The Painful Inability to Connect: Treating Depression with Acupuncture
Is there anything more painful that a closed heart: the inability to interact or connect with others? The feeling that we are isolated, or just going through the motions, not really engaged, unable to express or feel love. This issue can manifest in relationship, in daily interactions or in one’s sexual life, causing impotence. It can be one of the most troubling aspects of depression.
The “empty” or “closed heart” is a common emotional disturbance related to depression. It is spoken about within the Chinese (acupuncture) medical classics in detail. Modern Western science has begun to link depression with systemic inflammation in the body. Chinese medicine identified this link over 2000 years ago, naming inflammatory-based depression “Yin” or Smoldering Fire. It is considered both a digestive condition, as well as a mental-emotional illness.
According to Chinese medicine, all inflammation in the body is rooted in the stomach. The stomach is highly influenced by the heart and the emotions.
The Heart acupuncture system is the pathway by which we are able to express our emotions. Chinese medicine discovered that each internal organ acts as a type of energetic hub for a network of (qi) animation that comes out of it.
Each of the 12 primary organs in the body have a major acupuncture channel that travels to various areas of the body, providing them with energy, blood, fluids and direction. The acupuncture channel associated with the heart organ travels from the heart organ into the tongue and the eyes (before going into the brain).
The pathways of the acupuncture channels show us how the body naturally functions. The Heart acupuncture channel shows us that we convey our emotions, that which is “in our heart” via our words and facial expression. Tears are the cathartic release mechanism of the heart. Articulation is the method by which the heart releases itself from confusion.
“Yin Fire” is a condition where the outlets the heart become blocked, disallowing cathartic release via the eyes and tongue. As a result, unresolved emotions become stuck inside the body, creating a smoldering (inflammatory) fire that creates irritation, irascibility and depression. The “Yin Fire” initially creates expressive “angry” behavior, which fails to create resolution, leading to more frustration, and therefore more heat. After some time, the stagnant fire consumes the energy and blood of the heart, leading to a sense of impotence, resignation, sadness and lethargy. If the situation goes on for long enough it can even lead to a sense of hopelessness, helplessness, despair and even suicidal ideation (“death wind”).
Each of the internal organs has a “secondary” acupuncture channel to help deal with the stresses of daily life. These channels are called the “connecting” or “Luo” vessels. They act as collaterals to the main acupuncture channels, diverting stressors away from the organs and main channels into holding vessels where they are kept in a state of suppression or “latency.”
When the body lacks the ability to fully discharge, expel or resolve an issue, the body uses the “Luo Vessels” to trap the issue. It’s like shoving something into the closet, so that it is not so much in our face. It tries to hide the issue as much as possible for as long as it can. Chinese medicine describes this process of suppressing an issue as the Luo Vessels becoming “full.”
When the Heart lacks the ability to release and resolve an issue, it can place it into its own Luo Vessels. The Heart, as the primary organ relating to the emotions has two Luo Vessels, where all other organs only have one.
As the Heart Luo Vessels “fill,” the problematic issue will seem to disappear for a time. Yet as the Luo becomes more and more full, it will begin to exhibit symptoms showing that it has become stressed. The Luo are like dams that hold back water. The Luo use blood to maintain the state of suppression in the body (and mind). When a Luo vessel becomes overfilled, it can burst, causing it to empty back into the primary acupuncture channel. Or, if there is not enough blood to maintain the suppression, the issue can also leak out back into primary consciousness.
The way this plays out in the body is as follows. The body will first encounter a challenge. It may be something physical, like a virus or bacteria, or a physical injury. It could also be mental emotional: an insult, a disappointment, shock or trauma. If the body can resolve and let go of the issue, there will be a catharsis or “healing crisis.” There will be instantaneous resolution. This is like when the body catches a cold, fights the cold and successfully expels it from the body via sweat, urination, coughing or mucus. If it’s an emotional situation, the person will yell, cry or articulate the problem until it is resolved and forgotten. The body needs strong immune, digestive and mental systems for these cathartic processes to occur.
However, if the body is weak, it may not have the resources necessary to fully resolve an issue confronting it. The immune or digestive systems may not be producing enough energy and blood to expel the offending pathogen. Or, the mind might be distracted or inhibited, keeping it from fully expressing and letting go. The body may have no choice but to suppress the issue by putting it into the Luo Vessels.
Once inside the Luo Vessels, the pathogen will begin to generate heat. Anything that remains stagnant in the body will create pressure, which generates inflammation. The Luo Vessels manifest as blood varicosities (varicose veins, spider veins or discoloration) that begin to show up on the skin. Varicosities can also form inside the body as plaque, high cholesterol and occlusions in the circulatory system. As the Luo Vessels begin to fill to capacity, they will exhibit symptoms of stress. When the Heart Luo Vessels become “full,” the major symptom is discomfort in the chest, which can range from a sense of chest oppression to angina and severe pain. The emotional symptoms that can result from “fullness” of the Heart Luo Vessels is a sense of betrayal or victimization, or a loss of control of one’s emotions.
