Chinese medicine is fundamentally the study of the natural rhythms and symbols in the universe and how they are manifested in the human body, physiologically and pathologically. Even though our modern lifestyles consistently remove us from the rhythms of the natural world, our physical form and function are part of and influenced by the movements in nature. By observing and contemplating the energetic movements of the seasons, we can learn how energy is manifested within the body and how our habits and focus can shift to support greater balance in the current season.
We are currently in the season of autumn, which is associated with the metal element. (The 5 elements in Chinese medicine are water, fire, earth, metal, and water). In nature and the body, the metal element is associated with downward movement. In the outside world, we have moved from the peak yang, or sun energy at the summer solstice on June 20th , to the midpoint of the cycle at the autumnal equinox on September 22nd , where daylight and darkness are in balance. Autumn is descending toward more darkness, the peak of which is associated with the winter solstice on December 21st and peak yin energy. (Yang is the universal energy of expansion and yin is the universal energy of contraction). We see a lot of descent and downward moving energy in autumn when we observe the plant world. Trees begin to turn beautiful shades of red, orange, yellow, and brown and lose their leaves, which is a sign of the inward turning, or descent of the tree’s energy. Trees, and most living beings, take a more internal focus in autumn, drawing energy inward and shedding what they no longer need, to preserve life and survive the depths of winter. For humans, this is traditionally a time to start turning inward as well, by slowing down the pace of life, simplifying tasks, canning and preserving the abundance of food from the harvest in preparation for the restful and restorative winter months ahead. Yang metal is physically condensed earth and has a cutting and separating energy, like a sword or a dramatic mountain range cutting through a landscape. The yin aspect of metal is symbolized by precious stones and gems and represents the clarity and beauty that comes from the energy of refinement. Autumn is a great time to let anything go that no longer serves you, physical clutter and material excess, emotional grudges and resentments and mental disarray, which can all lead to increased clarity and peace when we consciously cut these things loose from our world. This also includes getting rid of or reducing the many toxins that creep into our lives and affect our longevity, which are present in our food, water, air, and personal care and cleaning products when we are not conscious of our everyday choices.
In the body, the organ systems that reflect the autumn energy are the lung and large intestine. When functioning normally, both organ systems have an overall downward movement. The primary function of the lung is to inhale and descend vital oxygen from the universe for use in the body and exhale the waste we no longer need. When the qi or energy of the lung is not descending properly, symptoms such as coughing, and shortness of breath will occur when the lung energy is moving up and out instead of down and in. The function of the large intestine is to absorb the last remaining nutrients and water from the food we consume and descend and eliminate waste and all that doesn’t serve the body. When the qi of the large intestine is not descending properly, a common symptom is constipation, which is a sign that the large intestine cannot let go of accumulated waste. The metal element is also associated with the climate of dryness, which we can observe in nature on an autumn day with crisp, dry air. Both the lung and large intestine are influenced by the amount of dryness present. The lung prefers to be dry, when it is too moist, there is often excessive phlegm production with cough or chest pressure, but if the lungs are too dry normal breathing patterns can also be affected. Similarly in the large intestine, the environment should remain relatively dry for optimal function, but too much dryness and too much moisture will inhibit normal physiological function of the large intestine and the quality of bowel movements.
There are many other symbols associated with the metal element we can contemplate when thinking about the human experience. The metal element is associated with the emotion of grief, the color white, the pungent flavor, the sense of smell, and the skin of the body. There are so many ways we can think about these symbols and how they connect with the energy of metal and autumn. The connection of the lung to the skin is also relevant, as they both play a role in our immune system and our outer and direct connection to the outside world. When these systems are not functioning well, our defenses are down, and we are more likely to become ill by pathological climatic (or microbial) influences. When these systems are functioning optimally, we are more equipped to handle the changes in our environment. It’s also interesting to ponder what climates or natural elements, or even emotions, activities, and foods, you gravitate to, and how that can indicate what elements are too strong or too weak in the body. For example, if one is averse to the heat and humidity of summer and prefers a cool, dry climate, that can be a sign of too much heat and dampness in the body, so there will be a natural affinity for the cool, dry season of autumn.
Chinese medicine practitioners utilize acupuncture, herbal medicine, and other modalities to help balance energy within the body. During the autumn, we often select more lung and large intestine meridian points and herbal formulas to benefit these organ systems, especially when a patient is not having any specific symptoms and coming in for their seasonal tune-up. If one has issues with these organ systems, such as chronic cough, asthma, allergies, constipation, or bloating, the autumn is a good time to focus on these imbalances as the season is supporting this work energetically. Having the intention of letting go of any emotional weight you have been carrying during a meditation practice or acupuncture session would be an ideal focus during this time. Eating more pungent foods with your seasonal meals can help keep fluids from stagnating and keep an optimal dry environment for the lung and large intestine. Spending time observing nature, specifically the changing of the leaves, the mountains or a still lake are all excellent settings for contemplation in autumn.
