If there’s anyone who’s an expert on keeping balance in her life, it would be an acupuncturist, right? But Kristen Horner Warren of Live Oak Acupuncture admits that finding perfect balance isn’t really possible all the time and approaches her life as a work in progress. But she does her best to balance the difficulties and joys of an active family life with the challenges and rewards of helping her patients break free from pain and suffering — all while finding meaning and purpose in every moment.
WACOAN: Is ‘balance’ something you think about in your everyday life or do you have to work for it?
Warren: It’s definitely something I think about, but it’s not something that comes easily or without effort. There’s so much on my plate that it takes effort to maintain balance. In a lot of ways, in this phase of my life, I don’t know that perfect balance is even a realistic expectation. It’s a matter of making choices.
I think that if we set the goal of having perfect balance in all areas of our lives, I think that, as women and as mothers and as professionals, it creates a situation where you’re perpetually failing. I just don’t think it’s possible to have perfect balance on all of those fronts all of the time.
WACOAN: You’re going to make a lot of people happy or relieved when they read this and get that validation from you. We’re all trying to be perfect and balanced all the time, so it’s nice hear it’s really not possible. In your experience, what is achieving balance really about?
Warren: I think many Americans, when they think about ‘balance,’ the thing that comes to mind is getting a massage at the end of the week or having date night on a regular basis or making time for a weekly round of golf or taking a yearly vacation or not taking work home from the office.
These things are great, but I’ve observed that there’s a much more important area where most of us are way out of balance without even realizing it, and it’s having a big impact on our physical and our mental health.
WACOAN: What is that?
Warren: The problem is that, as Americans, we tend to actively push away a whole range of emotions, including anger, grief, shame and fear. Nice people, people who put the needs of others over their own, people who don’t think of themselves as angry, and perfectionists are all really prone to this problem.
We judge ourselves when we feel difficult emotions. We think of the emotions themselves as negative, and we think we are bad if we have them. We like ourselves and we like each other much better when we are happy and positive and so, as a culture, we bottle up and deny so many of the feelings that make us human and give our lives texture.
WACOAN: And I imagine that takes a toll on our bodies.
Warren: This habit of repressing difficult emotions creates emotional rigidity and huge internal tension. According to Chinese medicine, this tension is a primary cause of physical pain and other problems, like migraines, digestive problems and chronic fatigue. It’s not that I’m saying we should vent all over one another when we are angry or that we should wallow in self-pity. It is also not that our emotions should be driving all our actions and decisions.
There’s a psychologist at Harvard Medical School named Susan David who gave a great TED Talk. She says that our emotions are data, not directives, and I think that’s a really good way of putting it. But the fact is that we can’t ignore our emotions and remain healthy.
Emotional pain doesn’t just go away when we don’t feel it consciously or if we don’t express it. It gets stuck in the body and always comes out in some form or fashion. If we are not able to connect with our whole range of feelings, emotional pain often comes out as physical pain. But if we can acknowledge these emotions, even just to ourselves, it makes a huge difference in our health and frees up a huge amount of energy for living our lives.
WACOAN: So then, how does your line of work, acupuncture, help people achieve that balance?
Warren: Acupuncture and breath work, which is a technique that I teach my patients every day, can be a huge help in breaking the habit of bottling up emotions. I also teach my patients to use expressive writing and a special acupressure technique to process their feelings privately.
The people that I’ve worked with who’ve experienced the most dramatic, almost miraculous, recoveries have all been people who have been willing to suspend their disbelief and do this work. Sometimes I think people play along, at least at first, just to humor me. But then they realize how much better it makes them feel and they keep going and it totally changes their lives.
WACOAN: When and how did you first become interested in alternative medicine? And is alternative medicine even the right term for what you do?
Warren: I prefer the term complementary medicine because I see what I do as a really beautiful complement to conventional medicine. I am not anticonventional medicine. I’m a big believer in it. It does a lot of things very well. All three of my sons and I owe our lives to conventional medicine and to surgery. I would never want to have to do without it.
