about starting over again with your rocks first. The music ends, the song changes, a different song begins, so the dance may vary.
No one is perfect. Even those of us whose job it is to give tools of health to others get off track and need those gentle, and sometimes not so gentle reminders. I just took the first two full weeks off for a real vacation that I’ve had in a number of years. A practice that was way too busy, older parents that became sick, family deaths, moving to a new area, starting a new practice, a new home with extensive remodels, all seemed like good excuses to put my needs second. Too many 7 day work weeks, answering calls, texts, and emails about health outside of my clinic hours, publishing deadlines, clinic business, all life’s little and big issues, and too many of my rocks weren’t going into my jar first.
Pull that for long enough and the body takes over. You ignore the subtle hints and out comes the baseball bat. I was working longer and harder to get ready to leave for vacation. Wham! I got sick. Sick like I haven’t been sick in 20 years. Flat on my back, in bed for a week, with that nasty respiratory virus that’s been going around. “Don’t worry,” I’d tell my patients. “If you have the flu you need to keep your appointment. You’ll feel better after Acupuncture and the right Chinese herbs. I won’t get it. I know what to do.” But I’d been leaving out some of my rocks.
A cold or flu is often the body’s way of saying, “There’s things we need to work on.” More serious illness can be the body’s reaction to being ignored and always put last. “You won’t listen? Fine! I’ll take you out of the game until you do. That to do list, all the things that couldn’t wait, your endless obligations? ALL are going by the way side! You’ll see that the world goes on, but you won’t, unless you start listening to your body, and taking care of yourself as your first and most important priority.”
“I fell off the wagon.” Some of my patients report when we discuss how their healthier diets and life style revisions are going. That’s okay. It’s all about finding out what works and what doesn’t for you. It’s all about falling off the wagon and then getting back on.
For those of us who take care of others, at home, at work, family, partners, friends, patients, it’s like flying in a plane. If the oxygen masks come down, you have to put your own on first or you can’t help anyone else.
So create your sacred space, set your boundaries, and stick to them. Take your Day of Rest, even if it is just a piece of each day and a part of a weekend. Find ways to recharge. Start your day with a bit of exercise for toning, bone mass, lymph and blood circulation. Some Yoga, Qi gong, Tai Chi, or meditation for shutting down the mind, and hopefully going into an alpha state, where there’s an accelerated rate of healing. Even just 20 minutes each morning, of a combination of the above, makes a huge difference. Eat a good breakfast. And take some time off. Go have fun. Put your rocks in first. Your DNA and your body will thank you for it.
Health & Happiness,
Nancy Burton, L.Ac. (Licensed Acupuncturist)