January 02, 2023

Mental Health: A Traditional Chinese Medicine Framework

In any given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental health impairments. Further, it is estimated that 1 out of 3 Canadians will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. Despite these staggering statistics, our society is only recently recognizing the importance of addressing and treating mental conditions with the same level of importance as physical ones.

Although many people associate Acupuncture and other TCM modalities with the treatment of the physical body, TCM poses significant benefits for matters of the mental and emotional bodies’ as well. 

A Whole-Body Approach

Rooted in Taoist philosophy, TCM operates on the principle that all systems in the body are intricately connected and mutually support each other. The mind cannot be separated from the body, and the body cannot be separated from the mind; dysfunction in one system will incur disruption in the other. We must consider the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical systems, and ensure they all remain in balance and equilibrium both within themselves and in relation to the others’ in order to maintain health.

‘Emotional symptoms’ such as depression, worry, sadness or overthinking are both a cause and an effect of disease, according to TCM theory. Cause and effect are not mutually exclusive; they are very much interrelated. For example, symptoms of anxiety can manifest due to neurochemical imbalances in the brain. On the other hand the presence of chronic anxiety or mental tension can eventually create those same neurochemcial imbalances at a cellular level. Overthinking and worry will deplete the digestive system, and unsurprisingly, a patient with pre-existing digestive disturbances will often develop the tendency to overthink and worry. These intimate relationships provide a clear path for diagnosis and treatment in the TCM framework.

The Nervous System

Our autonomic nervous system is comprised of two branches – parasympathetic and sympathetic. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for maintaining a calm, peaceful state – often referred to as “rest and digest”. We consider this is our ‘Yin’ energy; characterized as being receptive, slower paced, and grounded. Contrarily, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for preparing the body for stress related activities – known as our “fight or flight” response. This branch is referred to as our Yang energy; a dynamic energy that enables wakefulness, movement and alertness. 

The dynamic balance between the two systems that is key for a steady mental and emotional state. These two branches need an appropriate level of balance and tension between each other; we could not have one without the other. Building exclusively parasympathetic (Yin) restoration runs the risk of inducing a ‘freeze’ state, which would manifest as fatigue, lethargy or apathy. Too much suppression of the sympathetic (Yang) system prevents people from being able to defend themselves or take appropriate action. Contrarily, an excess of Yang energy (sympathetic arousal) and a deficiency of Yin energy would appear as hyperactivity, hypertension or a constant state of hyper-vigilance. In reality, we need regulation of both branches and harmonious connection between the two to achieve desirable mental and emotional states. 

The parasympathetic, Yin system is on one end of a polarity and the sympathetic, Yang system is on the other end of the polarity. Movement between these two polarities is possible thanks to our Qi mechanism – the motive force in the body that allows every function to be carried out. Qi is organized as tension between 2 poles, Yin and Yang (in neurobiology – parasympathetic and sympathetic).  It exists in wave forms that Taoists noticed and described such as heart beat vs heart rest;  inhale vs exhale; day vs night; winter vs summer. All these dualities are expressions of movement of Qi between these two balanced poles of Yin and Yang. When an emotionally disrupting event comes in to this regulated system, the Qi becomes disorganized and dys-regulated. The experience is energetically overwhelming, and manifests as an excess or deficiency of Yin or Yang along the sliding scale of polarity, which further manifests in to physical or emotional symptoms.  

How We Treat Mental-Emotional Conditions

The fundamental premise of TCM is to maintain balance between polarities; balance between opposing states. It makes Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine an ideal approach to restore regulation and balance between these  polarities and or branches of the nervous system. Qi itself can never become ‘tainted’; it only becomes scattered or disorganized. Our goal is to correct this scattered or disorganized nature and guide people back to their organic, innate regulation of Qi. When this is achieved, systems will automatically fall back in to equilibrium. 

The overlay of dysregulation caused by traumatic stress or emotional events is simply  that: an overlay on the body’s system. It is not the body’s true state. Inherent within every person is homeostasis. A diagnosis such as ‘anxiety’, ‘depression’ or ‘panic disorder’ is not a sign of brokenness, and it is not a state of permanence. It is simply the body awaiting re-regulation, awaiting direction back to it’s natural state of balance. 

A treatment approach for a mental health condition may include any of the following modalities; Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Diet Therapy, Exercise/Lifestyle Modifications, Meditation, and Acupressure or Ear Seeds. As with any TCM treatment protocol, each plan will be completely tailored to the patient and unique to itself. While there are helpful general recommendations, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ treatment and each case much be evaluated individually for optimal treatment outcomes. 

Struggling with a mental health condition, or know someone that could benefit from such treatment? Book a free 15 minute discovery call to learn more. 

Acupressure for Mental Health 

Massage each point with your thumb or 2 fingers in a clockwise motion, light to moderate pressure, for 60-90 seconds. Can be done multiple times through the day, on both sides of the body. 

PC6: great for stress that manifests as feelings of tightness, heaviness, or pressure in the chest and ribcage region 

HT7: a very powerful mind calming point. many uses, including for feelings of anxiety, depression, racing thoughts, heart palpitations and insomnia 

YINTANG: great to use for trouble falling asleep due to racing or nervous thoughts. massaging this point will instantly settle the nervous system and induce feelings of calm

SHENMEN: master regulator of the nervous system, this point is great at balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system in times of stress. calming effects will be felt in both the mind and body! 

LV3: for ‘excess’ types of emotions such as anger, frustration or irritability. this point very powerfully moves energy in the body, so is also great for emotional feelings of constraint or stuckness. use for headaches that result from emotional stress or tension.

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