But there are a number of things that conventional medicine doesn’t do well when it comes to the management and the treatment of more chronic and functional health problems that have a significant impact on peoples’ quality of life. It’s in those areas that Chinese medicine really shines. I like the term complementary medicine. I am a complement to conventional medicine as opposed to an alternative to it.
Just yesterday I was emphasizing to a new patient the importance of remaining under the care of her physician and explaining to her that the only reason I was willing to take on her case is that she already has appointments lined up with a couple of specialists.
WACOAN: I imagine that widens the scope of people you can treat because it is very inclusive.
Warren: I have a very collegial relationship with a number of physicians here in Waco who have learned over the 15 years that I have lived here that I am a very reasonable, responsible person.
Sometimes physicians are worried about their patients seeking alternative medicine because they are afraid their patients are going to be encouraged to discontinue medications or avoid diagnostic procedures or necessary surgeries, and that is not what I do.
What they have learned is that they can send their patients to me and [the patients] will be able to get relief in areas where the physician has not been able to help. At the same time, the patient is being supported in continuing with their medical care. As a result, physicians feel comfortable referring their patients to my practice.
WACOAN: Tell me a little about your background and education.
Warren: Both of my parents are health care providers. I grew up in the Denver area. When I was about 12 years old, I developed some health problems that were not responsive to conventional medicine. And we went to a lot of doctors. I saw dozens of doctors, had all kinds of tests, a couple of surgeries, spent a week at the Mayo Clinic. We went the whole nine yards without any clear answers, much less effective treatment.
Eventually, because my parents didn’t know what else to do, my parents took me to an acupuncturist and that was what ended up helping me. From that point forward, through junior high, high school and college, any time I had a chance to write a paper or do a research project, I did it on a topic related to Chinese medicine.
So, I envisioned that as a career, but I also knew that I wanted to come at it from a scientific point of view. In general, I’m a very analytical personal and a skeptical person, so I wanted to get training in conventional or Western medicine before I went to Chinese medicine, which is what I did.
WACOAN: How did you do that?
Warren: I have a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and a master’s degree in physiology. It was after I completed those degrees that I went back to Denver in order to go to Chinese medicine school, which is an additional four years of training.
WACOAN: Four years? I don’t think most people realize that.
Warren: Yes, it’s a four-year post-graduate degree and actually the state of Texas has some of the most stringent requirements in the U.S., as far as the amount of training you have to have and the board exams that you have to take.
WACOAN: What are the services you offer, in addition to acupuncture, and what would you tell someone who is new to the idea of alternative or natural healing?
Warren: Acupuncture is what brings a lot of people to me. But Chinese herbal medicine is a really important part of what I do. In China, if you were to seek treatment for a lot of the conditions that I treat — insomnia, hormonal problems, digestive problems or anxiety — the primary medicine you would be offered is Chinese herbal medicine with acupuncture being an adjunct treatment to that.
WACOAN: Describe your typical workday. What do you spend most of your day doing?
And does your job end when the last client leaves?
Warren: On a typical workday, I’m here eight to 10 hours a day. And a typical day for me would be seeing between 20 and 25 patients. So, it’s a busy day of pretty much one person to the next and then charting and that kind of thing in between. It’s an active, busy day.
The phone is constantly ringing with people who have questions or people who need adjustments to their herbs or people who have something new going on and they need to know how to handle it. I do my best to try and stay off the phone as much as possible because there just aren’t enough hours in the day for me to get everything done. But I do a fair amount of communication with my patients via email.
Once I’m finished seeing patients, which is usually around 6 or 6:30 p.m., there’s at least another hour or so of finishing up with charts, finishing up with email, placing orders for herbal medicine.
WACOAN: Your husband, Lee, works with you, right?
Warren: Yes. Part of the benefit of having my husband working with me now is that I have someone who is in charge of the administrative aspects of the practice. Pretty much everything that needs to be done, one of the two of us does, including all of our bookkeeping and that kind of thing.
WACOAN: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Warren: Lots of times, people come to me as their very last resort. People don’t generally go to the acupuncturist first. Usually by the time they get to me, they’ve tried lots of other things. In a lot of cases, people are really suffering profoundly and they have been for a long time. Being able to offer them effective treatment is really gratifying.
