Mental Health & Traditional Chinese Medicine
Everyone encounters emotional distress or major upheavals in their lives that can trigger a wide range of unexpected feelings. Major disruptions to their daily functioning (sleep, exercise and diet), or clinical disorders (depression, anxiety, PTSD, DID, etc). Mental health & Traditional Chinese Medicine have always been connected: in Chinese medicine, mental health problems are viewed as imbalances between the yin and yang energies of the body, including consideration of lifestyle, diet, and constitution.
Emotional and physical disruptions produce an imbalance of Qi in the meridians: acupuncture can be an adequate modality for treating mental health issues because treatment plans are custom and address root causes of patterns by helping to restore balance at all levels, spirit, body and mind. This is often best achieved in an integrative setting (along with psychotherapy, somatic experiencing, EMDR, CBT/DBT, etc). If you experience a psychiatric emergency call 911 or 988.
- Anxiety & TCM – long in-depth article I wrote.
- Mental Health & TCM – shorter article on this blog.
- Very Well Health: Anxiety
- Very Well Health: PTSD
- Very Well Mind: Depression
- We will examine bipolar and pscyhotic disorders some other time!
(disclaimer for the links: I’m on VWH/Health.com medical expert board)
Stress is a biological response to demanding situations and causes the body to release hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Many factors can trigger a stress response but some patients suffer from chronic stress in which their body is nearly always in a state of heightened alertness. Chronic stress puts pressure on the body for an extended time which can lead to many physical and psychological symptoms.
Symptoms of chronic stress include irritability, fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating, disorganized thoughts, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, and/or frequent infections or illnesses. Over a long period, chronic stress can contribute to mental disorders. It can also lead to physical disorders such as heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, diabetes, respiratory infections, and a weakened immune system. In TCM, chronic stress can cause a blockage of the energy flow that can then lead to depression.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders in the United States. In TCM, anxiety can be linked to heat or Qi stagnation. Anxiety disorders have a complicated network of causes that can be linked to environmental factors or brain chemistry. Symptoms of anxiety include feeling nervous, having a sense of impending danger, increased heart rate, hyperventilation, feeling weak or tired, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, and/or GI problems. For more on anxiety you can read my article on Anxiety & TCM (warning: super long and tedious!)
Diagnosed depression as a psychiatric disorder, is the manifestation of a low mood that is much more severe and persists longer than situations that typically make a person feel sad or lonely. In TCM, depression can be described as stagnant energy within the body that causes an imbalance. Symptoms of depression include fatigue, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, irritability, loss of interest in things once pleasurable, persistent anxious feelings, and/or suicidal thoughts/attempts. In TCM, the Liver is the dominant organ that is responsible for governing the body’s emotions. Stress, anxiety, and depression can overburden the Liver and cause Qi stagnation. Long-term emotional distress can also affect other organ systems which leads to an imbalanced emotional state. Various types of depression are differentiated and treated as TCM single patterns or mixed patterns.
PTSD & C-PTSD
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder triggered by traumatic events. Symptoms include recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event, reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks or re-experiencing). Severe emotional distress, or physical reactions to something that reminds the patient of the event. Individuals may also experience negative emotions, depression, avoidance, problems with memory, difficulty maintaining close relationships, irritability, being always on guard, self-destructive behavior, and trouble concentrating and sleeping.
Research has shown that the Default Mode Network (DMN) is disrupted in PTSD patients. DMN is a network of brain regions with many centers that are connected. DMN activities between those centers correspond to self-referential thought that is active when the brain is at wakeful rest and is deactivated when the individual is focused on the outside world. Disruption of the connectivity of this network by a traumatic experience causes an increase in the excitation of the activity centers and results in PTSD symptoms. Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is often the sequelae of early childhood abuse and/or neglect (also other etiologies). In addition to PTSD symptoms it can present with dissociation, re-victimization, somatization, disruptions in identity etc.
You can perform a quick evaluation of your PTSD status by using the PTSD Check List for Civilians (PDF). Remember that it is essential to work with qualified mental health practitioners to heal from PTSD (always ready to refer and work as a team!). In the US, 7 to 9% of the population suffers from PTSD with increased incidence in populations subject to higher exposure to traumatic events (military, medics, firefighters etc).
