By Jill (Brest van Kempen) Richards ’94
Hello again. I’ve been thinking more about resiliency and already shared my two cents on how to enhance your resiliency from a macro perspective, but I also wanted to dig into the nitty gritty of some common symptoms that plague us in periods of high stress and provide some ways to appropriately manage them. Below are some specific techniques that you can do from the confines of your own home. None of them are tricky and all use tools that you carry with you 100% of the time. With that said, read on to learn some ways to rebalance your systems using the wisdom from thousands of years of East Asian Medicine (EAM)…
You may think you’ve got this one wired as you’ve been doing it all day every day since you arrived. However, we don’t tend to think about technique during this crucial continuous gas exchange evolution, yet threat of its compromise might serve as a gentle reminder to do so. While I was teaching engineering at USNA, I would start every class with five deep breaths, which can help your system in so many ways. Most people are familiar with the “fight-or-flight” response, which is our body’s way of marshaling resources via the sympathetic nervous system to do battle. Fewer are familiar with the parasympathetic nervous system’s complementary response that sends your body into “rest-and-digest” mode. Deep breathing, specifically mindfully engaging your diaphragm, can help shift your body from the adrenalin-coursing mode of “fight-or-flight” into a calmer space of functionality to transcend crisis stimuli. Polyvagal theory, which I hope to better discuss in a future post related to trauma recovery, reinforces the understanding that engaging the diaphragm to mindfully breathe can help restore optimal systemic function.
Fantastic – so let’s talk about technique. Although you can literally breathe anywhere (and, really, you should, as long as you are six feet away from anyone else), find a space where you can sit undisturbed for a few minutes. Sit comfortably upright in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. You can put your hand on your belly if you so choose. The goal with each breath is to fill your belly with air (thus the hand placement), pause for a count of three, and then use all the muscles of your core to try to put the back of your navel on your spine. As a bioengineer, I recognize that your breath won’t actually depart your lungs and your navel will not get to your spine, but that’s the movement we’re going for. Now, give five deep breaths a shot. This breathing exercise can be used as a stand-alone means of self-care, but is more powerful when coupled with holding specific acupuncture points (a.k.a. acupressure), discussed below.
Before addressing how using acupressure points might best serve you, a quick introduction to EAM Theory is in order. A fundamental tenet of EAM is balance in all things, which is not unlike the Western physiological concept of homeostasis. The human body is made up of increasingly intertwined systems, all of which need to operate within a narrow window of conditions (e.g. blood glucose levels, tissue pH, PaO2, body temperature, etc.) to maintain functionality. If any one of these values either exceeds or falls below their respective acceptable windows, the systemic effect can be catastrophic. EAM views these tangible aspects of the delicate balance of human functionality similar to the Western assessment, albeit through a slightly different lens. EAM further uses an additional characteristic of the human body that is outside the current Western paradigm, the concept of Qi.
Life force energy, or Qi (pronounced “chee”), that which separates the quick from the dead, flows throughout the body along meridians that are laid out in a very well documented circuit. This circuit does not exclusively follow any other accepted pathways (e.g. the vasculature or neural networks); rather, it is something else altogether. Furthermore, this circuit has been critically evaluated for millennia such that it has been broken up into 12 smaller circuits known as meridians, which are comprised of acupuncture points that correlate to the 12 organ systems they support (e.g. the Heart system, the Lung system, the Kidney system, etc.). EAM theory holds that provided one’s Qi is in perfect balance and flowing smoothly, there will be no condition that is literally a dis-ease, for the body, mind, and spirit would then be harmoniously balanced and the whole system would be functioning as perfectly designed. Better said, sustaining perfect balance means you’ll never get any older and you’ll never die.
The problem is that humans are imperfect beings residing in these beautifully engineered houses, which means we are typically less than optimal housekeepers and rarely engage in preventative (or even routine) holistic maintenance in the best of circumstances, let alone during a pandemic. The experiences we live and the choices we make (e.g. high stress, sedentary lifestyles, poor sleep habits, unhealthy eating, etc.) interfere with the smooth flow of Qi, resulting in local, and sometimes systemic, imbalances in our systems leading to dis-ease. While the human body has evolved to withstand a wide range of circumstances, its resiliency is maximized when its systems are working in balance.
Because I am a member of the mighty class of ’94 whose relationship with EE is highly suspect, I prefer to think of this circuit of meridians as not unlike a collection of garden hoses tenuously linked together. When you get a kink in a garden hose, there is an excess of water pressure before the kink and little, if any, water will make it past this blockage. High stress through unforeseen experiences, especially when coupled with unhealthy lifestyles, can similarly introduce energetic kinks into our meridian network and system imbalance follows. For example, such imbalances can manifest physically as distinctly different pain presentations along the pathway of Qi (i.e. sharp, stabbing, acute pain is associated with an excessive condition and dull, achy, more chronic pain correlates with a deficient one). It is important to note that beyond physical pain, the psycho-emotional equilibrium will also be impacted in response to our experiences as, sometimes despite our best efforts, we exist simultaneously in body, mind, and spirit. To clear these kinks in your system, acupuncturists use tiny, disposable needles inserted at key points throughout the body, yet you can self-treat at home with acupressure.
