Keeping your peace of mind: traditional Chinese medicine and mental health; October 18, 2005
By Lorraine H. Harris, L.Ac., Dipl. O.M., & MTOM

Many people envision acupuncture only in terms of alleviating pain and treating physical ailments. While acupuncture is a fundamental component of a complex Chinese medical model that has diagnosed and treated disease for more than 23 centuries, its role in treating conditions related to mental health is often overlooked.

Traditional Chinese medicine teaches us that emotional maladies and mental disease, like physical ailments, are caused by an internal imbalance of the body’s energy (chi). Because traditional Chinese medicine assumes that the human body is an integrated organism, no diagnostic distinction is made between the mind, body and spirit. As a result, it provides an excellent means to treat everything from mild stress to clinically-diagnosed disorders.

A practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine will evaluate all the symptoms presented by a patient and, in fact, will look for the mental manifestations associated with physical symptoms. For example, a person complaining of indigestion and exhibiting muscle tension in the neck, shoulders and back may, upon investigation, also be experiencing bouts of anger. To the well-trained practitioner, these are clues that there may be liver chi dysfunction; subsequent treatment can effectively dissipate both the physical and emotional symptoms.

Each of the body’s primary organs is linked with a specific emotion. For example, the heart is paired with joy (an overabundance of which can create flighty, ungrounded behavior), the lungs with sorrow, the kidneys with fear, and the spleen with an overactive mind. While physical symptoms related to these organs can provide clues, a Chinese medical practitioner must also be attentive to the emotional component.

Chinese medicine does not proclaim itself a “cure-all” for every type of mental illness but it can also work in conjunction with western medicine to offer mutually beneficial-rather than mutually exclusive-treatments for many mental disorders. For example, western drugs used to mitigate the debilitating highs and lows of bi-polar disorder can be used in tandem with a Chinese medicinal therapy that restores harmony to the patient’s system and minimizes the side-effects of the drug treatment.

Acupuncture alone can prove very helpful in the treatment of a number of lesser maladies, but a practitioner who is also trained in Chinese herbal medicine and food therapy can treat a greater number of disorders including depression, anxiety, panic attacks, hysteria, mood swings, insomnia, attention-deficit disorder, excessive-compulsive disorder and somatoform disorders such as hypochondria. This is possible because a formally-trained traditional Chinese medicine practitioner applies a careful and thorough diagnosis, then implements age-old wisdom to best determine the appropriate combination of acupuncture, herbs and foods to bring the patient back into balance.

Patients dealing with substance abuse and its debilitating emotional side-effects are noticeably improved by traditional Chinese medicine therapy, as are people who are racked by food cravings such as salt, sugar, fatty foods and chocolate – and their related mental effects. Traditional Chinese medicine therapies are also very effective for women suffering from pre-menstrual syndrome, dysmenorrhea, perimenopausal symptoms and postpartum depression.

Life and its stresses sometimes leave us with a feeling of malaise, or even worse, depression. If you find yourself unusually stressed, irritable, angry or sad and unable to move past these feelings, resist the temptation to reach for the chocolate bar, bag of chips or other “comfort foods” and contact a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner. Sooner than you think, you will find yourself on the path to better mental health and a brighter outlook on life.