Symptoms of a “Fullness of the Heart’s Luo Vessels” are the initial stages of depression. Signs that this happening are a “darker,” more pessimistic view of the world, a greater sense of vulnerability or victimization, the inability to forgive and forget, and frequent emotional outbursts. There also may be symptoms of chest discomfort or a darkening of the blood vessels or areas on the skin showing up.
“Fullness” of the Luo Vessels is like a begin in a state of suppression or repression. The issue that we are holding onto may not be directly in our faces, yet we will feel a general state of irritability, sensitivity, negativity or reactivity. We may also have unsettling dreams about the unresolved issue – usually dreams that lack a satisfying resolution.
When the Heart’s Luo Vessels have filled to capacity, or the body lacks enough blood to maintain the latency of the holding vessel, the issue can leak out back into primary circulation and primary consciousness. The varicosities on the skin may begin to disappear, as will the chest discomfort. Instead, lipomas, cysts, nodules or tumors can begin to form. Speech problems can develop, including the inability to talk about the problem. This can be a situation where the person loses the capacity, the willingness or the desire to talk about their feelings. They begin to seem a bit distant. They may even lose the desire or ability to interact with others, preferring to stay alone and remain quiet. The person becomes emotionally “cold,” and distant.
Emptiness of the Heart’s Luo need not appear as dramatic as it sounds. It could be as subtle as a person who becomes rather superficial in their social interactions, preferring to speak about things that are unemotional and not personal. They may uphold a facade of themselves, maintaining a mask, without divulging their true thoughts or feelings to others. This is usually accompanied by symptoms of neck pain or tightness. The person is able to interact, yet they do so in a way that is disconnected from their true feelings, which are usually characterized by a sense of vulnerability, guilt, shame or fear. Their interactions are governed by saying and doing the right thing rather than the true thing. They are usually not aware they are doing this, yet somewhere in themselves they feel disconnected from themselves and others.
Symptoms of the Heart vessels have much to do with expression. When the vessels become diseased, expression becomes blocked. Chinese medicine sees this as “chest and neck/throat stagnation.” The chest and the throat are the energetic areas of the body that govern the axis of things moving in and out of the body. Symptoms of inhibited expression are the first signs of blockage in the chest and neck/throat. Blockage creates inflammation.
Inhibited expression creating inflammation is the syndrome of “Yin Fire” the Chinese classics talk about. Within the pathological process of the Heart Luo Vessels, there is an image of a person becoming cut off from the world and eventually also from themselves. The person becomes more and more isolated and disconnected. Chinese medicine describes this as being overly “hot” on the inside, and “cold” on the outside. We begin to burn up with unexpressed, unresolved tension internally that is unable to get out of the body, blocked by the walls that have been constructed in the chest and the throat. The digestive system and abdomen begins to smolder, creating digestive problems and a tremendous sense of fullness and unease. This can be a terribly uncomfortable state to be in. It can lead to desperation and despair.
Since the outlets become blocked above, the body will try and release through the lower outlets. This can manifest itself as frequent bowel movements (irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease) as well as obsessive compulsive behavior. It can also manifest sexually.
When the Heart Luo Vessels become “full,” sex can become more difficult for a person. There is a greater sense of vulnerability and sensitivity. It can feel challenging to give ourselves to another person when our Heart Luo is full, for fear that we will be rejected or abused. We can start to see ourselves as victims. Control becomes a primary concern for the person who is suffering from “Fullness of the “Heart’s Luo Vessels.” If the problem also begins to affect the Kidney’s Luo Vessel (which has a strong relationship to the Heart’s Luo), fetish behavior may also begin to manifest in relation to sex. If the problem begins to affect the Liver’s Luo Vessel, the person may begin to prefer sex that is more about playing out fantasies than really connecting to another person. If the Heart’s Luo becomes “empty,” the person may lose their libido altogether, becoming unable and unwilling to engage sexually altogether.
The treatment of depression relating to the Heart’s Luo Vessels primarily involves breaking through the blockages in the chest and throat. This is achieved through treating two major acupuncture points, both located on the inner side of the wrist. The first point is called “Penetrating into the Interior.” It is the fifth point on the Heart’s acupuncture channel. It has a strong impact on the chest, tongue and eyes. The second major point is called “The Inner Gate.” It is the sixth point on the Heart Protector acupuncture channel, and impacts the chest, neck and digestive system. “The Inner Gate” is also the pathway that makes the strongest connection with the Kidney and Liver which affect the lower regions of the body including the lumbar spine (lower back), urinary tract, uterus and genitals.
When treating the emotions and the Luo Vessels in general, the focus is to reinvigorate the blood chemistry, which will impact the brain chemistry. We are trying to change the mental patterns that have manifested in the body. The blood must be nourished and supported, and the body’s digestive and immune systems strengthened. Once we have broken through the stagnation in the chest and throat, there must be enough blood, fluids and energy to ultimately bring the suppressed issue out of the body. Resolution of the Luo Vessels does not happen in one acupuncture session. It depends on the severity of the problem and how deeply it has progressed in the body. Resolution can often take as little as three weeks or as long as three months.