This fantastic article was written by Angela Warburton, a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, speaker, writer, and teacher. We encourage you to check out her website here, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!
Ever wonder what your body is saying? In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), absolutely every symptom of the body is telling us something. Every symptom is part of a bigger picture and, when we’re able to recognize what all those little (and not so little) symptoms mean, we’re able to take charge of our health and do the things we need to do to heal…and feel great!
So if you’ve ever felt stuck – think irritable, tight shouldered, mood swings, tension headaches or constipated and IBS like symptoms – this is for you!
Stuck literally means just that, things are not circulating as they should. Think of it as an internal traffic jam. It’s a hot summer day, things aren’t moving, things are backed up, people are getting testy and irritable… it doesn’t feel good.
So what if I’m stuck?
If we get stuck, be it from stress, tension, structural imbalance, improper diet or for a variety of other reasons, it means our body is not functioning as well as it should. It’s like we have a log jam of energy and movement of ‘Qi”* in the body. Things are getting backlogged, adequate blood flow in not getting to all the places it should, toxins are not being removed properly and organs are not functioning optimally. The results of this imbalance would show up in things like body pain, painful periods, headaches, constipation and irritability just to name a few. Luckily there are many things that you can do to help remove that stuck energy and get things moving again.
*QI (pronounced “chee“) is considered a wise energy or our vital life force that courses through our body, and every living thing for that matter. Qi is essential for life and it is required for every little thing that requires movement – digestion, thinking, immune system, walking, talking, cell division – everything!
Chinese Medicine view on ‘stuck’ energy:
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the “Stuck” type is most often associated with the liver system and the flow of Qi* (vital energy) or blood in the body. When this system gets overly taxed or stressed, it will often show up in physical discomfort such as headaches, menstrual cramps, digestive upset, flank pain or tightness in your ribs, bloating or distension, indigestion, high blood pressure or in mental emotional symptoms such as PMS, depression and irritability. Even sighing a lot is a sign of an imbalance in this system! This would most often be labeled as liver qi stagnation in Chinese Medicine terms.
How does the liver become stagnated you ask?
There are a few reasons that stagnation can form in the body.
Emotions have a big impact on the liver system. One of the liver’s roles in TCM theory is to govern the smooth flow of all emotions so too much or too little (you know, the classic “I’m fine” when you’re really not scenario) of any emotion can wreak havoc on the liver system. Stress over a long period of time without break will also tax this system. Some stress is normal, but when it’s continuous over a long period of time, without adequate time to recover, our body gets run down and discomfort (mental or physical) will ensue. Short term we can recover but when we don’t address the issues, bigger imbalance and disease can result.
The Problem with Stasis
Being stuck over the long term can turn into what we term stasis, which could show up in things such as clots, fixed and stabbing pain, migraines with a fixed location, chest pain, blood in stool, palpitations and the tongue would tend to have purple spots on it or have a purplish hue.
Both qi stagnation and blood stasis require movement of the circulation and in more serious cases of course, medical attention. There are many wonderful current studies (in addition to the thousands of years of clinical practice) that show the effectiveness of treating stagnation or stasis in the body and it’s accompanying symptoms. This should always be done with the help of a professional and herbs should never be self prescribed. But in addition to that, stress reduction (first step recognizing major stressors – see text box in this chapter) and then using some of the lifestyle modifications and dietary suggestions to help get your body back to balance.
From a biomedical perspective, the liver is one of our big detox organs. Basically all substances that enter the G.I (gastrointestinal tract) have to pass through the liver. This includes foods, preservatives, pharmaceuticals, alcohol or anything else you might ingest. In addition, the amount of food we put in our system will also affect the flow or function of the liver. When we overeat it literally creates a queue of food waiting to digest (and you know what happens when there’s a big line-up somewhere… things can get done with less care and efficiency than when there’s lots of time and everyone is rested).
When we’re stuck, from whatever the cause, dietary changes, lifestyle modifications and herbs and acupuncture when needed, are highly effective in dealing with this type. It’s important to remember that all the little things that you do at home every day have a huge impact long term on the state of your health – mentally and physically. Little things make a huge difference!
So what to do about it?
