Pain Breaks Us

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I hate pain. I treat people in pain in my practice. And usually I can help them. But I hate the pain. Pain–whether it’s physical or emotional–breaks us. At a low level, we can tolerate it, although it wears us down. But when the level is high–when your nervous system overrides everything with distress signals, when everything hurts, or when your mind cannot escape the loss or betrayal that seeps into every moment of every day–something snaps. We become frightened animals, fleeing something so horrible we cannot grasp it. So we run. To doctors, to medication, to alcohol or drugs, to shallow relationships that offer some kind of temporary oblivion but are unwise and hurt us in the end. When we’re too tired to run, we fight, or withdraw–or begin looking longingly at ways to end our time on earth.

Pain rips into our every vulnerability. And, horribly, we often have the fewest resources available to us when the pain is at its worst. Even the kindest doctor or practitioner can only do so much, and in the age of prescription medication abuse, a person in pain often has to overcome a wall of suspicion before getting help for their discomfort. Those of us in the healing arts alternate between keeping a sometimes nearly inhuman distance from our clients and patients and allowing their pain to envelope us and suck us into despair. I sometimes have to hide in the bathroom and cry when someone comes to me in their most broken state.

How can you cope when your pain is at its worst? I don’t have a pretty pat answer. In my own life, I long ago gave up on suicide as a way to end my own pain. And thankfully, I have very little pain now. But when it was at its worst, all I could do was endure. I turned to my faith, friends, and family–but there were dark times when none of them seemed to help. So I trudged on. I rested as much as I could, and then just kept putting one foot in front of the other, one minute after the next, and finally outlasted the pain. I won. 

For those who may never fully escape their pain due to injury, illness, or the nature of the emotional trauma they have suffered, I say be kind to yourself. Give yourself understanding. And I ask the rest of us to reach out. Not with trite phrases and over-optimistic attempts at cures. But with a soft hand and a soft word, like we would a terrified puppy or child. I ask that we all remember that pain makes it hard to think and hard to be nice, and perhaps if we can endure the sharp edges of another’s pain, perhaps we can blunt their suffering just a bit.

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Is Illness Your Only Time Off?

Photo Credit: Channah
Years ago, I saw a patient wanting help dealing with migraine headaches. He had these headaches almost daily, sometimes so severe he could not function and had to stay home, highly sedated and in bed, until they finally went away. We worked for several weeks, with slow, gradual improvement to his symptoms. One day, he came in with a strange look on his face. “For the first time in decades, I’ve been days without pain.” He canceled his next few treatments, and never came back to my office.


I wish I could say acupuncture cured his migraines, but I don’t think so. I think he has headaches as bad as he ever did, and when push came to shove, decided he needed his headaches. He had a co-worker who was constantly causing problems, and my patient ended up dealing with the consequences of his co-worker’s mistakes. Because of his relationship with this co-worker, he hated his job and hated going there each day. His work environment was demanding, and taking time off was discouraged. Everyone in the office knew about his severe migraines, and when he had a headache he could go into a quiet office and work uninterrupted. If the headache was really bad, his boss would suggest he go home, and compliment him on all his hard work. My patient even told me several times during our sessions that he felt “the migraines aren’t all bad–they’re my only break from my toxic work environment.”

So I was not terribly surprised when my patient suddenly stopped his treatments. As much as he hated the pain and limits his migraines put on him, he hated the environment at work more. He’s not alone. I often see people who come in for various health problems, who have one thing in common: for whatever reason, they do not believe they can create boundaries around their life, so their bodies create boundaries for them. Headaches, digestive problems, recurring head colds, anxiety attacks–for some patients, these are the bane of their existence and also their only way to feel safe taking some much-needed rest.

I’ve been in their shoes. For many years, my only time really off from my demands was when I caught a virus. I may have had days that I didn’t work, but I had social obligations I did not like, or that were more challenging than my limited resources could handle. I wanted to feel “productive” and “reliable,” so I kept making commitments I did not want to make, and doing things I felt I “should” do, even if I was exhausted. If I was honest with myself, I would have realized a day on the sofa reading a favorite book was much more rejuvenating to me than going out with friends to see a movie. But I wanted to think I was “having fun.” 

So I got several colds a year, forcing me to take time off from work. Since I was sick, I spent the days sleeping and–you guessed it–laying on the sofa reading a book. After more years than I would like to admit, I started scheduling down time. I have a lot fewer colds now. But I still sometimes feel guilty about making time for my decompression.