For instance, I have a patient who I just started seeing recently and she was injured in the explosion in West. She had a traumatic brain injury and has [post-traumatic stress disorder]. She’s gotten a lot of really excellent care from neurologists and counselors, but she says that since she’s started seeing me, it’s the first time she’s slept through the night in five years. So, that’s really gratifying.
Also, I treat a lot of people who, for one reason or another, are struggling to get pregnant. I have one family where the woman came to me years ago, having already done all the conventional medical treatments. She had been to a reproductive endocrinologist and had taken a lot of medication, all without getting pregnant. Within three months or so of starting acupuncture and herbal medicine, she was pregnant and had a daughter.
Now, 11 years later, her daughter came to me as a patient because she had some chronic respiratory illness that resulted in her missing a significant portion of a school year because she was sick so often. After treating her, the following year, she got the perfect attendance award.
It’s very gratifying to be able to offer people relief of medical conditions that maybe they’ve been told by other health care providers that there was nothing that could be done.
WACOAN: And the flip side of that — what’s most challenging?
Warren: The flip side of that is I’m treating a lot of people who are suffering a lot and have already spent an awful lot of time and money seeking solutions for their health challenges. It’s hard to encounter that kind of suffering 20 to 25 times a day, day after day after day, myself.
Part of what I offer my patients is a really personal connection. I really care a great deal about them, and I come to know a lot about them and their families and about what’s going on with them emotionally. So it’s a challenge to shield myself from the intensity of the suffering of my patients, especially when I’m tired and worn out myself.
WACOAN: You mentioned your parents were both health care professionals. Was your mom a role model for you, in being a strong woman who could handle a career and a family?
Warren: My mom is a nurse practitioner, and when I was a small child, she was home with my brother and me. When I was more middle school age, she went back to graduate school and started working full time.
Certainly, she was a role model for me, and she was always a very vocal advocate for me. She wanted me to be well educated and to pursue a career path, if that’s what I wanted for myself. I could have chosen to be home full time with kids, and she would have been supportive of that.
She had the advantage of living in Colorado, which is where both my maternal and paternal grandparents live. So when she was going to school and working, I was with my grandparents. I feel very fortunate to have gotten that experience. They were a really important part of my growing up years.
Unfortunately, we don’t have that advantage. We don’t have any family in the area, so it’s made the logistics of working full time and being a mother challenging.
WACOAN: Tell me about your family. You have three boys?
Warren: I have three boys. I have a son who is 16, and I have a set of identical twins who are 12. My twins, Sam and Charlie, go to Woodgate [Intermediate School], and my son Luke is a sophomore at Midway High School.
WACOAN: What’s life like with these three?
Warren: Luke is very athletic. He plays football, and he lives and breathes for football. He is an excellent student, but at this moment, the main purpose in going to school [for him] is that you get to play football.
He’s very social and has had his driver’s license for about six months. So that has kind of given him wings that he has taken full advantage of. He has lots of friends, and at times it’s hard to get him to be at home very much. He has places to go and things to do.
WACOAN: And the twins?
Warren: My twins are really cool kids. They are both involved in competitive cheerleading. They go to a gym down in Belton called Powerhouse [Cheer & Fitness]. That’s something they really enjoy.
They are also really outgoing and social as well. All three of my kids are not homebodies. They all want to be going and doing all the time.
WACOAN: So how do you balance all the things that go along with being a mother and working eight to 10 hours a day — what’s your secret for making it happen?
Warren: I’m very fortunate to have a husband who is very involved in both the logistics of the business, as well as my kids. When he was laid off at L3 [Technologies], there was a lot of stress associated with that. But as it turns out, it’s been a really good thing because it’s enabled us as a family to put all our resources and effort into one thing. So, that helps.
He’s very involved with the kids. He drives Sam and Charlie to cheerleading practice in Belton. There’s no way that they could be going to a gym 45 minutes away if it weren’t for his involvement and his willingness to do that.
