Throughout America, many millions are looking to holistic ways to feel better and improve their mental health. Perhaps they have been dissatisfied with taking medications, or simply want to improve their mood and wellbeing. Many millions have turned to buying herbal supplements in stores and to looking at traditional styles of healing such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This ancient practice of healing has a very different way of seeing mental health and emotional distress as distinct from the Western medical system. In this article I want to explore this traditional system and how it differs from a modern Western approach.
“Mental illness” is seen as a temporary condition.
One of the main differences between TCM and the psychiatric approach to working with people in emotional distress is that the modern system tends to suggest that you have an illness that is a permanent condition, though with the potential of the disorder going into remission. A diagnosis such as Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive compulsive disorder or Schizophrenia is often seen as a permanent condition that often requires a lifetime of treatment.
In TCM, most forms of emotional distress are seen as potentially temporary if the individual makes some lifestyle changes, shifts their diet, and works with traditional healing modalities such as herbs, acupuncture and sacred movement (qi gong).
Emotional distress is seen as a physical and energetic imbalance.
There are numerous theories as to how emotional distress develops. In Western thought, it is often attributed to being an imbalance of neurotransmitters that has genetic and psychosocial etiology. In Chinese medicine, they tend to focus on lifestyle factors and trauma as underlying emotional distress. Poor patterns or traumatic circumstances lead to energetic and physical problems that in turn lead to disharmony.
For example, if someone is overworking, not getting enough sleep and eating poorly, this could lead to bad digestion, heartburn, weakness and low libido that in turn cause one to feel anxious and depressed. Working on mental health issues inevitably means working towards improving physical health as well. Mental and physical health are inexorably tied.
They have a wide variety of terms for “mental illness”.
Here in the West, we tend to refer to complex forms of emotional distress in simplistic terms. Someone is described as having “major depression” or “generalized anxiety disorder”. In traditional chinese medicine, every form of distress is a unique experience and there are numerous ways of describing a condition. Describing all the different patterns and their different treatment strategies could take a book but lets look at a shorthand description of just a few of their diagnostic terms.
Liver qi stagnation-: Qi is the term for energy and stagnation means the energy is not moving in the body. The liver is associated with the emotion of anger in this system, so imagine feeling bottled up, tight, frustrated and deeply angry. That anger has turned inwards and is causing the person to feel depressed.
Shen Disturbance: The shen is essentially the spirit of the heart and when someone experiences something deeply shocking, sad or overwhelming, this can cause the shen to be disturbed. This can in turn lead to feeling anxious, depressed, confused, restless and have insomnia.
Kidney yin deficiency: The kidney is associated with the deepest reservoir of energy in the body and yin is the essential moistening, cooling and nourishing essence in the body and when there is deficiency here, one can feel completely drained, exhausted all the time with no fight. This condition often happens to people who burn the candle at both ends, party to hard or overwork. There could also be ringing in the ears, dizziness and some heat signs.
Spleen Qi Deficiency: In Western medicine the spleen refers to the organ that cleanses the body of old red blood cells, metabolizes hemoglobin and synthesizes antibodies for immune system functioning. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the spleen is intimately tied to digestive functioning. When one is overeating or eating poorly, this can damage the spleen qi and lead to feelings of lethargy, depression and worry. Healing this condition requires special attention to the diet.
They focus on nourishment.
The traditional approach to healing from distress generally involves using tonic herbs, acupuncture and food. Many of you have heard of ginseng but there are dozens of these tonic herbs in Chinese medicine. Some others include astragalus, codonopsis, atractylodes, wild yam, rehmannia, schizandra and dong quai. These herbs are deeply nourishing and strengthening to the system. When someone is going through emotional challenges, these herbs are often prescribed along with calming herbs such as suan zao ren, fu ling and fu shen. One can take them as teas or as pills.
Acupuncture can also be deeply calming which in turn helps nourish the body by letting it rest and be replenished. Acupuncture is tremendously helpful here in the West where we tend to not give ourselves enough time to be still and quiet.
In TCM theory, dietary changes are also paramount for truly helping people work through distress. Often cutting out offending foods (processed and greasy, eating late at night, etc.) and adding in nourishing, strengthening whole grains and vegetables is essential to the healing process as well.
Traditional Chinese medicine approaches emotional health and wellbeing quite differently from the modern Western perspective. They tend to see emotional distress as intimately connected to poor physical health, believe that most forms of distress can be healed with proper attention to diet and lifestyle patterns along with taking herbs and receiving acupuncture. They see distress patterns as highly individual and therefore requiring very individualized care. And finally they focus on nourishment as the core principle in helping people feel stronger, more vibrant and in less distress.
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