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Oh My Tender Heart! Burnout, Stress and Your Heart

I wrote this article for Darou Wellness (it is in the editing process right now but will be live soon!) and wanted to post it here in my blog because it is an important reminder ( MOSTLY FOR MYSELF ) for all of us to unplug ourselves from our routines every so often. We seem to be floored in our lives and I'm finding that we are almost slaves to our routines and to our tech. Not to mention our grueling work schedules which have changed immensely not only in the last century but yet again and just within the last two generations!

It struck me a few weeks ago that almost everyone I knew in my social circle seemed to be talking about “burnout” and needing self care days but feeling unable to fit them into their weekly schedule. I have friends that juggle at least three different part-time jobs (I myself qualify as one of those working now in three different clinics across the GTA); some struggle with one full-time job but have the additional responsibility of children or elderly parents to look after; while others try to do it all with nothing more than a smile and courageously take on a demanding job, raising children and maintaining a busy and filled in social calendar. It’s no wonder that people are always using phrases like “Burnt out…”, “Busy!!!!” or “Maxed out” when they are asked “Hey, how’s life been treatin’ you?”

We seem to be busy from the moment we open our eyes in the morning to the moment we lay our head down on the pillow at night. Apart from our daily work obligations and keeping up with our social lives, we are also constantly bombarded with emails, notifications on our phones and the obligatory beeps and whistles reminding us to attend to a task on a to-do list or a signal on our Fitbit devices telling us that its time to move and get those steps in. We literally don’t have much of a moment to catch our breath during our daily routines do we? An online article that highlights this too well can be found on It looks like at least 58% of Canadians report some feeling of burnout everyday at work. Just read through what Benefits Canada has to say:

It’s no wonder I feel burnt out just filling in all these details (and I haven’t even finished the first page of this document yet!!)

I see a correlation with “burnout” and stress in the work that I do as a Registered Acupuncturist. Most of the time, patients that come in for acupuncture treatments for insomnia, digestive issues, fatigue and anxiety tend to display some symptoms of the condition that many are referring to as “burnout”. Its more than just fatigue in many cases. It’s like a feeling of being drained not only of energy but of vivaciousness, enthusiasm and of not being able to keep up with people, events, trends and daily activity.

According to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) Theory, The Heart is the Emperor of all the organs. It houses Shen (The Spirit) and the Mind. It is the ultimate decision-maker on the final well-bring of the body and the mind. In other words, if the Heart or the Emperor is unwell, the other organs will be unwell too as there is no fit ruler to lead their subjects. Hence the well-being of the Heart is of utmost importance. Imagine, an Emperor in the position of ruling over demanding kingdoms or territories; constantly needing to make sure that each head of state would be paid enough attention to and managed in order to prevent unnecessary war from breaking out. His or her health would be a priority if these states were to be led with fairness but firmness.

This begs the question, just why are we so burnt out and just how does all this “busy-ness” affect the so-called ruler of my insides and organs?

I use a lot of analogies in explaining why things work the way they do and this is a great place to insert one in order to explain the concept of needing to look after The Heart just so one can cope with the overwhelm from being too busily distracted. Just imagine that you were told you had to babysit five very rambunctious, highly energized children for a whole weekend. Also imagine that these children are very active, run around a lot, are very loud and all are quite engaging and need a lot of your active attention. To make things more complicated, now imagine that you are a very quiet, introverted character and that your normal weekends are spent reading and not really engaging with too many people and what your reaction would be to these five children’s personalities. You (the introverted, quiet character) are now the ruler of these five highly spirited children and are now officially tasked with attending to their needs but also make sure that you don’t neglect your decreed duty to maintain active control of your subjects and actually lead them. If you don’t successfully balance this, the kids just overwhelm you and they become the rulers calling all the shots on how the weekend will go (not you).

This is kind of what happens to our Shen (or Mind / Spirit) when it is constantly being pulled in several different directions during the day. Your mind is the quiet professor-like babysitter. The kids are like our workplace tasks that we need to attend to, the parent-teacher meeting that we have scheduled in between soccer practice and mushroom foraging classes, followed by fetching our parents from weekly physio sessions and then rushing to restorative yoga late in the evening (and I didn’t even mention our phones and tablets shooting out occasional digital reminders and notifications in between all these activities yet, constantly reminding ourselves that there is one last thing to attend to).

(OK OK, so there are only four kids in this GIF and I said five in the section above - noted! Too tired to change the gif)

Hey, if this lifestyle works for you and you have amazing powers of organization, then all the more power to you (and btw, I seriously envy you!!)! However, I can say that most of us get swept away when our daily lives and the things that we fill our days in with start to take over and overtake us. Actually, let me rephrase this. The overtaking actually starts to happen when we are unable to confidently use our Shen, Spirit or Mind to rule over and manage the days’ many events.

It’s not that the day’s schedule takes over our decision-making process. It is rather that our decision-making process delegates its job to our timetable instead, and the part of the mind that is responsible for making decisions, checks itself out. It essentially feels like we are constantly running on a deficit and we feel we are at the mercy of our jam-packed schedules and the reminders to attend to them.

In short, the Emperor has left the building and there is no one left to take over his/her executive decision-making function. The organs that answer to the Emperor, are left to their own devices and when that happens, a scuffle inside the body ensues and the body just can’t function as well. When the Heart (the Shen, Mind or Spirit) takes an unofficially announced break and plays hooky, that is when functions in the human body go rogue and people come in for acupuncture.

When patients start to experience issues like digestive upsets (IBS, diarrhea, acid reflux, pain after eating, bloating etc), insomnia, anxiety and panic, skin problems (eczema, acne and breakouts), or depression and mood changes, there is a fairly large possibility that the Heart and the Emperor has neglected their duty to rule over his/her subjects. And it’s quite likely, given this day and age of FOMO (fear of missing out) and socially attuned tech, that the culprit is sensory overwhelm from taking on too much.

The treatments that I do will focus on the issue that the patient has come in to see me for (i.e. if they are seeking help for anxiety and insomnia or, for IBS due to a highly stressful weekly work and lifestyle, then I will address these issues primarily). However, I will almost always add in some aspect of Shen-calming treatment using acupuncture points to calm the Spirit or the Mind and restore vitality to the Heart (or the organs that have been most directly affected by an aspect of imbalanced Heart Qi). Acupuncture points that calm Shen are found (of course!) on the Heart and Pericardium Channels, on the head and scalp and on the ear and all work together with acupoints on selected meridians where the primary condition manifests from.

Burnout seems to be one of the biggest problems that the 21st Century just can’t seem to solve. It doesn’t matter that we come armed with the latest gadget, app, digital helper or software update; more and more of us are reporting those same nagging feelings of lethargy, lack of enthusiasm and a sense of running on low batteries.

Though we have come this far in terms of technological advance, our bodies haven’t quite adapted in quite the same way and we are still subject to the demands and needs of living in a human body - a human body that still needs to eat regular meals in the day; that needs to sleep a certain amount of time at night; a body that needs fresh air, sunshine and exercise; and a human mind that requires quiet time and the time to socialize and forge ties and bonds with members of our family (and hence, our respective tribes).

We may be digitally inspired but we cannot ignore the biological needs of living as a sentient being in an organic, ever-changing world that we need to respond and adapt to. Every once in awhile, our minds, our Heart or the Emperor needs a break from the “I’m too busy” in our lives. Perhaps it is ultimately better that we schedule that break for ourselves rather than leaving it too long and forcing the Emperor to do so him or herself!

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