At my acupuncture clinic, I see a number of patients who work too hard. I see Charlie*, a busy lawyer, who sometimes works 70 and even 80 hours a week. I work with Sarah, who is in school and holding down a job at the same time. I also see a number of women like Chandra, who are trying to balance a busy work schedule with caring for their young children. These people have a couple of things in common: they are working too hard, and they’re exhausted.
In Chinese medicine, working too hard, or overwork, is considered to be a common cause of illness. It’s believed that in order to be completely healthy, you must have a good balance between rest and work. When you burn the candle at both ends, the result is a depletion of your energy.
Chinese medicine is all about energy, and having enough to function on a daily basis is crucial. If you become depleted, you might experience symptoms such as getting sick frequently, fatigue, a poor appetite, feeling cold, easy bruising, a pale complexion, poor digestion, and shortness of breath.
What can you do if overwork has taken its toll on your energy? Well, the obvious answer is to not work so hard. However, if you’re the parent of small children, the sole wage earner in a family, need to work long hours at your job, or have decided to go to school and work at the same time, working less may not be possible. There are things that you can do, however, to protect your health until such a time when you can slow down. Among them:
Get enough sleep. If you do nothing else, getting enough sack time is imperative—seven to eight hours is ideal. If you struggle with insomnia, consulting with your acupuncturist can be extremely helpful.
Rest and rejuvenate. While this may feel like one more thing to do in a busy week, it’s important to take some time for yourself to rebuild your depleted energy. This means taking some time each day to feed yourself mentally and spiritually. This may be as simple as taking twenty minutes to walk outside, read a book, or do the daily crossword puzzle. If you have time on a weekend, put your feet up for a half an hour and take a nap.
Eat well. According to Chinese medicine, your energy is made from the food you eat and the air you breathe. Eating foods that are wholesome, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and light proteins cooked in soups, stews, and stir fried dishes are nutritious and easy to digest. (Yes, some fruits can be cooked into soups, curries, compotes, and other entrees.)
Just breathe. Most of us don’t think much about breathing because it’s something we do all the time. However, knowing that in part, your energy is made from the air you take into your body through the lungs might make you a little more conscious of how you breathe. Take a few minutes each day (really, only three or four minutes) to take a deep breath, open your chest as you breathe in, hold for five seconds, and release slowly until your lungs are empty. Repeat this sequence for ten breaths.
Sit up. You can’t breath properly (or digest well) if you’re slumped over a keyboard or folded into a couch. Imagine you have a string coming out of the top of your head that is pulling you upward. Feel yourself getting taller, your shoulders dropping, and your chest opening.
Take care. If you are working too hard and/or too many hours, the ideal solution really is to lighten up. However, if that’s not possible, it’s especially important for you to take really good care of yourself to avoid becoming sick or exhausted.
*All names and identifying details have been changed.