You probably already know that you should manage your stress level. After all, it is widely acknowledged that stress has been linked to many of the most common health problems. But have you ever considered that stress is a problem linked to your body’s energy system?
In traditional Asian medicine, the flow of life energy, also known as chi or qi, is the foundation of health and vitality. So, when a blockage or imbalance arises in your energy system, health problems will soon follow.
Stress is often the source of these blockages since it creates tension and imbalance within the body. Fortunately, there is much you can do to ensure the health of your energy system and to mitigate the effects of stress.
Editors note: You don’t have to be a devotee of Asian medicine to benefit from these techniques. They will work for you whether you believe in Western or Eastern theories of stress.
Stress turns your energy upside-down
According to the principles of Eastern medicine, too much stress is quite unhealthy for your energy system. This is because it turns your energy flow upside-down.
When you are feeling good and your mind is calm, your energy flows according to the pattern known as “Water Up, Fire Down.” In this healthy condition, the hot fire energy of the body sinks to the abdomen, while cool water energy of the body rises to the head.
When we are ill, emotionally upset, or under a lot of stress, the opposite happens. That is, hot energy rises to our heads and our intestines become cold and sluggish. We become red-faced if we are angry or have a fever. We develop poor digestion and unfocused minds when we are stressed.
Here are some of the symptoms that indicate a reversed energy condition (Editor’s note: In Western medicine, we say they are the result of stress):
- Difficulty focusing
- Flushed face or hot head
- Unstable emotions
- Digestive difficulties
- Fatigue or lack of motivation
- Tension and knots in the muscles or joints
- Tightness in the chest
- Weakness in the legs or feet
- Dry mouth, throat, or eyes
- Depression or anxiety
- Constipation or diarrhea
Related content: How Mindfulness Changes Your Brain
Using the Water Up, Fire Down energy principle to manage stress
Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert or even a believer in Asian medicine to observe and manage your energy flow. In fact, the “Water Up, Fire Down” energy principle is easy for anyone to use as a tool for stress management and health maintenance. It’s just a matter of learning to notice when your energy is in a reversed state and then taking action to reestablish proper balance.
Creating a Water Up, Fire Down state when our condition is reversed involves another principle of energy: “Where the mind goes, energy follows.”
You can see that this is true in a practical way in everyday life. For example, if you never think about your car’s maintenance, you probably won’t take care of it. This can lead to the car needing expensive repairs later on. If you put a reminder on your phone to do your oil changes and to have your brakes checked, you will probably be more likely to complete those tasks.
We live inside our heads too much
When you think about it, everything any human does starts with a thought about taking some action. Whether you want to get up and make a cup of tea, or you want to complete a mission to Mars, it all starts with a thought.
In your energy system, this is also true and in a very literal way. Your energy goes wherever you focus your mind. When you are feeling stressed, energy tends to pool in the head because so much of your energy is devoted to thinking, contributing to a reversed energy state.
Dr. Nick Hobson, Founder and Chief Behavioral Scientist at The Behaviorist and a Lecturer at the University of Toronto, links stress-related disease directly to our tendency to over-analyze our problems:
“Our heightened anxiety has its roots in the way we think…We’re analytic thinkers, meaning we see the world in a linear fashion, carving out separate events and peering at them through a lens of cause and effect.”
To avoid the debilitating effects of stress, we need to bring energy down from the head—the overheated brain—into the body, where that energy can be used for action instead of for more thinking.
5 ways to cool down your overheated brain
When your energy is upside-down, as it tends to be when you are under stress, you should do what you can to bring fire energy back down from your head into your abdomen, to create the proverbial “fire in the belly.”
Here are 5 ways to do it:
1. Tap Your Head and Breathe
Tap your head with your fingertips. Keep exhaling while tapping. Concentrate on your outgoing breath, imagining heat leaving your head through your exhalations. Tap the crown of your head about 30 times; then move forward and down, tapping along the centerline of your head. Now tap evenly around the top of your head. Then tap in sequence on the sides, back, and lower back of your head (where the head and neck meet).
2. Tap Your Chest and Breathe
Sit on the floor or in a chair. Tap the left side of your chest with your right fist, using the side of your hand leading into the thumb. Spend about three minutes tapping your chest, including the area below your left collarbone. While tapping, exhale through your mouth, and focus on the sensations in your chest. Switch hands and tap the right side of your chest with your left fist for about three minutes. Now use whichever hand feels more comfortable and tap along the centerline of your body. Then sweep down your chest with your palms.
3. Pull your belly in and out
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and bend your knees slightly. Place your palms on your lower belly. Pull your abdomen in toward your back, hold it for a moment, and then relax, releasing your belly naturally. Repeat 100 times, pulling and releasing your abdomen while you focus on the feeling of it. When doing this exercise, you don’t necessarily have to sync your breathing with your intestinal movements. Just concentrating on the exercise will naturally lead to deeper breathing.
4. Breathe with your lower belly
Sit on the floor or in a chair in a comfortable position and straighten your lower back. Relax your neck, shoulders, and arms. Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your lower abdomen below your navel. When you breathe in, let your abdomen expand like a balloon filling with air. When you exhale, let your abdomen contract. The hand on your chest should remain relatively still. Try to keep your mind on the feeling of your lower abdomen, both the movement and the feeling inside, to help bring down the energy in your head. Relax any tension in your body and mind, and breathe comfortably. Once you’re familiar with breathing this way, lower your hands and place them comfortably on your knees or at your side. Breathe only through your nose, if possible.
5. Walk briskly
Walking is one of the best forms of exercise for clearing the mind and relieving stress. Walk faster and more forcefully than usual. Keep your upper body straight and step with heels first, extending your legs as far as you can. If you bend your arms, moving them forward and backward as you walk, you’ll put more power in your steps.
Amplify the effectiveness by making your strides longer than normal and putting your focus on the bottom of your feet (the part of your body furthest from your head). Tighten the muscles of your waist and belly as you walk, sensing that your muscles, pelvis, and gut are being worked with every step.
The bottom line
By looking into the principles of traditional Asian medicine, we can see new ways of thinking about and managing stress. Applying principles such as Water Up, Fire Down to the way we approach stress involves a personal experience of these principles that makes us more aware of our stress level and energy state. With this enhanced awareness, or what is often called mindfulness, we can take simple actions every day to alleviate stress and prevent the well-documented effects of chronic stress.
Financial Disclosure: Contents of this post are related to, but not quoted from, Ilchi Lee’s newest book, Water Up Fire Down: An Energy Principle for Creating Calmness, Clarity, and a Lifetime of Health*** Ilchi Lee’s prior book, I’ve Decided to Live 120 Years: The Ancient Secret to Longevity, Vitality, and Life Transformation*** served as the basis for a prior post on TDWI, These 8 Life-Changing Tips Will Help You Age Well.
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Ilchi Lee is a visionary, educator, and a New York Times bestselling author. He has penned more than 40 books including his most recent title, Water Up Fire Down. He founded the mind-body practices of Body & Brain Yoga and Brain Education and established the Earth Citizen Movement.
He also founded the accredited University of Brain Education and Global Cyber University in South Korea, as well as the non-profit International Brain Education Association (IBREA) in New York, which has special consultative status with the United Nations.
In addition to his study of traditional Asian medicine, Lee has a bachelor’s degree in clinical pathology from Dankook University in his native South Korea. He currently spends much of his time developing a sustainable-living retreat center in New Zealand.