Using Acupressure with Mindful Breathing to Ease Uncomfortable Symptoms –
Acupuncture points have been studied for millennia to identify ways their stimulation will correct the body’s imbalances and restore resiliency. Despite the fact that acupuncture is a holistic style of medicine that has been well evaluated for ages, modern research into its efficacy is only now coming to light. In fact, a 2016 article in the Journal of Emergency Medicine documented that acupuncture outperformed morphine in acute pain management in an emergency room setting (Grissa et al., 2016), which is wonderful news considering the nation’s ongoing opioid epidemic. Beyond the management of physical pain, acupuncture treats the whole system in body, mind, and spirit and research into its use for psycho-emotional pain is now beginning to emerge. With that said, below are some acupoints that may serve you well during the pandemic.
What Can I Do to Calm My Trash?
Although rising levels of anxiety can be well-countered by breathing deeply as discussed above, there are four acupuncture points that can be employed specifically to settle your system. I teach people to remember their locations with the nonsensical phrase “I hear my gates in my chest.” The first point is called Shen Men (Gateway of the Spirit) and located on your outer ear (see Figure 1). The second two are a pair of points known as the Interior and Exterior Gates, the first of which was popularized by the sea-sickness bands that you may have used during Youngster cruise. Although applying pressure to this point (a.k.a. the Interior Gate) is very effective at reducing nausea, it is also routinely used to manage anxiety. This point is located at three fingers’ width above the wrist crease in between the two prominent tendons at the center of the underside of your wrist (see Figure 2 – all images taken from Deadman, 2011). This point’s BFF, the Exterior Gate, is located on the opposite side of the arm. The easiest way to find it is to place your thumb on the Interior Gate and place your pointer finger on the outside of your arm directly opposite your thumb. In Ancient China when needles were at a premium, physicians would “through needle” to stimulate both points with one needle. Fortunately, I still have access to single-use disposable needles and don’t feel compelled to through needle. The final point in this protocol is Chest Center (see Figure 3), located at the center of your sternum, which is used to settle the Heart and the Lung systems.
Find a space where you won’t be interrupted for five minutes. Locate Shen Men in each ear with your pointer fingers, gently press on these points, and take three deep breaths. Find the Interior and Exterior Gates on one arm and take three deep breaths. Locate these gates on the other arm and take three deep breaths. Find Chest Center and take three deep breaths. Repeat as often as you’d like until you calm your trash.
I May Have Eaten Too Many Gluten-Laden Croissants
As many memes have documented, the urge to splurge on dietary intake has been a byproduct of this pandemic for many. Guilty – I broke my gluten fast to indulge in homemade pain au chocolat and was rather quickly rewarded with a frontal headache (it was so worth it). In EAM there are six different types of headache, each one corresponding to a different organ system out of balance. When you develop a headache right in the middle of your forehead, it usually correlates to a dietary indiscretion, which will be different for everyone because everyone is different. As someone who is gluten-sensitive, a dose of gluten (intentionally consumed or not) will fire up such a headache for me. Excessive alcohol consumption may inspire a nasty frontal hangover headache. To help rebalance this system, you can apply pressure to the point He Gu, which is a power point on the Large Intestine meridian. It is located in the meaty part of the hand between the thumb and pointer finger at the center point of the long bone going to the latter (see Figure 4). Applying pressure to both sides is best and, although tricky, can be done solo. I find it easiest to ask a friend’s help in banishing such headaches. You can also purchase a device to apply pressure on this point (wish I’d have thought of that…).
I Might Throttle Someone
Anger, frustration, resentment, and stress is running rampant right now. We are all outside our comfort zones and the ensuing emotional barrage is not unexpected, which means many have fuses that are all creeping steadily shorter. In addition to the above points to help calm your trash, you can add a key point on the Liver channel. Most are familiar with the idea that liver, the actual organ, works non-stop to detoxify our blood. From an EAM perspective, the Liver system is comprised of the actual organ and the associated meridian network and serves to detoxify our whole person in body, mind, and spirit. When that system becomes overwhelmed, it stagnates and we become more angry, frustrated, resentful, and stressed out. To break free of that positive feedback loop, engage this power point on the Liver channel. You can find Liver 3 on the top of either foot in between the long bones going to your big toe and the next toe over, about an inch or so back from the webbing between your toes (see Figure 5). It will probably be a little tender, so press gently and breathe deeply.
I Can’t Think
Sometimes when we are inundated with information overload, our system gets bogged down and is unable to effectively process it all to come up with appropriate ways forward. To help settle the mind, follow the Calm Your Trash protocol above and add an eyebrow massage. First find Yin Tang, located at the center of your monobrow if you had one not unlike Bert of Sesame Street fame. This point serves to calm the mind and spirit – press on that point while taking three deep breaths. Now, take another deep breath in and use your pointer fingers to find where your eyebrows begin nearest your nose. As you exhale, move your fingers outwards gently massaging your eyebrows to their end. There are numerous points along your eyebrows whose stimulation will help clear your mind. Repeat twice more and begin anew until your mind has settled.
