TCM treatment for anxiety is one of the approaches that patients consider to manage a potentially debilitating illness. Anxiety is a disorder that affects millions of people worldwide in varying levels of severity. Its management is not simple because it often combines therapy with medications. The treatment period can also last for many months, with some patients needing continuous treatment for several years. The need and preference for a proven treatment that is safe and effective has encouraged a growing number of people to turn to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
TCM Treatment for Anxiety: What It Is?
Traditional Chinese medicine is an ancient system of healing that originated in China. It was used by both the nobles and the average citizens, who relied on it to treat a wide range of physical and mental conditions. The treatments outlined in TCM as we know it today were developed gradually over the last 2,500 years or so.
TCM uses different forms of healing such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, diet, qi gong and tui na. Although many people still rely on TCM as the main source of treatment for a health issue, it is now often used as a complement to more traditional medical treatment. As an alternative form of treatment, TCM has become quite popular outside of China. It is now being practiced in many parts of Asia, North America and Europe.
TCM Treatment for Anxiety and How It Works
To understand how TCM can help treat anxiety, it is important to know its basic tenets. One of these is the belief that the physical body is connected to a vital energy known as qi (or chi). Qi energy flows through meridians or channels, which are invisible energy pathways in the body. These meridians connect to specific organs and their functions. Diseases and conditions such as anxiety are caused by a blockage or disturbance of qi at certain points in the meridians.
In the practice of Traditional Chinese medicine, generalized anxiety disorder is considered as a dysfunction of the inner organs and not as an issue with the brain. More specifically, anxiety is considered as the Shan You Si (or YuZhen) disorder. This is due to problems with the Zang organs which affect one’s emotions. The Zang organs include the heart, liver, lung, spleen and kidneys. They are considered “yin” or female in nature. Any problem that affects the functions of any one or a combination of these organs will result in a health issue.
Here is an overview of the Zang organs and the health symptoms associated with each:
A chi imbalance in the heart could manifest as palpitations, insomnia, shyness, restlessness, chest discomfort and vascular problems.
An imbalance in the liver could result to problems such as vertigo, mood swings, anger, irritability, depression and chest tightness.
A dysfunction in the lung can manifest as sadness, detachment and unexplained grief.
An imbalance associated with the spleen can manifest symptoms such as excessive worrying and an unhealthy focus on a specific subject.
A dysfunction in the kidneys can be observed as insecurity, aloofness and fearfulness. It can also manifest as a lack of will power.
In most cases, anxiety is caused by a disturbance in the heart and spleen, causing the emotional imbalance often shown by patients suffering from this disorder. A successful TCM treatment for anxiety often looks deeper into the ways a Zang organ affects other organs. As such, anxiety is divided into different deficiency categories, such as:
1. Heart/Spleen Qi Deficiency – often shows as obsessive worry, insomnia, unexplained fatigue, palpitations and lack of willingness to communicate. Physical symptoms of this deficiency include a pale tongue, a weak pulse and tongue-biting as evidenced by teeth marks on the tongue.
2. Liver Qi Deficiency Affecting the Spleen – often shows as irritability, unexplained fatigue, lack of appetite, moodiness, muscular tension, and unexplained pain. Associated physical symptoms include a wiry but weak pulse, a pale tongue (with distended veins underneath), and a cycle of constipation and diarrhea.
3. Lung Qi Deficiency – will show as unexplained fatigue, moodiness or mood swings, sadness and unwillingness to communicate. Physical symptoms include a thin pulse, throat discomfort that may include mild coughing, sweating with little exertion, and shortness of breath. The surface of the tongue may have a white coating.
4. Kidney Qi Deficiency – is often manifested as unexplained fatigue and sensation of coldness in the knees and the lumbar regions. Physical symptoms may include difficulty urinating, incontinence, lack of libido, and general edema. In severe cases, symptoms may include impotence and sterility (in women).
Different Approaches of TCM Treatment for Anxiety
There are different methods of approaches that may be used for the treatment of anxiety through TCM. These methods are:
A key component of TCM treatment for anxiety consists of a change in one’s diet. The symptoms associated with anxiety can often be traced to an imbalance in the chemicals in the body. The type of diet a person eats will affect his brain, emotions and feelings. In people who suffer from anxiety, a change in diet becomes a necessity and not just a prerogative.
In TCM, part of the treatment to address anxiety is to start eating a healthy diet. This involves avoiding the type of foods that may trigger anxiety symptoms. Unhealthy oils from fried foods, for example, make food more difficult for the digestive system to process. These oils also contribute to issues with cardiovascular health. They also do not contain the right amount and quality of nutrients.
Refined sugars, such as those found in candies, cakes, desserts, soda and other drinks upset the chemical balance of the body. This causes a sudden change in mood and may lead to a sudden feeling of euphoria that will be replaced by irritability and depression. Sugar is stimulating. By cutting down or eliminating sugar from one’s diet, the symptoms associated with anxiety can be avoided.
