Considering the Chinese Medicine Approach to Anxiety

by Dody Chang, L.Ac.

In Chinese Medicine, the mind, body, and spirit are viewed as a unified system without distinct boundaries separating physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological experiences. Ancient scholars of Chinese Medicine believed that causes of all physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual afflictions are due to disturbances in the flow of the “qi” or “energy” in the body.

When qi disturbance affects the mental-emotional aspects in a person, it leads to the disturbance of “shen”. Shen is loosely translated as the “Mind” or “Spirit” in Chinese Medicine. Shen is responsible for thinking, consciousness, insight, emotions, and memory. It resides in the heart, not the brain. The heart is where mental, spiritual, and creative activities take place, according to Chinese Medicine theory.

A strong and healthy shen reflects an individual who lives in harmony with his/her environment. His or her actions reflect clear vision, insight, and wisdom. A healthy shen is knowing one’s true Self. On the other hand, moderately weak shen manifests itself in a person who is scattered or unsettled. A weak shen can lead to anxiety, mild depression, or chronic restlessness. Shen disorders reflect various mental, emotional, nervous, psycho-emotional, psychological or psychiatric conditions. Shen disturbance leads to insomnia, dream disturbed sleep, anxiety, palpitations, depression, inability to concentrate, timidity, etc.

Shen can be disturbed by both physical and emotional traumatic or shocking events, especially those that occur in childhood. According to Chinese Medicine, emotions (as causes of disease) should not be ignored or repressed, but examined and expressed in a healthy, productive manner. Furthermore, emotional and psychological factors are important contributing factors to illness. When emotions become overwhelming, excessive, or prolonged, they can impair the internal organs in the body. For example, grief and sadness injure the lungs, anger injures the liver, fear affects the kidneys, rumination and pensiveness harm the spleen, and shock and excessive joy affect the heart.

Several research studies have shown that a combination of body and ear (auricular) acupuncture can reduce symptoms in patients with minor depression, chronic anxiety disorders, and general anxiety disorders.

Using contemplative practices such as meditation, prayer, drawing, journal writing, or spending time in nature will help strengthen the shen. Shen can also be strengthened through qigong (energy work), physical activity, Chinese herbal remedies, and acupuncture. Chinese Medicine, as an adjunct to counseling and psychotherapy, can help patients reach tremendous healing at profound levels, by gently addressing the deepest level of existence – the spirit.