How about you? Do you go and go until something forces you down? One of the areas I try to focus when talking to patients is extreme self-care (thank you, Cheryl Richardson, for introducing me to the term). You are the most reliable asset you have, since you are the only one you can completely control. And if you are not functioning well, nothing else in your life will, either. Do you care for yourself at least as well as you care for your pets–or your car? Do you give yourself play time, good food, and maintain yourself with regular fuel, and time to repair when you are sick or injured? If you don’t because you have children, is your example of constant self-sacrifice and suffering what you want your children to follow? If you are giving because you must, even though it hurts and damages you, are you showing your family the outpouring of love that you imagine? How much better a gift is it to let your family learn to manage some chores or problems, and have time to go on a picnic or take a walk together?

I am still learning the wonders of self-care. Doing nice things for yourself is harder than it seems. I’ve learned that it is better for me to care for myself by not eating wheat and sugar than it is to give myself a tasty treat that leaves me feeling jittery and tired for the next three days. That sometimes I need to stay up late and sing along with Pandora, and sometimes I need to go to bed early and feel my husband’s arm around me as I sleep. That I can enjoy real time off better if I schedule time to clear my desk of extraneous paperwork instead of leaving early. Self-care is not simple decadence, even though I think a too-rich-to-believe chocolate truffle on occasion is a great way to be nice to me. It is taking care of your vehicle to be who you are–mind, body, and spirit. I hope you are on a path to take good care of yourself, and not force your body and mind to make you ill so you will take some time looking out for you.

*Details of the patient histories have been changed to protect privacy.

Chinese Medicine and Your Emotions

Photo by Teresa Y Green
Emotional or mental problems affect many people.  Even mild symptoms can lower your enjoyment of life, and severe symptoms can be debilitating. 
Acupuncture together with other components of Chinese Medicine can help.
Diagnosis and Treatment: Different From “Western” Medicine

Many patients are surprised to find that Chinese medicine’s diagnostic process is very different from what they find at their doctor’s office.  Two people with the same “western” diagnosis, such as clinical depression, may have completely different Chinese medicine diagnoses.

To make the right diagnosis for you, your acupuncturist will ask questions during the interview that may seem to have nothing to do with your emotions.  Questions about digestion, your reaction to stress, and your sleep give information that will help her to give you the correct treatment.

While many people think of acupuncture for treatment, a complete treatment usually uses acupuncture, herbal, and dietary treatments.   Using all of the resources of Chinese medicine brings quicker and longer lasting results.
Some Possible Diagnoses

There are many different diagnoses related to emotions.  Here are a few different diagnoses, with the primary symptoms associated with each:
  • Qi Stagnation:  Crying or depression, especially with restlessness,  becoming easily frustrated, irritability, wandering pain, alternating diarrhea and constipation, irregular menses, and any symptom that is worse with stress.
  • Blood stagnation:  Severe emotional distress, usually rage, accompanied by severe, stabbing pain in a fixed location.  Also menstrual problems, purple color on the nails or tongue, and symptoms that improve with exercise.
  • Phlegm misting the mind:  Irrational thoughts, extreme paranoia, hallucination, can be accompanied by either mania and rage or terror, or apathy and withdrawal.
  • Liver Yang Rising/Liver Fire: Anger or rage accompanied with red face, irritability, dizziness, and headache, worse with stress.
  • Dampness / Phlegm Stagnation: Depression marked by apathy; difficulty concentrating; foggy, unclear, or irrational thinking; dizziness; feeling achy and sore, often with tender points; a heavy feeling in the limbs; fatigue; chest congestion or diarrhea.
  • Heart Fire: Rage, red face, red tongue, insomnia, restlessness, mania.
  • Qi deficiency: Depression or anxiety worse when tired, lack of interest in life, soft voice, gas and bloating, low energy.
  • Blood Deficiency: Apathy, anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, dream-disturbed sleep, difficulty thinking or concentrating, poor vision, low energy, dizziness,  dull pain, worse when fatigued, muscle spasms, numbness and tingling, pale skin, dry skin, nails, or hair;, scanty menses or missing periods.
  • Heart or Gallbladder deficiency:  Difficulty making decisions, apathy, anxiety, insomnia, shortness of breath.
  • Yin Deficiency:  Irritability or anxiety, worse in the afternoon and evening, accompanied by night sweats, hot flashes, any symptom worse in the afternoon or evening.
  • Yang Deficiency: Extremely low energy, listlessness, apathy; difficulty staying warm; edema, frequent urination and diarrhea; dull pain improved by warmth, especially in the back, knee, or foot, worse when tired; urinary or sexual dysfunction.