Stay on the safe side and avoid or reduce to a minimum: spicy food, greasy food, fast food, chocolate, coffee, alcohol, white flour, cold food, big no no to Red Bull and Coca Cola. Remember to always eat slowly and while eating do not watch the news or dramatic films. Always finish your last meal at least two hours before bedtime. Never eat when you are upset.
Alcohol and coffee are also common dietary triggers of anxiety. Alcohol dehydrates the body and may cause certain nutritional imbalances. Coffee in large amounts can cause increased heart rate. As a stimulant, it could even exacerbate feelings of anxiety, fear or worry that may already be present.
Food that increases the amount of acid in the body should also be avoided or at least, consumed in moderation.
Herbal medicines are a common TCM treatment for anxiety. Patients who turn to alternative medicine often cite the non-toxicity of herbal medicine as a primary reason. This often comes as a result of these patients’ exposure or refusal to take anti-anxiety drugs, most of which carry serious side effects. Herbs are prescribed once the patient’s condition and the cause/s of the disorder has been determined. In many cases, herbs are taken as concoctions and drank as tea daily.
Herbs are frequently given in a specific combination based on the condition and the effects expected. Some of these herbs include:
Processed Pinellia Tuber
Dang Gui Root
Mimosa Tree Bark
In addition to herbs, other ingredients may be added to the mix to help stabilize the emotions. These ingredients include pearl zhen zhu, amber hu po, oyster shell, loadstone and fossil bone.
Acupuncture is a popular TCM treatment for anxiety. It uses tiny needles that penetrate the skin to stimulate specific points in the body to unblock the affected meridians and allow chi to flow. Acupuncture is believed to have been developed prior to recorded history, so its practice predates many of the written accounts on TCM.
The efficacy of acupuncture as a complementary treatment for treating conditions such as chronic pain, for example, has been supported by numerous studies. In a combined analysis that was published in the October 2012 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine that involved almost 18,000 patients, acupuncture was found to be an effective treatment for chronic pain. For people suffering anxiety due to pain and discomfort, this is good news.
The cause and trigger factors of anxiety may differ in individuals. These factors may include a number of things, including stress, poor diet, injury or unwanted/unfamiliar changes in the environment. All these factors can cause a disruption in the smooth flow of qi.
Acupuncture can correct the disruption of qi in the body by restoring balance in the areas where the problem exists. The specific location where the needles are inserted will depend on which organs are affected. The insertion of the needles stimulates the body to produce natural chemicals that combat pain and improve emotions. This helps promote self-healing in the patient.
Qi Gong is a combination of exercise and healing techniques. It is designed to help both the body and the mind. It combines controlled breathing, specific exercise movements, and meditation. The goal is to harness qi and guide it through the body to create balance.
Qi Gong exercises are typically supervised by a Qi Gong master. This is to ensure proper execution and sequence of the exercises.
During the exercise, the Qi Gong master may also direct the flow of qi in the patient while he/she is lying down. The exercises are quite effective in relieving anxiety because of the slow, repetitive and gentle movements that are performed with controlled breathing.
Tui na is a massage technique that uses acupressure. It is an important component of TCM treatment of anxiety. Tui na uses stronger and more uniform pressure on specific points of the body. It may be accompanied by controlled stretches and cupping therapy. These techniques help loosen up tight muscles, improve blood circulation and direct the proper flow of qi.
Tui na has been proven beneficial for managing pain, easing discomfort and promoting relaxation. It has helped many patients suffering from anxiety-induced problems manage symptoms such as insomnia, unexplained fatigue and headaches.
Is TCM Treatment for Anxiety Safe?
Much of the concern that people unfamiliar with TCM have is its safety. The techniques outlined here have actually been used and refined for over two millennia. The techniques have been proven as effective complementary approaches in the treatment of moderate to severe cases.
The important thing about using TCM treatment for anxiety is to ensure that the TCM practitioner has the proper training, knowledge and experience in the diagnosis of the condition, and in the administration of the treatment. This is especially important for TCM practitioners who prescribe or dispense herbal medicine.
The combination of different herbs can be potent. It is critical that the practitioner who prescribes herbs have a complete understanding about each one – its nature, use, efficacy and effects, especially when combined with other herbs. It is also important that the herbs are taken at the proper time and at the right dosage. This will ensure the patient’s safety, well-being and successful recovery.
Sources / References:
Errington-Evans, N. (2011). Acupuncture for anxiety. CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics, 18(4), 277-284. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-5949.2011.00254.x
St. John, Meredith: New England School of Acupuncture, Etiology and Pathology Lecture Notes
Chinese Medicine for Anxiety – My Experience
Chinese Herbal Remedies for Depression, Anxiety, Insomnia, and Psychosis
Anxiety Disorders and Traditional Chinese Medicine