How TCM Can Help
In TCM, we often associate different emotions with different elements and organs. TCM works in conjunction with allopathic medicine modalities (including pharmacology and psychotherapy). It also offers a bridge to advanced somatic, transcendent and spiritual modalities. It is unusual to separate the body from the mind (Descartes again didn’t do a favor to anyone). The body is the mind. The western psychological model has focused on brain chemistry for the most part although this is changing.
The Blood stores memories in TCM (“The body keeps the score”). We work towards resolving Qi and Blood stagnation while simultaneously regulating and normalizing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
- Acupuncture redirects blood flow from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex. It also inhibits the amygdala to alleviate hyper vigilance.
- Acupuncture raises the level of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are neurotransmitters naturally produced to fight pain. They can also positively affect the mood.
- Acupuncture can lower blood pressure, induce relaxation, increase circulation, decrease anxiety and treat sleeplessness to help individuals better regulate their emotions and responses to stress. Acupuncture can also help regulate serotonin, a chemical that affects our emotional state.
Extraordinary Channels Acupuncture
- Luo Meridians and Extraordinary Meridians are also used traditionally as they can be containers of latency (stored trauma but also life events that might not seem traumatic). The Chong Mai for instance represents the blueprint of one’s life curriculum, the Ren Mai is for bonding & creating boundaries, The Yin Wei Mai can be the reflection of one’s experience and aging, etc. (very superficial descriptions but you get the idea – treatment is highly individualized).
- Auricular acupuncture is particularly well tailored for trauma healing (provided needles or acupressure do not induce “re-experiencing”)… with you guessed it: Battle Field Acupuncture (for more read my doctoral paper and presentation here) There is also an Auricular Trauma Protocol (APT), that is very similar.
- For more about acupuncture modes of action see this infographic.
- Finally, other TCM modalities such as Qi Gong & Tai Chi can prove very beneficial (trauma release exercises) in conjunction with somatic therapies (TRE, EMDR, Heart Math, biofeedback etc).
No one needs to go through recovery alone. I’m here to help you regain balance in your body and mind as well as guide you or loved ones toward other practitioners in the field.
Supplements & Mental Health
Chinese herbology can relieve emotional distress by treating the root cause of the mental state. In conjunction with acupuncture, herbal therapy can help restore balance in the body and mind. Chinese herbal medicine is often prescribed in these two ways:
- Patent formulas – they treat common anxiety, PMS, headaches, depression, low energy, and palpitations.
- Custom formulas – no two patients and pain manifestation and type are alike; this is why our pharmacy can prepare custom formulas tailored to each case.
- Flower Essences – Dr Edward Bach researched flower essences and their use can provide strong support on the path to emotional and spiritual well-being. They help treat patterns such as abandonment, avoidance, anxiety, anger, treatment resistance, stress, etc. Schedule a consult if you need guidance in this area.
- Essential Oils – Essentials Oils are part of TCM and we often recreate analogues of traditional formulas geared toward mental health (for instance Xiao Yao San). Fang Xiang Liao Fa compounds the analogues. Only select organic and high quality essential oils as the market is replete with poor quality and often dangerous products.
Please inform me of all medications you are currently taking as some supplements may have adverse reactions to certain pharmaceuticals.
Diet & Mental Health
A very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health. A healthy diet is protective and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety. For example, see below our recommendations for foods to avoid and foods to favor for depression (or for everyone for that matter!):
- US Department of Veterans Affairs ” National Center for PTSD” – ptsd.va.gov
- The Body Keeps the Scoreby Dr Bessel van der Kolk
- The Trauma Mapby Dr Karol Darsa
- Flower Essence Repertory – by Patricia Kaminski and RIchard Katz.
- TCM Treatment of PTSD Dr Douglas S. Wingate (presentation)
- Treating Mood, Behavior, and Personality Disorders with TCM by Peter Fairfield (Presentation)
- Ear Acupuncture – A Precise Pocket Atlas by Dr Beate Strittmatter
- Acupuncturist’s Clinical Handbook by Jeffrey Jacob