Self Care. Buzz words. Everyone is talking about it. There are self care plans everywhere: 10 steps to follow, diets to incorporate, magic pills to take, wraps to wrap and creams to smooth out cellulite. It seems as if we have all the available tools but yet people don’t seem to have the stick-to-it-ness that is necessary for long term success. So what’s the problem? We are missing a way to teach people how to listen and react to what their particular body needs. People are frustrated because they are adding routines and ideas to their lives that simply don’t fit. 

So, what do we do to figure out what fits? My favorite method is to view the body energetically through the principles of Chinese medicine. 

Chinese medicine is simple at it’s core. Sure, it can get complicated. But, the basic principles are easy to grasp. When something is cold, heat it up. If something is stuck, move it. If there’s not enough of something in the body, add more. If there’s too much, drain it. The best part about Chinese medicine is that so much of it is applicable at home. A few basic acupressure points and some kitchen ingredients are all you need for most common ailments. 

But here’s the kicker… you still need to know suits you best. Knowing that requires two things

  1. Understand the energetic needs of your body

  2. Paying attention to the symptoms that often appear in your body

In order to understand the energetic needs of your body, Chinese medicine uses a model based on 5 elements. The 5 elements, in no particular order are: Earth, Fire, Wood, Metal and Water.

Earth’s primary concerns and needs are related to community: friends, family, and food. The biggest health problems related to Earth are ingestion, digestion, and worry.

Fire’s primary needs are talking, laughing, and playing. The most common issues the fire element sees are burn out, sore throats, and insomnia.

Wood people most need action, competition, and leading people. Wood element imbalances tend to lead to anger issues, tendon and ligament injuries (chronic or acute), and tight shoulders.

Metals’ primary needs are control of their environment, open space, and aesthetically pleasing views. The biggest issues that the Metal element faces are lung related: colds and flus, allergies and possibly sinus infections.

Water people mostly need the time to sit, philosophize, to simply be. The health issues the Water element tends to have are: low back pain, knee pain and water retention issues.

Just by this short list, you might start to guess which elements are strongest or weakest in you. Each person has each element in varying amounts. The breakdown could, in theory, be 20% of each of the 5 elements but that is rarely the case. Most commonly, 2 elements are predominant.

I am primarily Fire. I am overly expressive. I talk a lot with my hands and my mouth. My emotions are exaggerated and I often can’t sleep because my brain found an interesting idea and my neurons just keep firing away. The need to laugh is so deeply ingrained in me that I even giggle when I’m nervous or excited.

Because I know this about myself, I can help to balance myself out to avoid burning out and not sleeping. In order to do this, I can spend time in the Wood element, in the forest. Wood helps fire to burn, right? So, I can use the energy of the wood instead of my own energy when I have a lot of writing or teaching to do. When I am going overboard and I can feel anxiety coming up, I can use the Water element. Going to see the ocean, a lake or taking a bath will help me chill. In addition, meditation is a ‘Water’ activity, so a regular meditation practice helps me to stay calm and sleep better.

Exercise routines are another great way to see the elements in play. Following a particular instructor’s exercise routine just doesn’t work for everyone because they need different things. 

When it comes to exercise, I know I need to sweat a lot. I need to push it, big time. I’m someone who does well with HITT exercises because it helps burn some of my fire. It’s best for me to balance that with yin yoga, which can be classified as a Water exercise. 

Earth people need to move slower and for longer periods. 

Wood people need to be competitive, even with themselves. My husband is Wood and we cross country ski together. At the end of the day, he always tells me with pride how many kilometers we did and how fast. It’s so important to him for it to be impressive because of his ‘Wood’ nature. 

Metal people stay thin very easily and often don’t need much exercise but they do it to maintain a certain body aesthetic. 

Water folk don’t often enjoy traditional exercise. They tend to have heavier body types and prefer stillness. Best to give them something slow and easy. 

Once you get to know these energetic templates, they are so simple. It will make sense that you enjoy moving your body one way over another and you can stop chastising yourself for not being a runner or a yogi. Your eating habits will become simple to understand and easier to adjust. You will be able create a customized self care routine that works best for YOUR body, YOUR lifestyle, YOUR emotions and YOUR relationships. Then, your self care routine becomes easy to stick to.

Lack of stick-to-it-ness isn’t laziness. It’s simply that most people are trying to add things to their routines that don’t mesh well with who they are. Figure out your element and the rest, as they say, is history. 


  • Caitlin Donovan

    Burnout Expert

    Caitlin Donovan is one of New York City’s leading burnout experts, host of “Fried – The Burnout Podcast,” and author of the book The Bouncebackability Factor. Her master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine enables Caitlin to combine Eastern wisdom with her natural practicality. After treating more than 25,000 patients, Caitlin added 1:1 coaching, corporate workshops, and keynotes for companies such as PTC and Lululemon – all with a focus on burnout. She has been featured on podcasts and online magazines such as “Elephant Journal,” “Thrive Global,” “Addicted 2 Success,” and “Your Story. Your Health.” as well as quoted in Oprah Magazine. Caitlin and her husband spent 12 years living in Europe, but now make their home in New Jersey. When Caitlin is not speaking or coaching on burnout, you can find her with her husband and their white fluffy dog hiking around NJ and NY.