Dispelling Depression with Acupuncture: Restoring Natural Lightness of Being
Depression can be a major obstacle to wellness: in all areas of our lives. It robs us of our energy, motivation and enthusiasm. It makes the world look dark and promotes pessimism. It also inhibits our relationship to others, putting up walls between ourselves and those around us.
Depression is a distressing symptom, often the result of an underlying physiological imbalance in our body.
Within Chinese Medicine the mental and physical are seen as one and the same. They both come from the same energetic source. For example, a weakness in the functional energy of the lungs or heart can give rise to depression, as can digestive problems.
Depression can also be the result of a traumatic event, such as the loss of something we valued, like a loved one. Chinese Medicine would classify this as an imbalance in the blood system. It can also come from something unconscious: something we’ve repressed, classified as “phlegm” in Chinese medical pathology.
Therapies such as acupuncture and herbal medicine work with the body’s energy field. There’s an energy source responsible for all function within our bodies. This energy is called “qi” in Chinese Medicine. There is qi specific to each organ system: qi that empowers the heart to circulate blood, the stomach and intestines to digest food and the glands to secrete hormones. All qi comes from three basic sources: the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the constitutional energy we are born with.
According to Chinese Medicine, all disturbance of the body or mind is a disturbance of the qi. If we look at our bodies, we are made of many elements: blood, fluids, bone, flesh, nerves, ect. None of these elements however is responsible for life. When we are dead, all these elements remain, even though “life” has departed. The ancient Chinese would describe the life-giving element as “qi.” It is what empowers each organ to function. It is essentially “the breath of life.” Without it, we are just inert form.
To me, Chinese Medicine is such a sophisticated form of therapy because it works directly on that which creates and sustains life.
When looking at the mind and emotions – far less solid elements of our being – it’s easier to see how therapeutically working with the qi can positively affect us. The breath – an element of qi – is visibly affected when we are depressed. We seem to breathe shallowly, unable to deeply inhale the world. There is a lack of “inspiration.” Our sense of smell is diminished, as is our sense of taste. Everything feels heavy and without color or zest. This occurs mainly because the lungs aren’t physiologically working at top capacity. They are failing to animate us, inadequately supporting the heart to move the blood (an added function given to the lungs in Chinese Medicine).
Our spirit-animation “rides” on the blood according to Chinese Medicine. Through centuries of experiment and observation, the ancient Chinese discovered a direct correlation between treating the blood and its positive effects on the mind and emotions. When the blood becomes physically stuck in the body, it often manifests as mental-emotional stagnation. Blood stasis is also “spirit stasis.” Our ability to be animated within the present moment gets stuck. We start to live in the past, seeing present circumstances through the filter of past events. We lose our connection to the here and now.
There are many organs that contribute to healthy blood flow. The digestive system manufactures the blood, the heart and liver circulate the blood. Additionally, the lungs and kidneys animate the blood.
The blood can become stuck when there is excessive inflammation in the body, drying up and coagulating the blood, making it sticky and slow moving. Internal cold (from insufficient digestive or endocrine function) can “freeze” the blood. Or there can simply be a state of anemia from insufficient production of blood. Trauma can also shock the blood, causing it to become stuck. This is easiest seen after a physical injury. However the same process is seen to occur from emotional injury as well.
Inflammation or “cold in the blood” most frequently result from diet or the emotions. Each of our constitutions are different. Some of our bodies cannot handle excessive spicy foods. They can create too much heat in the digestive system, which negatively affects the blood. The way we deal with our emotions can also damage the blood. Emotions that are held onto too long, or expressed too intensely can create much heat in the body. Overtime, the excess heat can literally burn itself out, giving rise to “cold,” often described as lack of emotion and “numbness.”
Another challenge to the body’s qi resulting in depression is imbalanced fluid metabolism. This state can create a phenomenon known as “internal phlegm” (fluid stasis). Phlegm is describe as “harassing” us. It is the phenomenon Chinese Medicine attributes to unconscious or repressed emotional material causing symptoms with an unknown origin. This is often the root problem in someone who says “I don’t know why I am sad, I’ve just always been. I’m just a sad person.” Phlegm can affect the personality, and “mist” the mind, affecting our perception of the world and the way we see ourselves. We begin to experience the world through the filter of the phlegm. Over time, this weakens the qi and congeals physiological movement in the body.
In working with patients suffering from depression, I’ve used many strategies. Depending on where the problem is coming from, the focus is either working with the blood chemistry or the person’s fluid metabolism. Acupuncture, by working with the body’s qi can either invigorate the stuck blood or dry up and/or expel fluid stasis. I look at the body in its entirety. Physical symptoms give clues at to where the qi is stuck or weak. I read the 12 diagnostic pulse positions on the wrists to further assess strength, weakness and stagnation. The pulses show how the qi is moving, as well as the state of the body’s blood and fluids (endocrine and exocrine).
In addition to the medical techniques used in acupuncture (moving the blood, regulating the fluids, building the qi and blood), the acupuncture points also have “spiritual” functions. Each point’s “spirit” is illuminated by the name given to it. The names often refer to imagery that describe the point’s function. “Burial Ground of the Spirit,” “The Mound of Ruins,” “Abdominal Lament” and “Seal on the Spirit” are some of the more evocative point names. However, even names such as “Completion Gate,” “Inner Barrier,” “Palace of Toil” and “Celestial Stream” offer dynamic imagery when helping a person move forward in life.
The points don’t exactly work on the spirit. No one can really affect the spirit of another person. That is up to the person themselves. Acupuncture points work on the blood, qi and fluids of the body, clearing away that which may cloud the spirit. In acupuncture treatment we are essentially removing debris that prevents a person from feeling connected to their spirit: philosophically the underlying root of all depression. One of the most common comments I hear from patients immediately after treatment is feeling a sense of lightness in their bodies and minds. When the debris is cleared, we can experience the light that is our spirit: a more natural state of being.