Though modern medicine and pharmacology has largely dominated the treatment of people labeled mentally ill, traditional medicine throughout the world has long been used to help people in emotional distress. Ayurvedic medicine of India, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Unani-Tibb (practiced in the Middle East and South Asia) are all examples of ancient healing practices that are still widely used today. Many traditional medicine forms rely on integrating dietary and lifestyle changes along with incorporating herbs and bodywork as primary ways of helping people to find healing.
For both physical and emotional distress, traditional medicine sees the body as out of balance and that healing comes from using gentle remedies to restore health. They also tend to see imbalance arising from underlying constitutional patterns where people are susceptible to different types of ailments. For example, in Ayurvedic medicine, there are three different constitutional patterns: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. The Vata type tends to be excitable, wiry, animated, playful and susceptible to anxiety and in rare cases, mania. The Pitta type tends to run hot, is precise, directed and can tend towards anger and agitation when out of balance. The Kapha type is slow, steady, calm, and when out of balance can become lethargic and depressive.
These three major traditional medicines see imbalance and emotional distress as coming out of experiencing major stressors. These stressors could be internal such as poor dietary and lifestyle choices, or external, such as living in a harsh environment or due to trauma. So, someone who is constitutionally prone to anxiety can then develop this symptom when under a great deal of stress. One of the major differences between traditional medicine and modern psychiatry is the notion of length of an illness. Modern psychiatry labels broad experiences under the rubric of one label (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder) and generally see these labels as permanent conditions. Traditional medicine tends to see emotional distress as a temporary condition that can be alleviated by natural remedies. Traditional medicine also incorporates a wide vocabulary for describing the complex forms of emotional distress that people experience.
For example, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, deeply rooted, “stuck” anger and frustration is given the term liver qi stagnation. In Chinese medicine, the liver is responsible for the free flow of energy throughout the body. When the liver is under duress, it can cause a person to feel bottled up, tight and deeply frustrated. Another example in Traditional Chinese Medicine is the term Shen disturbance. In Chinese Medicine, the Shen refers to the Spirit and essential spark and vitality of a person. It resides in the heart and when someone has experienced a great deal of trauma, the “Shen” can be affected. This can lead to feelings of grief, sadness and being shut down. In many ways, Shen disturbance is similar to the term post traumatic stress disorder. However, PTSD tends to imply a long term chronic condition whereas Shen disturbance does not.
In traditional societies, the treatment of emotional distress is similar to the treatment of physical distress. In Chinese medicine, liver qi stagnation would be treated by a combination of herbs, acupuncture, massage and dietary recommendations. Even complex patterns such as phlegm misting the heart (a term akin to mania) would be treated by these gentle remedies. This is quite different from modern approaches which tend to emphasize drugs and psychotherapy. Drug based treatment has become dominant for a number of reasons but one of the main reasons is that they can superficially work, in the short term. They tranquilize anxiety and mania and they can stimulate energy for those who are depressed or have “attention deficit disorder”. The problem comes that in the long term (and for many, the short term as well) these drugs can easily cause challenging side effects, long term health conditions and can be incredibly hard to withdrawfrom.
Talk therapy is also generally not a tool that is used by traditional societies. When looking at emotional distress, traditional medicine practitioners tend to look at lifestyle choices and improving the ability to manage stress as well as using somatic techniques (acupuncture, cupping, massage) and encouraging sacred movement (tai qi, qi gong, yoga) for healing. Instead of examining previous trauma and analyzing ones thoughts and experience, a traditional medicine practitioner stresses lifestyle change and using healing techniques.
As a therapist I do see the importance of developing insight into ones patterns and habits as well as gaining a better understanding of previous trauma to help release distress related to it. At the same time I see how traditional psychotherapy can lead to endlessly talking about distress and previous trauma without doing much to alleviate it.
As we continue to delve into the origins of “mental illness” and good ways of helping people to heal, I think it’s key to look at the ways that traditional societies help people in emotional distress. Though many tend to dismiss traditional healing methods as unscientific and superstitious, there is a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence of the efficacy of these practices. Relying on double blind studies and “evidence based practice” has led us to prescribing heavy neuroleptics and other drugs for a wide variety of distress, compounding the suffering in many. I think it’s important to examine traditional ways of healing, which tend to be far gentler and strengthening to the body and the mind.