Stress - The Perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine
Adapted from the newsletter written September 11, 2001 and updated October 28, 2001
When I conceived Turning Point Acupuncture with its slogan "Acupuncture for Urbanites",
I never could have imagined that urban living would include coping with terrorism in our
midst. I love New York City and have never wanted to live anywhere else. Even before this
horrific event, we needed to have ritualized ways of taking care of ourselves on a daily
basis to joyfully live in this big, beautiful melting pot of the world's finest and most
All of us are reeling from the events of September 11th and the terrorist attacks. In the
aftermath we find ourselves challenged on the emotional, physical and spiritual levels. We
are trying to deal with our feelings, our fear, grief, rage and powerlessness. We have
nightmares. We feel tired, nauseous, and achy. We find our belief in a Higher Power
questioned. How can we deal with this enormous trauma?
Looking at this from a Chinese Medicine perspective can be helpful and will lend itself to
the practical suggestions at the end of this essay. What follows is a very gross
simplification of thousands of years of sophisticated Chinese Medicine thought on the
impact of emotional trauma on our life force energy (Qi). A trauma of any kind causes a
shock wave to our Qi that results in an imbalance or blockage of Qi. This Qi disturbance
can manifest on any level.
All the emotions are associated with an internal organ function in Traditional Chinese
Medicine. (None of these organs have the same meaning as they do in Western Medicine
and will be capitalized to emphasis this.)
Fear is associated with the Kidney.
Anger with the Liver.
Grief with the Lung.
Joy with the Heart.
Processing with the Spleen
One example of how symptoms might manifest when our Qi is disturbed is insomnia. In
Chinese Medicine there are two different kinds of sleep disturbance:
Inability to fall asleep: Liver related - as when we are too worked up to relax into sleep.
Interrupted sleep: Heart related - as when we are "broken-hearted" and are awakened by
Different acupuncture points and herbs would be selected to treat each kind.
When our Qi is out of balance we feel disoriented, weak and uncentered. Our grief,
expressed through the Lungs, comes as tears. Unexpressed we have headache, coughing,
asthma, fatigue and sinus symptoms. Our anger can give us headache, or fever blisters and
insomnia. If the rage is turned inward we are depressed. We have trouble falling asleep.
When we are heart-broken our Heart is affected. The Chinese believe that our Spirit (or
"Shen") resides in our Heart and must rest comfortably. When we are emotionally
distressed, our Shen is disturbed and flutters in our chest resulting in palpitations,
interrupted sleep, daytime agitation and night terrors.
Here are some suggestions of steps we can take to find balance in this difficult time:
Simply apply gentle pressure on the point with the thumb. Hold until effective, usually
within five minutes. In the examples below, you can use pressure on either the right or
left hand, wrist or foot or alternate. If you are uncertain as to whether you are on the
point, it will usually be sore to the touch when you find it.
Large intestine 4: good for the Lungs, reduces anxiety, shortness of breath, sinus headache
This point is found in the web between the thumb and first fingers - at the end of the
crease when the hand is closed.
Pericardium 6: good for Heart, anxiety, palpitations, interrupted sleep, nausea
This point is three of the person's finger widths above the crease of the inner wrist. It lies
directly between the two tendons felt here.
The popular "sea bands" that can be purchased in Health Food stores for sea sickness can
be used on this point.
Illustrations by Tina Young from Acupressure techniques for labour
Liver 3: good for the Liver, anger, frustration, depression, headache, trouble falling asleep
This point is found in the web between the big toe and the second toe between the
metatarsal bones approximately one thumb width up towards the ankle (analogous to
large intestine 4 on the hand).
Kidney 1: good for fear .
This point is called Yong Quan or bubbling spring. It is the first point of the Kidney meridian. As Shane Hoffman says: It is the place where the body kisses the earth and from whence the body draws in the support of the earth.
The point is located on the underside of the foot at the base of the heel in line with the space between the first and second toes.
Massaging the other kidney points on the inside of the ankle bone is also very helpful, particularly Kidney 3 and Kidney 6.
Illustrations from the text Essentials of Chinese Acupuncture, Foreign Languages Press, Bejing 1980
2. Updated: Things to avoid and why!
I am alarmed that there is an increase in the use of alcohol, drugs, caffeine and "comfort food" (mostly sugar) in the weeks following September 11th. Using the scheme I presented above of how each of the internal organ system in Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM) is associated with an emotion, we can see how these substances may be especially injurious:
The Lung is associated with grief. Yet if we smoke cigarettes or marijuana cigarettes, we injure the lung tissue which is cool and moist in TCM. We put a "smoke screen" on our sadness and it cannot be accessed.
Alcohol and drugs (sedatives to sleep, etc) damage the Liver where they are metabolized. Changes in the Liver Qi result in anger, frustration and depression and hinder our ability to deal with those emotional issues.
Overeating, especially sweets, hurts the Spleen function. The Spleen allows us to process. Overwhelming that system leaves us blocked, bloated and stuck, without being able to move forward.
The Kidney allows use to deal with fear. It is analogous in that function to the "fight or fright" adrenal response in western medical thinking. Caffiene pushes the Kidney/adrenal axis and deplete the Kidney Qi. The depleted Kidney Qi makes us still more vulnerable to fear.
Putting these substances aside will let the body begin to heal. Acupuncture and herbs will help enormously to complete the detox and restore the internal organ systems to balance.
3. Herbal Medicine
Peppermint and chamomile teas, so readily available, have been used for centuries to calm
nerves and settle stomachs.
Chinese Herbal remedies:
Many of you may have one or more of these Health Concerns remedies at home already. All of the remedies
listed below will be available at reduced cost for the next several weeks.
Shen Gem: a general tonic for people under stress. Particularly addresses Heart
Ease Plus: for the Liver -great for emotional disturbances with anger and digestive
Schizandra Dreams: for interrupted sleep (has Kava-Kava in it)
4. Other suggestions for home
One organization I like and have joined is NYC RECOVERS. NYC RECOVERS founded by Dr. Mindy Fullilove and Jennifer Stevens Madoff of Columbia University, is a collaboration between hundreds of agencies, organizations, businesses and individuals that aims at helping New York City heal after the massive trauma our community has suffered. Through both community-based and citywide events throughout the year, we believe New Yorkers can help one another.
Contact NYC RECOVERS at:
In addition to home remedies, times of great stress are times when acupuncture can be
very helpful in restoring balance and a feeling of being centered and grounded. During this
crisis I have wished I could go out with a bag of needles and just give a treatments to the
stressed out people in the streets. Someday, in a less litigious world, that may be possible.
We will have our usual extended hours next week at Turning Point Acupuncture to
accommodate our patients in need.
Finally I want to wish that we resist the temptation to fight violence with violence.
Chinese Medicine is all about balance. We can never restore world order if we all move in a
yang mode. We must seek new ways to reach understanding and healing.
To urge President Bush to exercise restraint in escalating the violence
further you can send him an email by going to:
Pray for Peace,
September 11 2001