I Can’t Not Think
180o-out from the previous symptom is not being able to slow your brain from churning. While this symptom most often presents as you try to spool down for some much-needed rest, it is not exclusive to impacting sleep, especially when Cable News is on 24/7. So, turn off the screen and unplug, before finding the next powerhouse point. This point is easiest found while sitting down with an ankle crossed above the opposite knee. It is located found four fingers’ width above the medial malleolus (the prominent bone on the inside of your ankle). If you gently run your finger up from the medial malleolus, you will likely find a little depression – that’s the point (see Figure 6). Press gently and take a deep breath. Repeat as necessary.
I Can’t Fall Asleep
In addition to trying everything for combatting being unable to not think, try an inverted yoga pose for 4-5 minutes. Or, if that brings back nightmares of gymspazstics class, lie on the floor with your rump against the wall with your feet leaning on the wall for 4-5 minutes before you crawl back into bed.
I Can’t Stay Asleep
In EAM theory, each of the 12 primary organ systems have a two-hour window during the day where they are operating most efficiently. For example, the Stomach is at its best from 7-9 am, which means Great Aunt Madge was right in harping on the importance of a good breakfast. Twelve hours later the organ system is operating at its least optimal, which for the Stomach is right about the time most Americans overload the system with a heavy meal. Many people under stress find themselves wide awake from 1-3 am, which is when the Liver system is working at its best and trying desperately to detoxify your system. If you have introduced a heavy processing load, chances are good you may find yourself waking up in these wee hours. Should you awaken, refrain from checking your phone and instead follow the recommendations under “I Might Throttle Someone.”
I’m Having Nightmares
Nightmares are a very common side effect of high levels of stress and trauma. Make no mistake, we are being traumatized as a species. Every one of us will likely have a horrific personal data point as a byproduct of this virus and nightmares are not unusual. To help calm your system should you have a nightmare, take five deep breaths while you find the next point located on the palm of your hand. You can find it most easily by making a gentle fist – it’s located where your pinky crosses the top line on your palm, in between the two long bones going to your pinky and your ring finger (see Figure 7). I find it easiest to put your opposite thumb on that point and support your hand with the rest of your fingers. Take five deep breaths and repeat on the other side, after which you can follow it up with the protocol to calm your trash.
I Can’t Possibly Remember Any of That
If the above is too overwhelming, then just remember this… All of the primary meridians begin and end in the nailbeds of your fingers and toe tips (see Figure 8). You can remind the energy where it is supposed to go by simply gently pinching the sides of your nailbeds on all your fingers and your toes, which will keep your Qi from stagnating.
And don’t forget to mindfully breathe…
Whew, that was a lot of information. If you have any questions about any of these self-care practices to manage your or how EAM might be able to help you maintain balance, please feel free to reach out. I can best be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, take good care of yourselves and breathe easy – you are so worth it.
Deadman, P., Al-Khafaji, M., & Baker, K. (2007). A manual of acupuncture. East Sussex, England: Journal of Chinese Medicine Publications.
Grissa, M.H., Baccouche, H., Bouobaker, H., Beltaief, K., Bzeouich, N., Fredj, H., … & Mouira, S. (2016). Acupuncture vs intravenous morphine in the management of acute pain in the ED. American Journal of Emergency Medicine. 34 (11): 2112-2116. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2016.07.028. Epub 2016 Jul 20
Jill (Brest van Kempen) Richards is a 1994 graduate from USNA who studied Ocean Engineering at USNA before joining VP-40 as a P-3C NFO. Following a near-fatal car accident at the end of her JO squadron tour, she was permanently medically grounded and next flew a desk as an NROTC Instructor at University of Utah where, fascinated by the resiliency of her crumpled body, she completed her Master’s degree in Bioengineering and, compelled by her Navy experience, pursued a second Bachelor’s in Gender Studies. Following her time in Utah, she took orders as an officer recruiter in Washington State, after which she studied East Asian Medicine at Middle Way Acupuncture Institute. She graduated shortly before being recalled to active duty for three-years to teach at USNA, arriving in Maryland Board-certified as a Licensed Acupuncturist and a Diplomate with National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). While recalled to teach Engineering at USNA, she opened a Complementary Medicine Clinic in Brigade Medical where she treated dozens trauma survivors in addition to hundreds of others suffering in body, mind, and spirit. After her tour at USNA, she and her husband (a VP pilot) traveled the country in a motorhome for two years studying the nation as a family and roadschooling their three kids while she completed her Doctorate in Acupuncture. Now again a Navy Reservist, she works part-time with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and is leading two studies with ONR Code 34 (Warfighter Performance) to evaluate acupuncture’s efficacy, one treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the other Phantom Limb Pain (PLP). She is the owner and Chief Catalyst at Catalysis Acupuncture in Bend, Oregon, where she and her family spend as much time celebrating the outdoors as possible. And she may or may not have a knitting problem.