In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), well-being is viewed as being hinged to the blending of three vital elements: shen (mind or consciousness), jing (biological nature) and qi (vital energy force). Negative emotions can influence the movement, strength and direction of qi, leading to mood disorders, and in complex cases, cognitive disorders. An imbalance in this essential energy source may be signaled by inappropriate expressions of emotion, insomnia, depression and anxiety — all of which stem from some form of stress.
The aim of acupuncture treatment is to fortify and restore the balance of qi, which flows through 14 major meridians (channels) along the length of the body to the organs and organ systems. Acupuncture seeks to address body, mind, emotions and spirit, creating a sense of harmony and peace within us, between the surrounding world and ourselves.
Interconnectedness of Body and Emotions
To understand how acupuncture can benefit our mental health and relieve symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, and insomnia, its important to first understand how our emotions and our body are interconnected; and, how stress can lead to all sorts of mental disturbances.
In TCM two types of organs exist — zang and fu. These are not just parts of our anatomy; but rather, and more importantly, represent the proper (or improper) biological functioning of our bodies.
There are five zang and six fu organs. The five zang organs are the heart, lung, spleen, liver and kidney. The six fu organs are the gull bladder, stomach, large intestine, small intestine, urinary bladder and the sanjiao (three areas of the body cavity). The different features of their functions classify zang and fu. The five zang organs mainly produce and store essence: qi, blood and body fluid. (Hannah O’Connell, Castlewood Clinic)
TCM theory suggests that each of the zang organs is correlated to some type of emotion. For example:
- Spleen Disorder- worry, dwelling, focusing too much on a specific topic, excessive mental work
- Heart Disorder- lack of enthusiasm and vitality, mental restlessness, depression, insomnia, despair
- Liver Disorder- anger, resentment, frustration, irritability, bitterness
- Lung Disorder- grief, sadness, detachment
- Kidney Disorder- fearful, insecure, aloof, isolated
According to TCM, the heart is considered to be the resting place of the mind and the most important of all the internal organs as it influences both our mental and physical health. If the heart energy is blocked or at a stand still because of a lack of qi energy, poor quality or quantity of blood, or pathogenic (disease causing bacteria/virus) factors, mental disturbances are likely to occur.
The liver is also a key player in a healthy, well-functioning person. Some say that the liver houses our spiritual essence, which is said to determine our sense of life direction, our emotions, and our ability to be ambitious. Although it seems that some internal organs play a more vital role than others, it’s clear that all of our organs are crucial to an overall state of well-being.
How Stress Can Lead to Mental Health Disturbances
Stress is an unavoidable and inevitable state of consciousness that all human beings experience at one point or another. Feeling stress is our body’s natural (and healthy) response to events in our lives that may or may not be in our control. When we are in a healthy frame of mind, stress is generally short-lived. We are most likely able to recover without any imminent impact on our health. Unfortunately, if the stress is chronic, our emotional and physical health starts to deteriorate.
This acknowledgement of the mind-body connection is becoming increasingly recognized in more conventional circles. Stress symptoms span the emotional, physical, cognitive and behavioral spheres. From becoming easily frustrated, agitated and moody to having low energy, headaches, and changes in appetite or racing thoughts; it’s clear how all of these types of symptoms are intimately interconnected with stress.
Stress (as well as anxiety and depression) is one of the most common issues that patients come into acupuncture clinics for. Chronic stress manifests as a wide variety of symptoms. The good news is, in many cases patients are able to find relief through acupuncture treatment. Many have reported the following:
- More stable mood, calmness and centeredness
- Happier, more consistent sense of ease
- Better self-esteem
- Feeling more in control & able to perform work
- Usual anxiety triggers no longer affect them
- Higher/more stable energy
- Ease of digestion
- Free of aches & pains
- Better circulation
- Higher adaptability & ability to solve problems
- More ease integrating learning experiences
- Improved libido
- Higher focus
- Clearer thinking & decision-making
- Better ability to take on work and tasks
- Appetite regulation
Acupuncture For Anxiety
TCM characterizes anxiety not just as a brain dysfunction, but more so as an inner organs dysfunction. In all cases of anxiety, the spleen and heart are the most commonly injured organs. When there is a disturbance in one or more of these zang organs from any cause, an imbalanced emotional state may transpire.
Acupuncture in the treatment of anxiety holds a lot of merit. In the care of a trained and licensed practitioner it is completely safe and without side effect. Results can be observed immediately. Although, it should be noted that every acupuncture session might not provide complete relief; however, much of the anxiety you felt prior to the treatment should diminish upon leaving the acupuncturist. Acupuncture works to resolve the root cause of anxiety and is customized for each patient, focusing on how anxiety is affecting the individual specifically and treating those signs and symptoms accordingly.
Acupuncture For Insomnia
In addition to treatment for anxiety, there is strong evidence that acupuncture can be an effective treatment for insomnia. Acupuncture triggers our parasympathetic system, or what’s also referred to as the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system. The more our body is capable of falling into this state of relaxation, the faster we can fall asleep at the end of a long day. In Chinese medicine there are a number of types of insomnia, including:
- Sleep onset or difficulty going to sleep
- Middle of the night, or waking and unable to go back to sleep right away
- Terminal or late insomnia, or waking in the very early morning and cannot return to sleep again
- Sleep with vivid and disruptive dreaming
- Inability to sleep, in general
The following meridians relate to specific sleep issues:
- Heart Meridian (anxiety): difficulty falling asleep or waking up easily
- Spleen Meridian (worry, OCD): waking up at the same time every night
- Liver Meridian (anger, stress): waking up between 1 and 3 a.m.
- Lung Meridian (grief): waking up between 3 and 5 a.m.
Similar to acupuncture treatments for anxiety, some people may experience immediate results; however, in most cases it could take up to six sessions to see improvement in sleep patterns. Acupuncture has a cumulative effect so it may take time to really start sleeping soundly.
When qi is in good health, it moves in a smooth and balanced way through our bodies, like a flowing river. Unfortunately, when stress, anger, or any intense emotion comes up it acts like a traffic jam, blocking the free flow of energy to the body. By inserting needles into acupuncture points, we are able to stimulate our body’s energy to begin the process of healing.
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Morgyn, J. (2015, Spring2015). Diseases of the Soul: Anxiety and Depression. Oriental Medicine. pp. 12-13.