Having trouble sleeping?
INSOMNIA AND THE HEART CHAKRA
Bringing balance to the heart can get you a better night’s sleep.
What do you do when you can’t sleep? Many of us deal with insomnia. There is a lot of information out there as to how to deal with insomnia, but something you may not know is that in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), sleep issues always have to do with the heart. When there is an imbalance in the energy, or qi (pronounced chee), of the heart, then sleep issues can arise. When we combine the TCM perspective with the perspective of the Hindu/Yogic heart chakra, we get an even broader perspective on the energy of the heart. In this article, we will examine insomnia from three perspectives: the heart chakra (also known as the anahata chakra), Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the emotions and behavioral patterns that are at the root of insomnia issues.
Insomnia is a common malady today with an estimated 50-70 million Americans suffering from it according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also say that an estimated 4 million Americans take prescription sleep medication.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night, but according to their December 2014 survey, 45% of Americans reported that poor or insufficient sleep affected their daily activities at least once in the past 7 days.
An April 2017 NBC News article reported there is a link between a lack of sleep and poor metabolism. Also according to the National Sleep Foundation there is a link between sleep deprivation and depression and anxiety.
A May 2008 article by NPR says that of the 60 million Americans suffering from insomnia most are women or are over the age of 65. This article points out that the cause or causes of insomnia are unclear in the medical community today.
So my hope with this article is to shed some light on why insomnia happens and to give some practical advice as to how to deal with it.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, everyone is unique. There are no two people with exactly the same presentation of an illness. We each have our own unique imprint that combines with disease to make our own individual version of disease. In TCM, there are many presentations of insomnia. So that being said, I would like to focus on the most common presentation of insomnia that I see which is usually women over the age of 35 that have no trouble falling asleep, but wake sometime between 1am and 4am and have trouble going back to sleep. In addition to this they usually present with other issues like exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed by life, tendency to worry or feel anxious, and they are very busy in life.
Before I get into the deeper and underlying issues with insomnia, here is a quick look at what is happening on a physical level with this type of insomnia. This presentation of insomnia often has an underlying component of adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue is an imbalance in the hormone cortisol which is in charge of our sleep, our energy level, and our digestion. When the cortisol’s natural rhythm is off, then we begin having sleep issues. For more information about adrenal fatigue, I recommend this website on adrenal fatigue.
So let’s start with the heart chakra. The heart chakra is also called the anahata chakra. It is located at the chest and heart area. The color associated with it is green. The heart chakra is associated with feelings of balance, a sense of calm and serenity.
The heart chakra is also in the middle of the 7 chakras. So there are 3 below the heart chakra and 3 above the heart chakra. The heart chakra is the balance point between the lower 3 chakras, often associated with survival and everyday life, and the upper 3 chakras, often associated with wisdom, intuition, and a connection to a higher power.
So the heart is the place where heaven and earth meet. It is the place where we marry our day-to-day life or our earthly pursuits with our spiritual pursuits or our life lessons or our ability to connect with spirit.
I’ve been re-reading Eat Pray Love for the third time. I am reminded of the picture that Ketut, the medicine man from Bali, gives to Liz when she asks about wanting to live in both the earthly realm and in the spiritual realm. He gives her a picture of someone who has four legs and the head is flora and fauna and there is a smiling face in the heart. He says that in order to do this, we must be so strong on the ground, we must be so grounded that it’s like we have four legs on the ground. When we are working with deep behavioral patterns and tendencies like the one we will talk about in a little bit we need to have all four feet on the ground and a smile in our heart.
I find that the person who is dealing with insomnia accompanied by exhaustion, fatigue, worry and anxiety is often trying to reconcile living a spiritual existence with a financially stable existence. The heart chakra, the anahata chakra, is where this marriage happens. Anahata means unhurt, unstruck, and unbeaten. We must find the lionhearted courage that lies deep within our anahata chakra to face the challenges ahead of us as we try to live with one foot in each realm.
Okay, I’m going to switch gears now and go into the Traditional Chinese Medicine view of insomnia and the heart.
When we can’t sleep there is an imbalance in the heart. In Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM, the heart is associated with the element of fire. It’s color is red and the emotions associated with the fire element are joy and sadness. Each organ in TCM has a soul or spirit associated with it. The soul of the heart is called the shen. When we are not sleeping the shen is restless and unable to calm and settle down.
There are several things that can cause this imbalance in the heart and shen: heat, deficiency of qi or blood, or an imbalance in another organ that has in intimate relationship with the heart.
So in treating insomnia in TCM, we seek to calm the shen. Both Chinese herbal medicinals as well as acupuncture do a great job at calming the shen, clearing heat, tonifying qi and blood, and balancing other organs that are affecting the heart.
In TCM, we also look at the flow of “qi” (pronounced chee) or vital energy in the body. Generally, when we are dealing with insomnia, the energy flow is ascending. Our body’s ability to descend energy has diminished.
This is most common in those of us who run through our day going from one thing to the next without taking a break. This tendency creates upward flow of energy. In addition, our society demands so much mental focus which creates more upward flow of energy. We have to be mentally focused to drive, to watch TV, to perform a task on our phone, to have a conversation with another person, to read and comprehend something, to listen and comprehend something…the list goes on and on.
Compare that with someone who spends time in nature during the day. Maybe someone who farmed a few hundred years ago where the day would’ve been spent in the quiet of nature communing with bugs and birds and animals and gardens. They would have been doing lots of walking and physical work which is also descending. I don’t want to create a romanticized notion of the past here…farming and living off the land was hard work and had stress in it too. But the energy of daily life would have been very different and thus the flow of qi would be different. Being in nature grounds our energy. Hurry and busy-ness create upward flow of energy.