This is a mere glimpse of the depth to the symbolism associated with Chinese medical theory, specifically related to autumn. I would love to hear what connections you make when thinking about these symbols and energetic movements in your own life. I intend this to be a seasonal blog series and eventually I will develop more educational material where we will dive deeper into the symbolism of Chinese medicine together and how it can bring greater balance into your life. Becoming more aware of the natural world and its patterns is a great way to improve your health and lifestyle to feel a greater sense of well-being. When we are in a constant state of opposition to the natural flow of the universe, disease will undoubtedly arise. Enjoy the autumn and be well.
Chinese Medicine for Emotional Disturbances, Insomnia and Anxiety by Dr. Alexander Achenza, DACM, LAc
This blog is meant to be an educational “crash course” in traditional Chinese medicine’s way of looking at psycho-emotional issues and anxiety, which are very common in our society. It is my hope to educate and inspire anyone reading this now to gain interest in the wonders of acupuncture and how it can help vastly improve your life. To do this, I will be covering some basic concepts in Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and how they relate to different symptoms so many people experience on a daily basis.
As we all know, there are many people out in the world today taking pharmaceuticals such as Lexapro and Xanax (to name a couple) to cope with the stresses and anxiety of the last two years. Acupuncture takes a “whole-body system” view and approach when treating conditions, and psychological or emotional issues are no different. For thousands of years in human history, acupuncture has been used to treat anxiety. Panic and anxiety attacks due to stress are very common these days and acupuncture offers an evidence based, safe, and powerful complement or alternative to taking drugs with potentially harmful side-effects.
Below are brief descriptions for Chinese medical patterns and diagnoses. Keep in mind that these are esoteric concepts that were designed before the time of modern science. However, we are in a modern golden age of acupuncture right now, where the marvels of modern medical science and the ancient wisdom of Chinese medicine are integrating and overlapping endlessly. The perspective of evidence-based treatments is not only easier to understand, but also provide a more well-rounded view to provide the highest quality of treatment and care to a patient. If when reading these symptoms and pattern examples you believe they resonate with your experiences, or you identify them to be spot on with issues you are dealing with consistently, please reach out to me because acupuncture will be able to help you.
Symptoms, patterns, bodily presentations, and treatments are as follows (but not limited to):
Eyes: no ptosis, clear nodule on medial side of each pupil, eyes appear red, slightly cloudy or murky, and off-white sclera.
Nose and Sinuses: clear nasal discharge.
Cardiac: mild hypertension, mild palpitations.
Gastrointestinal: belching and heartburn.
Psychiatric: anxiety, depression.
Sleep: difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) Disease Category for Anxiety and Depression: “chou chang and xiao tiao” these are Chinese words to describe the pattern of symptoms that fit the diagnostic criteria which leads the acupuncturist to using different sets of points in a treatment. Different points used will facilitate different changes and healing processes in the body, mind, and in turn, the spirit.
Common TCM Pattern Diagnosis for anxiety and emotional issues:
Liver Qi stagnation and Blood Stasis with Liver fire blazing upwards and affecting the spirit:
Difficulty falling asleep from the mind’s vexation from liver fire, the tongue tip is red, the pulse rapid, and eyes are red. Also, sighing frequently and speaking loudly.
Liver overacting on Spleen with Spleen and Stomach qi deficiency:
The spleen relates to the Yi, which correlates to thoughts and rumination, as well as worry when out of balance. They may also have shortness of breath, fatigue, belching regularly, and bloating.
Water/Fire disharmony AKA Heart/Kidney disharmony:
The intense aspects of fear and dread can relate to the kidneys. The symptoms of palpitations, insomnia, associated with the state of mental unease are related to the heart. In this relationship, the kidney is like a pot of water and the heart fire is heating it up. The disharmony occurs when there is an issue between the symbiotic nature of the fire heating the pot of water to turn to steam and nourish the heart, while the nourished heart sends fire back down to the kidney to heat the water.
Traditional Chinese Medicine uses the qualities of one’s pulse and the presentation of the tongue to hone in on which channels should be the focus of the treatment, and subsequently, which points to use. A combination of acupuncture, Chinese herbal formulas, adjunctive therapies, such as gua sha and tui na, can all be utilized to treat the underlying pattern contributing to the diseased state. Lifestyle recommendations, including supplementation, regular exercise, and dietary changes, as well as other supportive therapies, such as neurofeedback, hypnotherapy, or talk therapy, may also be recommended based on one's unique patterns and presentations. Getting to the root cause of emotional disturbance and turmoil can be complex and challenging. Please reach out for support or if you have any questions or feedback. I am here to help support patients and navigate these trying times.
Maciocia, G. (2005). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists. London, UK: Churchill Livingston.
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The past eighteen months have been rough for everyone, including teenagers. In-person school, virtual school, or a hybrid. It’s easy to fall behind with these disruptions. There has been so much change, unpredictability, and loss. Learning DBT Skills helps teens develop positive coping skills, learn to respond rather than react, and improve their relationships.
DBT or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy was developed by Marcia Linehan, Ph.D. in the 1980’s to help women diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. It was so successful that a skills manual (Rathus & Miller, 2015) was developed to work with teens and families. I use the DBT Skills Manual by Rathus and Miller (2015) as a foundation for the DBT skills group and share an electronic copy of the skills handouts with the students.
