This is the advice on overcoming stubborn pain that is always met with the most indifference and resistance… and deservedly so! Breathing and sleeping are perhaps the most inactive “actions” that we can possibly take in our long journey toward recovery and normalcy. Making them sound even more unimportant and cliched, these two base biologic functions are usually “name dropped” on generic medical TV shows or tagged at the bottom of some health blog that advertises “mindfulness” and “deep spiritual healing.”
Unfortunately, the sort of “meta-physical” importance of breathing, sleeping, and maintaining a relaxed physiologic state is essential toward overcoming pain.
One of my old, retired Chinese professors back in acupuncture school once taught me that drugs, pharmacy, and herbal medicines were really only the third best option to utilize when treating his patients. The most important “medicine” was sleep (the second was nutrition, which you may have probably guessed on your own).
To understand the “active” process of sleep, I think it’s best to use the basic Traditional Chinese Medicine theory of Yin and Yang that we’ve touched upon before. Not that there is anything wrong with the Western view of circadian rhythms, REM stages of sleep, and melatonin cycles, but it can get a little confusing if you’re not already familiar with all that sort of scientific vocabulary. Let’s keep it simple like black and white, and night and day.
During the daytime, when we are awake, the moving energy of our body, or Yang Qi in Chinese terminology, circulates on the “outer” portion of our bodies. It opens our eyes and clears all of our special senses, so that we can hear, smell and touch the world around us. It also powers the muscles and joints in our limbs that propel us out of our beds and through the front door as we run off to our next activity.
This Yang-state of our bodies is very easy to imagine. It’s very animated and “energized,” in the classical sense. But what happens to the Yang energy at nightfall, when it’s time to go to bed?
When it’s dark and we begin to feel drowsy, this powerful “outside,” moving energy begins to plunge deeper inside our bodies, like a great blue whale descending down into the darkest recesses of the ocean floor. It is here, at this quietest level of sleep, that the Yang-life energy swims through the blood to rejuvenate and empower all of the various healing processes of our vital organs. Although the surface of our bodies appears lifeless and almost dead, deep inside of us our hormones and central nervous system are feverishly working to rebuild and replenish all of the little damages and pains acquired from the day’s activities.
This is why a lot of people complain that their injuries and inflammations seem to get worse at night, when they’re lying in bed, trying to sleep. It is not simply, as some doctor’s may tell you, that “the room is just quieter at night when it’s dark, and you have nothing else to think about except your pain.” It has to do with the natural cycle of Yin and Yang, resting and moving, building and breaking… and sleeping and waking.
The key point here is that this healing process is inherently “natural,” which means it follows the rhythm and flow of a standard day to night cycle. It is extremely difficult to fight against the “Law of Nature” that is telling your body that you are supposed to sleep, or slow down, when it’s dark outside.
But, why can’t you just get your six to eight hours of sleep whenever? What’s the harm if you get your quality “rest-and-rebuilding” at twelve midnight or twelve noon, with those extra thick, sunlight-blocking curtains tacked all the way down?
There is an Eastern European saying that goes, “The daytime is for fighting, and the nighttime is for thinking.” It was in a Systema martial arts class that I first heard this, so the term fighting may be appropriately substituted for working, or training, or whatever type of physicality you prefer doing.
As a clinician, sometimes I feel as if asking someone to change the time they go to bed is like asking someone to change his or her taste in music. It’s almost insulting…
Of course, if your or my life depended on it, we could probably change just about anything we wanted to, even if we had to turn our whole lives around and go in the opposite direction — just like someone giving up cigarettes after lung surgery in order to overcome cancer.
Lack of sleep — or rather lack of proper, quality sleep — is actually a type of stress, or damage, to our body. And, our bodies don’t want to heal when they’re under stress, or under attack. Just as if a hungry bear is chasing after you down the side of a mountain, you’re not going to care if you have a broken foot or even a piece of gastric organ hanging out of your midsection — you’re going to run! Your body isn’t thinking about healing any compound fractures or grade four abdominal lacerations, it just wants to survive.
Now take this vivid imaginary scenario and stretch out the timeline to be not-an-imminent death, but may be a couple of days or even weeks away from now. That bear is not a ravenous beast looking to disembowel you, but a ruthless, unforgiving, and narcissistic project manager who created an impossible deadline for you at work that threatens to undercut the trajectory of your lifelong career. The physical wounds don’t have to be obvious and ghastly to be ignored in a time of distress, many times they are mental, emotional, and psychological. Either way, apparent or subtle, stress and lack of sleep ravage your body’s ability to rest, rebuild, and ultimately heal from pain.
It is not fair for me to say that simply doing relaxation exercises and getting a solid night’s sleep are going to cure all of your painful conditions or substitute for licensed professional counseling and a good second opinion. But, you will certainly be putting yourself at a significant advantage if you follow the natural way your body wants to heal.
If you have a stubborn chronic pain problem that you suspect may be exacerbated by poor sleep and high stress levels, and you would like an expert to evaluate you, then click here to schedule an appointment with us today.