Over the years that I’ve been in acupuncture practice, I have worked with a number of patients who are caregivers to others. These are the people who care for an aging parent, a sick spouse, or a disabled child. Many caregivers are exhausted, burnt out, out of patience, and see no end in sight. They may feel worried, guilty, frustrated, resentful, or just plain angry at their situation. The reality is that many people don’t choose to be caregivers; it’s a job that has fallen on them for one reason or another.
The majority of people who are in a care giving situation have some things in common, especially in terms of their Chinese medical diagnosis. Most would be characterized as having a disharmony between their Liver and Spleen. If you’re not familiar with Chinese medicine, this takes a little explaining. Your Chinese Liver is an organ system that is responsible to regulating the smooth movement of all things in your body–from your digestion to your energy. That smooth flow can be disturbed by a number of factors, but one of the most common is in the emotional realm–that of unfulfilled desires. Simply put, when life is not going how you planned or how you wish, your Liver energy becomes blocked.
This blocked energy can cause a whole host of other symptoms, but in general, it can feel almost like an engine seizing up–there’s no movement and nowhere to go. Blocked Liver energy is a frequent pattern behind depression, anger, frustration, and just plain feeling stuck, and for many caregivers, that’ exactly what they’re experiencing.
When Liver energy is stuck, it tends to cause a depletion of your Spleen, the Chinese organ system of digestion. The easiest way to understand what’s happening is to think of strong emotions killing your appetite, causing butterflies in your stomach, or giving you nervous bowels. Over time, this pattern of a stuck Liver and a weak Spleen can zap your energy, cause insomnia, mess up your digestion, and even cause your to feel hot and irritable.
The bottom line is that caregivers, no matter how willingly they step up to the task, are struggling with the strong emotions of their situation, as well as having enough energy to deal with the job.
If you’re a struggling caregiver, Chinese medicine has a lot to offer. Acupuncture is very effective in relieving blocked Liver energy, as well as in strengthening your Spleen (and digestion). Coupled with acupuncture, an herbal formula can also help move your Liver energy and fortify your Spleen. The idea behind Chinese Herbology is that you can combine herbs for more than one action or purpose, so a formula can both move and fortify at the same time. In addition, a practitioner of Chinese medicine can also help you with some food choices that will help your digestion and give you more energy.
A strength of Chinese medicine, especially in a situation where there are strong emotions, is that listening is an integral part of the diagnosis and treatment process. On numerous occasions, burnt-out caregivers have thanked me for listening to their story and acknowledged that just talking about it made them feel better.
If you’re a caregiver, a couple of things you can do for yourself include:
-Ask for help. Frequently friends and members of your community are willing to help but are unaware either that you need help or don’t know how to help you. Furthermore, I’ve found that some people in a care giving situation have a hard time asking or admitting that they need help.
-Take a break. If possible, plan some time to recharge your batteries. This may be a period of time each day, or even better, line up some help and take a couple of days off. I have a number of patients who have enlisted the short-term help of family members or friends so they could get away for an overnight or a weekend. (See above…ask for help!)
-Get enough sleep. When you’re the bottom line in someone else’s care both day and night, this is easier said than done. However, it’s important for you to get the sleep you need to be able to continue in your care giving role. This may mean getting sleep when you can, including a nap or some down time during the day.
-Eat well. In Chinese medicine, the primary source of your energy comes from the food you eat. Therefore, eating healthy food, and enough of it, is important for you to maintain your energy reserves. What’s good food? A lot of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and good quality protein should make up the bulk of your diet.
-Get a little exercise. Moving your body moves and increases your energy, improves your mood, is good for your heart and lungs, and strengthens your muscles. Something as simple as a ten-minute walk each day can make you feel more energized.
-Finally, remember to care for yourself first. If your health is in jeopardy, you will be unable to provide loving care to anyone else. Take the time, ask for help, and do those things you need to do to guard your own well-being.