Luckily, there’s lots that can be done to help with this stuck situation.
Certain dietary changes are key such as avoiding sticky, greasy fatty foods, including more foods that help ‘move’ the energy or improve the circulation and increasing movement or exercise (see below for full details) are all key to helping get ‘unstuck’, but also looking at what other factors might be causing that stuck energy is vital to balance. Some of the biggest culprits in our culture are stressors (financial, relationships, busyness etc.). The first step to healing this is actually identifying what your major stressors are in your life, and then identifying where stress sits in your body. This may seem like a foreign concept when you start, but as you start to pay attention you will become aware of the subtle signals your body is sending off.
What are your stressors?
Think: financial, relationship, work, health, lack of motivation or purpose, lifestyle, time, and social.
Where do you hold stress in your body?
Shoulders, stomach, head (headaches or migraines), Mood (irritability/moodiness, depression etc.), digestion and bowels (IBS/crohn’s), PMS/menstrual pain…
WHAT TO EAT
Foods are beneficial for you if you’re stuck
The foods listed below have a more ‘moving’ quality to them and help to break up the stuck energy in the body. Just think how different you feel having a fresh juicy orange compared to something deep fried or overly sweet and sticky. The orange or citrus has a more fresh and moving quality to it, the fried or overly sweet food a heavier, more greasy and stagnating properties.
- eat more fresh vegetables, small amounts of fruit and have smaller quantities of carbohydrates or meats at meals
- eat small to moderate amounts but avoid overeating or eating too frequently (before the previous meal has had time to digest)
- dill, basil, peppermint, chives, caraway, cardamom, cayenne, clove, marjoram, mustard leaf, orange peel, star anise, turmeric, saffron, horseradish,
- cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprout
- beets, turnips, carrots, cauliflower, kohlrabi, squash, asparagus,
- dark leafy greens (kale, chard, spinach, rapini, bok choy, mustard greens etc.)
- onions, scallions, leek, radish, aubergine
- berries, peaches, plums, grapefruit
- lemons and limes (including citrus peels often found in teas or seasonings)
Nuts and seeds:
- walnuts, chestnuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds
- sturgeon, crab, chicken egg
- vinegar (apple cider in particular, rice wine or red)
- seaweeds (kelp, arame etc.)
- sour plums
- sour dough rye bread
- lightly spices foods (but not overly spicy)
Things to avoid if you’re the stuck type:
- avoid cold or frozen foods
- over consumption of animal products (particularly those that have been treated with hormones/antibiotics or that are overly fatty)
- dairy products (cheese, ice cream, yogurt)
- overly sweet foods
- greasy foods (pizza, chips, etc.)
- avoid eating on the run or standing and eating quickly
- avoid eating when upset or angry
- Limit alcohol (although it temporarily might feel good, long term it can lead to more work for the liver system which will contribute to more of that ‘stuck’ feeling.
- avoid eating in a hurry (i.e. make sure you chew your food – your stomach doesn’t have teeth!)
- Try to eat main meals earlier in the day, allowing yourself time to digest before going to bed instead of digesting when you should be recharging and detoxing from the previous day
- Eat mostly poached, lightly steamed or light stir fried foods
- Avoid overeating
- Avoid junk food or processed foods or foods with a lot of coloring or preservatives
Lifestyle Tips if You’re Stuck:
In addition to what you eat, the way you live your life can contribute to certain imbalances or patterns in your body.
Stuck literally means things aren’t moving as well as they should. It shows up in circulation issues often, tight muscles or discomfort or just that pesky irritable mood. One of the best things to do when you’re stuck is MOVE. Exercise is one of the best things for stuck people. You have to listen to how much energy you have to expend. Stuck and depleted types might do best with a gentle 30 min walk where as someone else might do extremely well with a full on cardio blitz. In any case, stuck types should be doing some sort of movement daily.
(tip: park a little farther away from your destination, get off the bus a stop early or walk to or from work if it’s possible. Even taking half your lunch hour to go for a walk outside is a great way to reduce some of this stuck energy in your everyday life)
Don’t forget to breathe!
