Life tends to feel like you're always on the go: You're reaching for a new goal at work, attempting to squeeze in more time for your family or hobbies, and then you address your health by going to the gym or another form of physical activity. Even if you do it all, the hectic pace catches up to you, and you notice how exhausted you feel over time.
But why should it be either-or? Rather than pull back or surge forward while ignoring your health, understand how to effectively balance rest and activity. This year, Beyond Health is focusing on maximizing energy in order to do all the wonderful and amazing things you want to do with your life.
But to maximize energy, you first need to balance activity with deep rest and relaxation, to give your body a chance to settle and become quieter, and to heal and regenerate.
Understanding Balance in the Body
In Chinese medicine, there are two principles that govern all life, yang and yin. Yang is dynamic, active, hard, brilliant, quick, courageous and decisive. Yin is yielding, resting, soft, dark, nurturing, slow, patient and open-minded. In optimal health, these two aspects of our nature exist in a balance.
In Western medicine, the autonomic nervous system - that part of the nervous system that controls involuntary actions, like breathing, the heartbeat and digestion - has two complementary halves that correspond to these Chinese principles: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is the "yang" half. It responds to competition, threats and stress with the classic "fight or flight" response and gives us the extra energy we need to meet life's many demands and challenges. The parasympathetic half is the "yin" that tells our bodies it's OK to rest, relax, recuperate and heal.
For good health, mental well-being AND energy, the parasympathetic and sympathetic need also to exist in a balance.
Balance and Managing Stress
Long before COVID-19, our society suffered from a sympathetic/parasympathetic imbalance, with too many people unable to find adequate time to relax and let go of stress, and even sometimes being unable to rest when the opportunity presented itself. The pandemic and political tensions in the world have only added to the stressful environment we inhabit.
The more stress we have in our lives, the more we live in a yang mode. Scientists have also found that past stressors, especially incurred during early childhood, live on in us, getting triggered by and augmenting current stressors.
But it is only in the yin mode that we're able to renew, repair and heal. If we're constantly in the yang mode of reacting to threat and stress, we're wearing our bodies out rapidly, and depleting our energy reserves. If we're already dealing with illness, it may be extremely difficult or impossible to heal. If we are well, illness may not be far away.
Unrelenting stress leads to a loss of resilience and to feeling fatigued, depressed and anxious. It can cause insomnia and non-restorative sleep; disrupt hormones and neurotransmitters (like the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which are responsible for feelings of happiness and optimism); and produce weight gain, immune deficiency and metabolic dysfunction.
So, it's more important than ever that we be proactive about making sure we're getting enough downtime in parasympathetic mode during the day and a good, restful seven to eight hours of sleep at night.
Finding Rest and Relaxation
Unfortunately, you can't just decide to let go of stress or command your body to relax. Your body, ruled by the autonomic nervous system, has a "mind of its own" in that respect.
What you can do is create conditions where your body feels more safe and therefore less guarded and alert, such as:
- Spending time in nature, with good and trusted friends, loved family members and family pets
- Engaging in moderate, enjoyable exercise - especially rhythmic exercise like walking or jumping on a trampoline or dancing
- Regular sessions with a calm, centered and kind psychotherapist to resolve childhood issues
- Getting (and/or giving) a nurturing massage
- Soaking in a warm bath
- Meditating, praying and attending church
- Just sitting and feeling the present moment: your breath, your heartbeat, the sights and sounds around you
- Listening to beautiful music
- Spending time in a museum
- Reading uplifting books or watching heart-warming movies
- Painting, sculpting or doing craft projects
- Working in a backyard garden
- Cleaning and organizing your home space, so it feels welcoming and nurturing
- Playing an instrument
- Singing - alone or with a group
- Dancing - alone or with a group
- Listening to and helping others
- Keeping a gratitude journal and in general focusing your attention on the good things in life
- Taking a Sabbath day, a day in which you expect nothing more from yourself than to contemplate the beauty and meaning of life
- Taking regular breaks from work to "come back to yourself" and stretch and move about some, have a snack or feel out what your body needs at that moment
- Taking "breathers" during the day, when you stop what you're doing and take a few long, deep breaths
The key is that the activity you choose soothes you, nurtures and inspires you, and puts you in a space of acceptance and self-acceptance where you aren't judging yourself or feeling judged. This allows your subconscious mind to feel safe, so that the autonomic nervous system is able to let go of worry and tension and move into the parasympathetic, healing mode.
In this very yang culture, it takes an effort of will to resist the siren song of pressures to be more, do more, have more and give more. There is also a strong tendency to minimize the power of these simple, often free or low-cost activities and to view work and other responsibilities as being "more important."
But being firm about taking the time we need for rest, renewal and play pays big dividends and is crucial for healing disease, staying well and maintaining high levels of energy and efficiency.
- Cho A. How yin and yang energies function in Feng Shui. The Spruce. December 1, 2021 .
- Felitti VJ. Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine . May 1998;14(4):245-258 . A well-regarded workbook for adults who want to release themselves from this kind of early programming was published in 2021: The Adverse Childhood Experiences Recovery Workbook .