Quick Tips to Balance Emotions

Here are some ideas to improve your emotional equilibrium today: 
  • Make a moderate exercise program and stick with it.  Consider tai chi, qi gong, yoga, or other gentle qi exercises with fluid movements or gentle stretching.
  • Work on experiencing your emotions as they occur.  Set aside time each day to review your feelings and write about them, share them with a friend, or take action to make your life better.
  • Keep a food diary, and note if you experience emotional episodes after eating certain foods.  Some people find specific foods that trigger depression, anxiety, or apathy.
  • Take steps to lower your stress level.  Any health problem worsens with high stress levels.

Of course, if you are experiencing symptoms that severely interfere with your day-to-day life, please seek professional psychiatric help.  Once your condition is stabilized, you can discuss adding Chinese medicine to your treatment strategy with your doctor or therapist.

What to Do Instead of Taking Antibiotics



Antibiotics are amazing drugs. They destroy bacteria that can kill humans and animals. The introduction of antibiotics into medicine turned once life-threatening problems like infected wounds and bacteria-based diseases into minor issues for most otherwise healthy people. But today, overuse threatens to diminish their effectiveness. Bacteria develop resistance to the currently available antibiotics, and like all medications, antibiotics have side effects. 

Antibiotics’ effectiveness depends on destroying bacteria. But all bacteria are not harmful; many are crucial to our ability to digest food and carry out basic life functions. They are especially important in the workings of our immune system. In the article The Fat Drug, Pagan Kennedy describes our bodies as 

the condo that your bugs [bacteria] helped to build and design. The bugs redecorate you every day. They turn the thermostat up and down, and bang on your pipes.” 

Our unique balance of bacteria help us in all our bodily functions, and antibiotics can change how well our healthy bacteria work.

So the question becomes, how can we avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics? Fortunately, Chinese medicine has lots of advice to offer.

  • Prevention. The best way to avoid antibiotics is to not need them in the first place. Use basic health strategies like getting adequate sleep, eating a healthy diet, and making time for moderate exercise to strengthen your immune system, which will improve your ability to fight off bacterial illness. Managing stress with time management, and meditation, and an optimistic outlook will also help. A less obvious tip is wearing a scarf in cold weather, since the area around the neck and shoulders is considered especially vulnerable to invasion. Also, taking probiotics, which give your body the “good” bacteria it needs to have a health immune system, give your body a way to fight infection from the inside.
  • Avoiding exposure. Doing your best to avoid exposure to dangerous bacteria will also minimize your chances of needing antibiotics. Wear gloves if you will be working somewhere where you could cut yourself, or come in contact with bacteria. Skip the trip to the drug store during cold and flu season, when all the contagious sick people are there. Wash your hands frequently–with soap and water, not anti-bacterial soap, which is another overuse of antibiotics and may have its own health risks.
  • Infection 911–food edition. If you actually get a cold (which would not be helped by antibiotics anyway) or infection, there are some things you can do. Rest as much as you can. If you feel more hot than cold, have plenty of cooling foods (cooked and room temperature or warmer) such as mint tea, lightly steamed cucumbers, parsley, dill, or dandelion greens. If you feel more cold than hot, eat plenty of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg to warm your system. 
  • Infection 911–herbal edition. Echinacea can help if used at the first sign of a cold. Formulas such as Yin Qiao Wan, Bai Hu Tang, and Ren Shen Bai Du Wan can all help with infections and other illnesses, but each have their own specific uses. Be sure to check in with a trained herbalist for information to be sure you get the best thing for your illness. Acupuncture can improve your immune system function, both as a quick boost and over time.

Antibiotics are a wonderful part of the medical arsenal. Saving them for true emergencies will leave you healthier, and keep them available for everyone.

I have extensive training in acupuncture and the use of herbs. However, the statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration). They are not intended to diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. The information provided by this website or this company is not a substitute for a face-to-face consultation with a health care provider, and should not be construed as individual medical advice. Any testimonials on this website are from individuals and do not guarantee or imply the same results.