All three of my boys are also involved in Boy Scouts. Luke is an Eagle Scout. My husband, Lee, is also an Eagle Scout. Sam and Charlie just finished their first class rank, and they are on that road as well. Lee also does all the stuff related to scouting.
WACOAN: Being Scouts, are your kids pretty independent and helpful?
Warren: That’s the other part of my secret. The kids need to pull their weight too. I think when Luke got his driver’s license, he thought he was going to be able to go and do all of these things for himself. But I was like, ‘No, wait a second. What this means is that you can go to H-E-B every week and you can help out with some of the logistics that make our family work.’
WACOAN: He goes to H-E-B? That’s impressive.
Warren: Luke does the grocery shopping every week, and he actually does a really good job of it. He does a lot of our meal planning and, as it turns out, he is quite a gifted cook.
A couple of nights a week, his friends come over to our house, and he cooks for them. He’s kind of an intuitive chef. He’s able to pull things out of the refrigerator and make a really good meal.
Now, he’s more motivated to do it for his friends than he is for his family, but he’s capable of doing it for the family, and that really helps.
WACOAN: What a great and useful quality in a kid.
Warren: Not that they’re left entirely on their own, but it’s been a long time that the kids have been doing their own laundry, packing their own lunches, doing those kinds of things. I try to be really present at their athletic competitions, choir concerts, school plays, parent-teacher conferences — we are at all of those. But they understand that the trade-off for that is they need to do their laundry, pack their lunches, things like that.
WACOAN: With a busy job and your mom responsibilities, what is your morning routine like? What time do you rise, and what all has to happen to get everyone out the door on time?
Warren: Actually Luke is the one who is up and out of the house first in the morning. He has really early football practice almost every morning. That’s been one of the things that’s been really nice about him having a driver’s license because I’m not driving him to football practice at 6:30 a.m.
Everyone else is up and going at about the same time. The twins, though they are best friends, sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning to them screaming at each other about who gets to use the shower first. They certainly do their share of bickering, but for the most part they manage to get themselves ready and out the door on time. Usually they are dashing for the bus. I wonder at what point they will stop shaving it so closely, but they remind me that they do always make it.
WACOAN: What about you?
Warren: I find that if I can get up early enough to spend a little bit of time looking at my planner and looking at my day with a cup of coffee in the morning that the rest of my day goes more smoothly.
I try to really resist waking up and first thing in the morning diving into my phone with all of the texts messages and emails and things like that. The days that I do that tend to be more frazzled ones. My best days are the days when I resist having to do much with my phone until I get to the office at about 7:30 [a.m.]. If I can wait until I get to the office to tend to text messages, emails, social media, it makes it easier for me to maintain them in their proper place in my life. Otherwise, it tends to be a distraction.
WACOAN: Do you cook?
Warren: I can cook. I think I’m a pretty good cook. But I’m not a person who particularly enjoys cooking. I know some people who love coming home in the evening and making dinner because it is relaxing. That is not me. So, it’s been really nice for my kids to get old enough to take some of those responsibilities. Also, my husband is a really good cook too.
WACOAN: What are some of your kids’ go-to weeknight meals?
Warren: Luke makes a chicken alfredo from scratch, and it’s delicious. He kind of just came up with the recipe on his own. Last night, when my husband and kids were at cheer practice, Luke made me a taco salad that was really good.
Often when his friends come over to eat, they grill out on our patio. The other night, I came home and six guys were out there grilling steaks and asparagus, which was lovely for them. We love having them here and making them feel at home. It’s fun to see him enjoying them and cooking for them.
WACOAN: What happens at your house when everyone is in bed and the house is finally quiet?
Warren: A lot of nights, I’m asleep before the kids are. We do our best to try and get them to sleep at a reasonable hour.
Last year, I wrote an article about head injuries and football and steps that I was taking as a parent to be sure my son’s brain is staying healthy. One of the most important things is getting enough sleep. So we try and emphasize that sleep is part of being an athlete and you need to prioritize it the same way you would prioritize getting to practice on time. Sometimes that’s a struggle because after practices and homework, they want some time to do Netflix and FaceTime with friends. Bedtime is something we are always negotiating.
