Slowly but surely, talking about mental health is becoming less and less taboo. And it’s about time—mental health struggles affect everyone at some point in their lives to varying degrees. For some, it becomes a serious issue. Every year, one in five adults have a mental health issue that interferes with their day-to-day lives, and a recent survey found that 96% of people aged 18-34 experience some level of anxiety. Almost half said they experience feeling anxiety frequently or all the time.
The good news is that not only are we talking about mental health more than ever—we’re talking about getting treatment more than ever too. While prescription medications and therapy are still the most popular treatments in the U.S., alternative approaches are gaining steam.
One such approach? Traditional Chinese Medicine.
It’s only recently that Western medicine has started talking about mental health as part of whole-body health, but Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been treating it holistically for over 2,000 years. Here’s what you need to know about TCM and mental health—and how you can use the TCM approach for yourself.
In TCM, mental health is health.
Unlike Western medicine’s roots in a separation between the body and the mind, TCM treats the body and mind as a holistic unit. Mental health symptoms are actually considered symptoms of an imbalance between the body’s energy and its spirit or mind, and each emotion corresponds to a particular organ in the body.
Fright (Shock): Kidneys
In TCM, symptoms of depression and anxiety are seen as a disturbance to the Shen (the spirit), as well as Qi (energy) stuck or not moving smoothly in the body.
TCM is intended to restore balance and energy flow.
This happens through the Qi (energy) that flows through channels throughout the body. When we have an imbalance between yin qi, nighttime energy, and yang qi, daytime energy, we get sick. Depression, for example, is seen as a blockage of energy and a stagnation of blood and nutrients flowing through the body.
The TCM approach to diagnosis.
A TCM practitioner is on the lookout for not just symptoms, but patterns of imbalance in the body. To do that, they will likely use four methods: observation/inspection of your tongue, complexion, and more; listening and smelling for abnormalities in your sound and breath; palpating the pulse and pressing on various parts of your body; and asking about your symptoms and medical history. Looked at all together, they can tell a practitioner a lot about what’s going on. The surface of the tongue, for example, corresponds to particular organs. When it comes to answering questions about your symptoms and health history, there’s no such thing as TMI in TCM. You’ll cover all the parts and functions of the body, from how and where you sweat to your urine and stools to your preference for warm or cold liquids.
TCM gives you options.
The main TCM therapies include herbal medicine, acupuncture, acupressure, moxibustion, massage, cupping, and physical exercises like qigong, but acupuncture and herbs are the most popular for mental health symptoms. While more research needs to be done, studies so far suggest that TCM has the potential to be effective for mental health symptoms. Scientists are also finding links between the TCM view of symptoms and Western medicine’s understanding of changes in neurotransmitters, brain structure, and brain function.
If you’re intrigued by using TCM for your mental health, look for a TCM practitioner or a holistic doctor, or check in with your regular doctor or therapist. The principles of TCM play well with others, integrating with Western medicine—and potentially bringing you even better results.