The Spirits of Chinese Medicine and Depression

February 14, 2009 0 comments Health

February is said to be one of the worse months for depression, as the seemingly unending cold and dark weather, encourage us to do less activity and stay indoors.  Factors that exacerbate negative feelings and set those prone to depression on a slippery slope downwards.   On top of this is what some refer to as the ‘Valentine’s Day Curse’, that is for people who either don’t have a significant other or have unrealistic expectations of their partner, find Valentine’s Day to be a very lonely time. This so called curse can lead to feelings of rejection and loneliness and can damage relationships.


Western medicine has only in the last few decades recognised psychological factors and disease, particularly in the field of Psychoneuroimmunology which looks at the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the human body.  Whereas, Chinese Medicine has always recognised the interplay between our psychological wellbeing and health.  The mind is seen as strongly influencing the body and how physical symptoms are experienced, and the progression of disease. Chinese Medicine, contrary to most Western Medicine, acknowledges that people’s emotional states and moods can play a significant role in their vulnerability to disease in the first place and secondly, affect the progress or course of their recovery.



The Psyche and Soma

Depression is a disorder of moods and often linked to personality traits (such as pessimism, neuroticism), medical conditions, the side-effects of medication or illicit substance abuse.  There is still a stigma attached to mental ill-health and while some patients speak directly of anxiety, sadness and depression, others somatise their emotions and speak of body pain, weight changes, swellings and so on; which point tangentially towards mental and emotional illness.  The classical texts of Chinese Medicine date back over 2000 years, yet from these early times they recognised that psyche and soma (physical body) are interdependent. Consequently a practitioner of Chinese Medicine will give advice on diet, eating habits, lifestyle, and exercise to address both those aspects, which will be in addition to using acupuncture and Chinese herbs.


What the Ancient traditions can teach us

The ancient Chinese medical philosophy advocates working on internal practices for cultivating life based on Confucianism and Daoist texts.  The different ideas and schools of thought of these classics crossover with Buddhist traditions of calm and serenity.  They offer to Westerners an alternative to modern life that is different to the relentless march of consumerism, where in pursuit of happiness people work longer hours to attain material goods at the expense of time spent with family and friends or doing creative activities.  Yet research shows that above a certain minimum basic (food and shelter) gains to material wealth add less our subjective wellbeing than the quality and quantity of our relationships with others.


The Heart Spirit

There are many different terms used in Chinese to signify the psyche or mind but in medical literature words which include Spirit (or Shen) is commonly used. In a similar way the prefix “psycho-“ is used in western medical terms.  It refers to our physiological vitality as well as consciousness, and the function of thinking and feeling.  This “spirit of mind” is said to reside in the Heart and its outward manifestation are our emotions.  Thus the concept of Spirit or Shen in Chinese Medicine is not “spiritual” in any conventional religious sense.  Psychological diseases are seen as pathological abnormalities of the Shen, which reside in the Heart.


The Chinese view of the Heart is more than just a pump to move blood, hence the capital letters to denote this difference.  The Chinese pinyin character of the Heart not only reflects the physical shape of the Heart but also that it is a bowl or receptacle which communicates and governs the body, bringing animation to life and from which the radiance of the Spirits or Shen shine out.  The Heart is the reason why we have to go and see wonderful scenery, be well rested, have good food and drink, in order that life is more refined.  However the key to this radiating Shen is that it comes from a space or void that is the receptacle of the Heart.  To achieve this space the Heart must be calm, tranquil and peaceful so the communication of Shen is not blocked or obstructed.  If we pursue our Western lifestyle of being constantly “on the go”, striving for more possessions, more knowledge, constantly stimulating our senses, we are filling up our Heart receptacle which is then blocking the free communication, and movement of our Shen and making us vulnerable to disease and psychological disorders. The Art of the Heart is calm and quietude.


Consequently Chinese physicians will prescribe meditation for psycho-emotional states, such as depression. Relaxation creates a sense of stillness and calm in the Heart and frees our flow of energy, lifting depressed and stagnant states, which is often underlying the illness.  By freeing ourselves from excessive desires, and distracting thoughts, and the demands of our ego, we maintain a tranquil Shen or Spirit.  The emphasis on relaxation may seem trivial advice for long-term psycho-emotional problems, and for some agitated patients remaining still long enough will be difficult.  In these instances applied physical therapies may help create the space to later develop the skill of body and mind relaxation or meditation.  Sometimes when we think less, our lives become clear.  The engagement of the psyche and soma in Chinese Medicine, and the expert practitioner who strives to understand the wisdom of the Chinese classical texts and treat the cause as well as the symptoms of depression (called the root and branch), can bring about profound changes in patients.  Critics argue that theories developed over 2000 years ago cannot possibly apply to modern living.  Yet human life has not changed in essence over that time.  We still die and suffer from the same diseases we have always done.  So it is this constant that makes the classical medical texts of Chinese Medicine still relevant today, and able to offer a complementary and emphatic approach to the treatment of depression.


Some tips to combat depression:


  • Avoid activities that ‘internalise stress’ or sacrifice sleep.
  • Eat well to maintain good nutrition.
  • Ensure you have quality time with friends and family.
  • Talk to a friend rather than keeping it all inside.
  • Balance energetic activity with more meditative exercise such as yoga, qi gong or meditation.


(Edited from full article published in Positive Health)

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