Dialectical is not a word that is part of our everyday vocabulary. Dialectical means that there are two ideas that are opposite and considered together, can create a new truth and a new way of viewing the situation. There is more than one way to see a situation. DBT incorporates CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and Zen mindfulness.
There are five DBT problem areas or problems to decrease: Reduced awareness and focus; emotional dysregulation, impulsivity, interpersonal problems, and teenager and family challenges.
DBT offers five modules or behaviors to increase: Core mindfulness skills, emotion regulation skills, distress tolerance skills, interpersonal effectiveness and walking the middle path. Mindfulness skills or ways to be in the present moment are learned and practiced throughout every session. The group members learn and practice coping skills, create a coping kit, learn to validate themselves and others, recognize and reframe thinking errors and learn skills to be more effective interpersonally.
I’ve been working with teens for many years and as you may recall, being a teenager has never been easy. As a teenager, you are struggling with the developmental stage of individuation and separation. Your peer group is the most important thing and yet you still need your parents – however not too much! You may feel left out, awkward, isolated, and afraid of being rejected. Electronic media has brought a whole new element of communicating as well as bullying to the world of teens. The DBT skills group lets them know they are not alone. In other words, other teens feel the same way and go through the same difficulties with peers, school and with families. The skills group provides them with a community and a safe place to practice and learn their skills. During the skills group, group members have an opportunity to lead one or more mindfulness exercises, share their experiences, as well as positive coping skills and resources with their peers.
Due to the long history of teenager and parent challenges, the Walking the Middle Path module addresses many of the difficulties that teens and their families face. In my experience of working with teens and their families, it is important for one or both parents to familiarize themselves with what the teens are learning in the skills group. I have learned that everyone, including myself have room to improve our thinking, learn how to be more present and less reactive, and be more open to perspectives that are different from our own. We can all learn to recognize when we are being judgmental and validate ourselves and others more often. I encourage parents to join me once a month to review and familiarize themselves with the current skills module. It helps to reinforce the teens when using their DBT Skills. In addition, parents can remind themselves and model for their teens positive ways of responding during a crisis.
A new virtual DBT Skills Group is starting on Wednesday, November 10 from 5:00 -6:30 pm. The group is limited to 8 teens. Register by October 10 and received a reduced rate and participate in the monthly parent DBT skills group free of charge. Be sure to reach out if you have any questions or concerns at email@example.com.
Lets face it, over the last year or so, we have all been made to live with a higher level of stress than we are used to. Everyone has had to deal with some degree of change. There are many different things to turn to when looking to treat this stress or cope with the intense changes life and indeed, humanity, has been going through. For thousands of years, people have looked to acupuncture as an incredible resource and modality to treat stress and for the effects it can have on mental health. As an ancient form of holistic medicine, acupuncture exists as a powerful method of healing to promote the body's own innate system of vitality. The philosophical concepts that act as a foundation of acupuncture explore a universal notion of balance in all things. Everything from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic. From the structure of a galaxy to a human cell, the relationship between night and day, or an ecosystem in nature. All things that exist in this reality have a harmony and equilibrium to them. When integrating these metaphor based, esoteric concepts of Chinese medicine with modern science we can come to see how there are countless overlaps.
The balance of "Qi" or ones vitality, can be paralleled to homeostasis just as using different acupuncture points to "calm the mind" can be illustrated to effect the nervous system in a way to activate the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. There is a myriad of scientific literature that supports acupuncture's efficacy for therapeutic stress reduction and in turn, supportive modality for mental health. Acupuncture and its relationship with mental health can be understood in a scientific context by observing the changes in neurotransmitters and endorphin release, such as serotonin and beta-endorphin ("feel good chemicals"). Similarly, one could look to the rich history of literally thousands of years of empirical and anecdotal acupuncture evidence that makes up the backbone of Chinese medicine. Some of us are more comfortable thinking of the science and some folks are happy to look at the philosophy. It is equally valid, important, and profound as a form of medicine either way. However we choose to view and understand the mechanisms, in times like these we could certainly all benefit from some self care.
So how does this relate to everything happening in the world now, and your level of stress? Well, acupuncture can help to maintain your individual level of internal harmony and balance in both your physical and mental well-being. It is a wonderful method of healing and can help to relieve both conscious and even unconscious levels of stress and tension. Everyone's personal level of stress relates directly to their unique state of mental health. No two individuals are exactly alike, just as are our states of mental health and emotional well-being. Acupuncture fits perfectly to treat these issues, because treatments themselves are individualized and specific to the unique needs and patterns of each and every person. Acupuncture is also helpful in that the practitioner truly takes the time to figure out how to help you in the best way they can. It's not just about listing symptoms and throwing pharmaceuticals at them. It is a whole and comprehensive approach to treating the root causes of the problem at hand. Please let us know if you have any questions about how acupuncture can help you. We are happy to help in any way we can and confident that can make a significant impact on the quality of your life.
Welcome to the Mindful Medicine blog! Here our holistic practitioners will provide you with health and wellness education, which we hope will be valuable on your journey towards greater health. Feel free to contact us with any feedback or questions. Thanks for being here.