The Importance of Rest During the Yin Time of Year
As we head into the holiday season, it can become easy to get caught up in everything we need to do and become overwhelmed or stressed. But as the days become shorter and the northern hemisphere experiences more stillness, it’s important to take time to slow down and rest.
By now most folks have heard the term “flight or fight” which corresponds to the sympathetic nervous system’s response to stress. In this state we feel more alert and ready to take on the world. Experiencing moments of stress are normal and can even be healthy, but problems arise when we stay in this state over long periods of time leading to, among other things, anxiety, tension- especially in our neck and shoulders, and a rapid heartbeat that continues even when we’re not in a stressful situation. When we are constantly in this high gear it can also begin to impact our sleep and digestion- leading to trouble sleeping and digestion irregularities like constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and even nausea.
It’s important we balance this high gear with its healing counterpart- the parasympathetic system. This “rest and digest” state is when we feel most relaxed and our body is able to use its resources to properly digest what we’re taking in and recover from life’s stresses. When we’re able to settle into this state we’re also able to sleep well- falling easily and staying asleep through the night. During deep sleep is also when our body does all of its repair work.
In Taoist cosmology, which Chinese medicine has its roots in, we use the concept of Yin and Yang to describe both the world around us and our physiology, as a reflection of this world.
The theory of Yin and Yang simplifies as the binary relationships we can observe. We ascribe Yin to stillness and Yang to activity; Yin is cool and moist while Yang is warm and dry.
Nighttime and Winter are both Yin, while Daytime and Summer are Yang. Throughout the day or year there are varying amounts of Yin and Yang in our environment. During the peak of Summer Yang is at its strongest and Yin is weak, while in the Winter the opposite is true with Yin growing in strength and Yang becoming weak. In this same way, we can say that the autonomic nervous system also carries this Yin and Yang aspects, with Yin being the parasympathetic nervous system and Yang being the sympathetic nervous system.
Another principle of Chinese medicine is that when we follow the flow of this Yin and Yang around us, we can cultivate good health. Most of us do this inherently to some degree, the best example being that we sleep at night and we’re awake during the day. The same rhythm can be applied throughout the seasons, and as the days become shorter we see the energy of the world around us retreat internally. Many plants go dormant and animals become less active and sleep more. Even our domestic furry friends, cats and dogs, nap more in the Wintertime. And it’s completely normal and healthy that we may find ourselves sleeping and resting more than the rest of the year. With most folks averaging eight hours of sleep per night, it’s not uncommon for folks to vary that throughout the year- maybe you feel good on seven hours of sleep in the Summer but in the Winter there’s nights that you sleep nine hours. Naps can be the same. Maybe a 10-20 min cat nap in the height of Summer refreshes you, while you find yourself leaning into a 30-50 min nap in the Winter. There’s no one size fits all when it comes to sleep and rest, but often the amount of sleep we need varies throughout the year and this is healthy and normal.
During this time of shorter days, it’s helpful to shift into this “rest and digest”, parasympathetic mode for periods of time during the daytime as well. While most of us still have a lot to get done, we can take breaks throughout the day instead of pushing through like we may do during the Summer months. We can sit with a cup of tea between errands and chores. We can kick up our feet and read a book we find pleasurable. We can stare out the window and checkout birds soaring overhead or the trees doing their thing. Anything that helps slow us down to help us relax.
It’s not uncommon when our stress has been high for a long period of time we find that even when we stop moving we’re still filled with anxiety, stress, tension, a busy mind, rapid breathing, etc. We may need to make a concerted effort to switch gears. Before getting into some tips on how to relax, it’s good to take a look at a few basics to create a steady baseline:
- Make sure you’re eating well. While it’s OK to indulge sometimes, it’s best to always make sure you’re getting your basic dietary needs met. By eating enough protein, healthy fats, and fiber throughout your day you stabilize your blood sugar which helps stabilize your mood.
- Designate your sleep hours and stick with them. Most of us have set work hours that we are dedicated to, the same approach can be used with our sleep. While there are things that impact our sleep that can be out of our control, like a sick kid or our pets stirring at night, we should limit anything else that takes away from our sleep that we have control over. Oftentimes it feels like our nighttime self and morning self have different priorities (especially if we’re night owls), but we should always consider the toll that staying up late takes on our wellbeing the next day.
If we’re doing everything we can to relax, “rest and digest”, but we still find we need help, it’s time to incorporate healing tools into our routine. If you’re reading this, chances are you know the deep relaxation that acupuncture promotes. For folks that are regularly under very high stress, we recommend weekly treatments whenever possible. When patients are experiencing moderate stress that they also manage with other tools, we suggest treatments every other week. For many of our patients, after an acute health issue or severe stress settles down, every two to three weeks becomes a helpful cadence for a reset with acupuncture.
Most of our patients feel an even deeper relaxation with treatments this time of year, as the Yin in our environment is so strong. But even when we’re not settled in on the treatment table, we can take the time to recognize and appreciate our body’s natural inward movement that we share with the world around us.
Deanna Tasi, L.Ac.
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