So often when we’re stressed we forget to breathe. Really. So often when I get people to check into their breathing, they realize that they’re actually holding their breath! Particularly when doing things like checking/replying to email or working on a stressful task. Making sure you’re taking fully breaths in and out can actually drastically affect your stress levels. A simple deep belly breath making your exhale longer than your inhale (i.e breathe in for 3 counts and out for 6) actually tricks your body out of that stressed state. We tend to only breathe like that when we’re relaxed (when our parasympathetic nervous system is engaged) so when we do that when we’re stressed our body says “heeeey, I only do this when I’m relaxed. So I guess I’m relaxed” and turns off it’s stress hormones.
Yuk it up!
There’s a saying I like by Milton Berle “A hearty laugh gives one a dry cleaning, while a good cry is a wet wash” he also said “Laughter is an instant vacation” – And it’s true! Laugher changes your body chemistry and releases all those feel good endorphins. I often write a prescription for my patients to laugh. Find a funny movie or show you love to watch. Save all those funny youtube videos you love and watch them on a stressful day or just book regular time with the people in your life that make you laugh. Laughter really IS good medicine.
Identify your stressors
Everyone has stressors in their life, but not all of them are necessary. Notice situations or events that might be causing you excess stress that you actually have control over. Are there people that you spend time with that you actually feel worse when you leave? Do you feel stressed out and upset after watching the news? Perhaps consider a media fast for a week and limit news watching particularly before bed and see how you feel.
Many stuck types are quick to anger, but there are also many a stuck person that do just the opposite bottling up their emotions until they can’t hold it in any more or just explode when they’ve ‘had enough’. Identifying how you’re feeling is the first step to healthy expression. Also recognizing when you might need a time out or a few deep breaths and a count to 10 before respond to something. Also finding healthy expressions of emotions is key to moving stuck energy. Journaling, therapy, talking though things with a trusted friend to get to the root of feelings are all helpful. Remember all emotions, including anger, are necessary and healthy, but it’s just the over expression or the under expression that causes us to be off balance.
Take time OFF.
Vacations are just fun, they’re a necessary break. If you’re stressed out over the amount of work you have to do or just the sheer busyness in your life, time OFF might be just the thing you need. As counter intuitive as that might seem, full tilt busy without a break wears down our system and we lose the ability to cope well. It’s like running a machine constantly without any time to rest. Eventually it burns out. We all need to ‘change our oil’ at some point and down time and vacation is just that. Creative play, unscheduled time and time out of our routine are all essential to well being. Our bodies are designed to handle stress, but stress and busy times should always be balanced with down time. It’s the yin-yang balance of energy. It’s like a marathon runner has to rest between runs or they’ll get injuries and wear their body down. So many of us are running back-to-back marathons in our life. We need to stop the running and catch our breath. Regularly.
Love your body – and let other love it too!
Bodywork, acupuncture, massage, sex… it all works. When we have simple skin-to-skin contact for over 5 seconds, our body releases the feel good hormone oxytocin, helping to smooth out some of those stuck feelings. Also, according to Chinese Medicine theory, when we orgasm we move the energy in the body, particularly the liver qi or ‘stuck’ system. Acupuncture is another way that we can help to increase our circulation and move that stuck energy in the body helping to balance us out and feel great.
The current research on mindfulness and meditation and stress reduction, mood and state of wellbeing is amazing. By incorporating even as little as 15 minutes of meditation daily can have a dramatic impact on that ‘stuck’ energy.
Also finding ways to sneak mindful moments in your day. Standing in line for a tea? Try taking five deep complete breaths noticing everything you can about the inhalation and exhalation. Do a quick body scan and see where you’re holding tension in your body. Focus your breath on that area for a minute and see if it softens. Find yourself ticked off at the person in front of you in traffic? Imagine it’s your neighbour or your best friends Mom. Does your attitude change? Imagine they just got some sad news and they’re trying to get to the hospital to see a loved one – do you feel a little more compassion towards them?
We’re all fighting internal battles and really have daily stressors. Sometimes by being mindful about how we are engaging with the world and getting curious about others and their stories frees up energy that might otherwise be directed towards others and thinking they’re purposely trying to piss us off. Mindfulness helps us free up some of this energy. And as one of my patients put it, Meditation makes that ‘happy place’ inside them really accessible.
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