For me, I try to make the time right before bed a time where I’m reading and not in front of some sort of phone or computer screen. That sometimes takes some discipline on my part.
WACOAN: What kind of calendar do you use, and how do you keep up with everything you have to do?
Warren: My appointment calendar for patients is on the computer. My husband is in charge of that, and he tells me when I have time to schedule meetings and that kind of thing. He runs a pretty tight ship as far as my calendar goes.
As far as my personal calendar, I use a system called a bullet journal, which I really like. It’s basically just free-form. It’s a blank notebook that I set up how I want it, as far as monthly or weekly calendar. But it also includes goals and things I want to do and even values that I want to work on in different areas of my life. It’s a way to keep tabs on that on a weekly basis. I can brainstorm about a project that I’m working on, and it’s just very free-form and allows me to have everything I’m thinking about in one place. I’ve just never found a calendaring system that works for me in that way.
One thing I will say about the bullet journal is that if you google ‘bullet journal’ you’ll find that many people are making what amounts to a scrapbook with colored pens and fancy lettering and things like that. I’ve really tried to discipline myself to keep it simple and not feel like it has to be beautiful and perfect.
WACOAN: Are you are perfectionist by nature?
Warren: In general I am a perfectionist, and I tend to make better the enemy of good in my life. I can get stuck if I’m not able to do things perfectly and not do them at all.
I’ve worked really hard not to let the bullet journal be that way. I don’t do all the fancy stuff. When it comes to getting new ideas for how to use my bullet journal, I deliberately search for ways that men are using them because it tends to be a lot more straightforward. Then I’m less likely to get caught up in ‘Oh, mine’s not pretty, so I’m not doing it right.’ You can get so distracted by the color coding and the pretty letters and totally lose sight of the purpose of it all, which is finding a place to write down the contents of your head.
WACOAN: Are you left-brain or right-brain dominant?
Warren: I wouldn’t say that I’m a particularly creative person. I’m a pretty logical and analytical person, but I’m also a pretty intuitive person, so I may be some of both.
WACOAN: Do you and your husband get a chance to go out just the two of you? What do you like to do?
Warren: We are together all the time at the office, which a lot of people ask us about. People ask us if we drive each other crazy and tell us they don’t think they could work together. Fortunately, we’ve been able to work the kinks out of that.
We come to work and we leave work separately, and that seems to make a big difference for us. We have our own workspaces. He’s up front, and this is my space back here. That helps, but we are together all the time. We do understand that we need time together away from work, but it’s honestly not as frequently as we’d like it to be. Maybe once a month or so we find time to go to dinner together or something like that.
Scheduling is hard in this phase of our lives. Six years from now, the kids will be gone and things will be different, and we will have more time.
WACOAN: What about weekends? What do Saturday mornings look like for your family, busy or lazy?
Warren: My husband was an aircraft mechanic and got up at 4 in the morning to go to work for over 20 years. I’ve always been a pretty early riser too, so for us, sleeping in is maybe 7 a.m. The kids, if given a choice, will sleep later than that. But most of our weekends we are up early and off doing things. On an uncommitted weekend, we’ll make breakfast together. Our Sunday custom is that we go to Mass, and then we go to Torchy’s and have tacos. That’s one of our weekend things.
WACOAN: What kinds of things do you do for yourself to recharge and stay fresh?
Warren: One of the things on my list of priorities that has kind of slipped is fitness. So I am trying to make it more of a priority to get to yoga class and to just do something that involves movement.
I can fall into the trap of living all in my head and not so much in my body. So enduing ways to just move and be physical is something that I try to do. We have a pool in our yard, so I’m looking forward to swimming. One of our favorite things is to get in the pool in the evening before bed in the dark and look at the stars and things like that.
I’m an avid reader. My natural inclination is to read about Chinese medicine because there’s an unlimited amount of things I want to know and learn. But I’m trying to move away from that all the time. I like to read biographies and occasionally some fiction.
