Stress and insomnia (trouble sleeping) are conditions that I see every day in clinic. Common mental health disorders – such as generalised anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction problems – are just as frequent. Perhaps not very surprising, given the current state of the world! Just because they are common, however, does not mean that you should ignore them. Dismissing your stress levels as “just part of your job”, for instance, can lead to obsessive thoughts, sleepless nights, and anxiety1Mind, “What is stress?“, 2021. Unchecked anxiety can easily lead to even worse insomnia and panic attacks. Do you see how these problems can all turn into each other if left untreated?
Even worse, chronic stress can lead to many seemingly unrelated problems. One link I often see in clinic is between stress and infertility. Of course, failure to conceive can cause stress, but stress in itself can also decrease the chances of conceiving2Rooney, K. and Domar, A. “The relationship between stress and infertility“, 2018.
Chinese medicine view of mental health
Chinese medicine is rooted in the belief that physical health issues are connected to a person’s emotional state, and vice versa. In fact, emotions are viewed as an integrated aspect of organ functions, the main ones being: anger stemming from the liver, joy from the heart, anxiety from the spleen, sadness from the lung, and fear from the kidney. Overpowering emotions may also impair their linked organ’s functions – e.g. feeling knots in the stomach and spleen area when experiencing a strong bout of anxiety. The following graphic illustrates the various negative effects of strong emotions on the body:
One TCM theory on anxiety is that a person can have excessive energy, also referred to as heat or energy (qi), in the head. Symptoms of anxiety akin to this idea include insomnia, racing thoughts, and excessive worry. In such a case, the treatment would consist of inserting needles into various points on the body, such as the fingers, hands, wrists, ankles, and feet, in an effort to redistribute the patient’s energy, in order to improve sleep and reduce worry.
Depression, on the other hand, can be described as stagnant energy within the body. This stagnation can create imbalances that lead to symptoms of depression, such as an inability to focus, melancholy, anger, fatigue, and a lack of inspiration. Acupuncture addresses the issue by enabling the energy to move more efficiently, balancing the organ systems and creating homeostasis. The idea is that creating balanced energy better equips a person to manage stress and steady emotions, and enables a more peaceful feeling.