In TCM, there is a saying: “A healthy person has a cool head and warm feet.” What a rare thing! Not many people I know have a cool head and warm feet. It is generally the other way around.
So how do we descend our energy? How do we stay grounded in an ungrounded world?
One practical solution for this is to soak your feet in warm water in the evening before bed. In China this is as basic and common as brushing your teeth before bed. The idea is to bring the energy down into the lower body for sleep.
I highly recommend trying this. Get a foot bath or just a plain old bucket and sit in a comfortable position. Soak your feet for 10 to 20 minutes. Try doing this without watching TV or doing any other activity that stimulates the upper body like talking to someone or reading. Just feel the sensation of water on you feet. Take some deep breaths. Add some lavender essential oil or another calming essential oil. Imagine the worries of the day leaving your body through your feet and going into the water. You don’t have to pick those worries back up again until tomorrow.
Now let’s go one step deeper and examine the behavioral patterns and emotions that tend to go along with insomnia.
When I do intuitive readings, I look at the root of what is causing issues. I have always been interested in the emotions and behavioral patterns that manifest in our physical form as illness or issues.
When I look at insomnia in people who have no problem falling asleep, but wake sometime between 1-4am and have a hard time going back to sleep, I see a common thread. These are generally people who:
- need approval from others to feel good about themselves and
- this need for approval creates a behavioral pattern of pushing themselves to do more and be better under the false belief that the approval they seek will be attained by doing more or accomplishing more.
This dynamic sets up a pattern of looking back on past actions and reliving them and rehashing them wondering if they could’ve done something more or different to win approval.
In addition, that weight of being hard on oneself is then transferred into the future. Thinking of the future and worrying about future events becomes heavy due to the need to seek approval. The need to seek approval puts an extra weight on everything.
So the thought patterns that might go through your mind in the middle of the night might be:
- past oriented: rehashing the events of the day/month/year/lifetime wondering if they did it good enough, wondering if there was something they could’ve done differently to attain the approval they are seeking.
- future oriented: feeling overwhelmed about tomorrow. Feeling like they don’t have the qi or vitality to make it through the day/week/month. Feeling like life weighs so heavily that they have fear around daily life and daily routine.
So what do we do about this? First we need to acknowledge that this is a deep pattern that needs to be worked with over a long period of time. This will not go away quickly and that is okay. It is really important that you don’t try to solve this or work with this at 2am. That is not the time to do this. Go to sleep. Sleep is so essential to all physiological processes. Do things that help you go back to sleep.
But in the light of day we begin by being kind to ourselves. We gently open to this part of ourselves with softness and curiosity.
It’s important that we take the long view on this. This pattern will not be resolved quickly and that’s okay. But we can work with it. We can manage it. And that is good enough.
How to work with it:
We need to find out where the approval-seeking pattern comes from. We need to look at ourselves deeply and ask the question ‘where did my need for approval come from’. I often see that people who are seeking approval didn’t get the approval and positive reinforcement in childhood. But it is important to look at many aspects of our life like our jobs, our teachers, our extended family. I would recommend also staying open to residual soul memory from a past life.
Practice self-acceptance. Work with the idea that “I am okay just as I am without the need for change or improvement or adding something else or subtracting anything. I accept myself just as I am with all my faults, all my downsides, all my negatives. I accept all of me.”
As you work with this, here are some questions to ask yourself.
Who’s approval am I really seeking? Is there a parent or authority figure from my past that didn’t give me love or approval? Am I still seeking that?
Why am I so hard on myself? Who does that serve? Where does that come from?
I love the work of Pema Chodron. Her books and teachings have taught me how to begin to be kind to myself. With this kindness, I have let go of some of the need to be so hard on myself. I have begun to learn to find a softness with myself. Some of her books that teach this are:
- When Things Fall Apart
- The Places That Scare You
- Comfortable With Uncertainty
Lastly, here are some practical things to do when you are awake in the middle of night with your mind whirring and you can’t sleep…
- Read something. Kindle and other similar devices have low light settings which can be read in the dark so you don’t need to turn on a light and wake up your sleeping partner. Reading puts your mind elsewhere. It stops the merry-go-round of thought and gets your mind to relax.
- Practice self-soothing. Do things that help to soothe and calm you just like you would do for a small child. A whiff of essential oils or using an essential oil diffuser to create smells that calm and sooth like lavender. Picture yourself in a far away place that is comforting like a sandy beach, or a snowy mountain cabin, or a cozy English cottage. Create the scene and picture yourself there. Another way to self-soothe is to hold something that is soft and snuggly like a blanket or stuffed animal.
- Use sleep apps. There are many apps out there that you can listen to that use hypnosis to help you sleep. The one I like is called Sleep Well. It uses sounds and a soothing voice to lull you to sleep. This can be helpful, but it is also important to keep all electronics out of the bedroom while sleeping. Your heart has its own electrical system and is affected by electronics.
I hope you have found this a helpful guide for what to do when you can’t sleep. Focusing on our hearts, and therefore the heart of the matter, we can begin to understand why we are dealing with insomnia and how to begin to work with it. I hope by shedding light on the heart chakra, or anahata chakra, the Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, and the deeper emotional patterns that contribute to insomnia you can begin to understand these better in your own body and get a good night’s sleep.