WACOAN: What are your passions, outside of family and healing? What causes are near and dear to your heart, and how do you serve those?
Warren: Both my husband and I really like parrots. In the first years that we were married, we sort of functioned as a parrot rescue.
There are lots of parrots that are in need of rescue homes. They are very long-lived animals and are also very emotionally complex animals, so they are not well-suited to being pets. They say that by the end of its life, the average parrot has five or six homes. We had seven parrots living in our home. That was something that was really important to us.
More recently, we have kind of moved away from that because we realized that the kids don’t necessarily share our passion for parrots. Having seven parrots in one’s home is a noisy and messy thing, and it was impacting them in a way that wasn’t fair, if it wasn’t a passion they shared. Fortunately, we were able to find really outstanding situations for all of the birds. So, that’s been a big change for us. It’s something that we really enjoyed for a long time.
We are both animal lovers. That’s one of the things we care about.
WACOAN: Any hobbies?
Warren: I’m an avid photographer. One of the things I especially enjoy about high school football is that we take photographs of the games and have been on the sidelines at the games the past couple of seasons. It’s super fun to take pictures of the boys and by the next day they are asking when I’m going to put the pictures online. They love having the pictures to put on social media. My husband does the same at the cheerleading competitions. We occasionally will do some senior portraits because it’s something we enjoy and I find pleasure in doing.
WACOAN: What are the most important lessons you want to teach your children — about life, about balancing everything they each want to do?
Warren: One of the things that I really learned in observing my patients over the years, working through all kinds of challenges, is that at any moment, we all have three choices: what we’re focusing on, the meaning in what it is we’re focusing on and what to do about it.
What I’ve seen in my patients is that those choices make a difference in whether people are happy, whether people get better or whether or not people just get stuck. That’s something I have tried to talk to my kids about. We’re always making choices about the lens through which we see our experiences and challenges. You can have a setback — whether in athletics or in friendship — and you can say, ‘Well, life just sucks’ or ‘I have bad luck.’ You can choose to give up or not try again or you can choose to say, ‘Well, I learned something, and now I’m prepared to try again.’ That’s one of the things I try to teach my kids.
Another role I have is to help my kids discern what their passions are and what makes them tick. I try to support them in growing into the fullness of whatever that is. Football is not something that I particularly wanted for my son, and I resisted it for a long time. For him, it’s been the best thing he could do. It’s resulted in him being physically and emotional healthy in a way that maybe he wouldn’t be if he weren’t playing football. So I’ve thrown myself into supporting him in that.
My twins, well, there couldn’t be a more opposite activity to be involved in. And, as boys, cheer is a little bit unconventional, but it’s something they both really love and get excited about. We’ve tried to support them equally with that.
WACOAN: Do you have any ‘must-have’ items that make your life easier, better, more fun?
Warren: My journal, of course. I’m very fussy about the texture of the paper. I’ve tried a whole bunch of different ones and this one is perfect: Leuchtturm 1917.
And I will not write with any pen except for the Uni-ball roller pens, specifically the micro point. I buy them in the 72-pack. My husband can tell you that activity here comes to a screeching halt if I do not have this pen. I’m a very loyal Amazon customer, so much that I’ve received two handwritten thank-you cards from them.
And a lip balm I cannot live without is the Mentha Supreme 2X by Bath & Body Works.
WACOAN: Do you have a personal motto or words you try to live by?
Warren: It’s not so much a motto, but every year, rather than setting New Year’s resolutions, I just try to come up with a couple of feelings or emotions that I want to guide my priorities.
There’s a woman named Danielle LaPorte who wrote a book called ‘The Desire Map.’ She says if you decide what your core desired feelings are and you set your priorities and make your actions based on those desired feelings, it’s a different and more effective way of setting goals.
At the beginning of every year, I choose a few feelings that I want to go for that year and let those direct my activities. This year, I’ve been focused on the idea of clarity and authenticity in my life. When it comes to deciding how to spend my time, I try to reference back to those core desired feelings and ask myself, ‘Will these things bring me closer to those feelings or take me further from them?’ It’s more about the journey as opposed to the destination.