Not all depression is created equal. In fact, I’ve found that no two people describe their depressive symptoms in exactly the same way. Dr. Henry Emmons, author of The Chemistry of Joy describes three types of depression that people may experience; anxious, agitated, and sluggish. From my experience, I would also add another, which I call sadness depression.
In Chinese medicine, there are some very distinctive causes behind the different ways depression is manifested. Generally, depression is associated with some element of Liver stagnation. In the framework of Chinese medicine, your organs are considered to be systems of functioning, and they operate on a physical level, as well as an energetic and emotional level. One of the functions of your Chinese Liver is to regulate the smooth flow of everything in your body, from your digestion to your hormones, and even your emotions. When strong emotions or an emotional upset begins to affect your life and health in a negative way, you can assume that there is impaired flow on the part of your Chinese Liver.
A clear pattern of Liver stagnation looks a lot like what Dr. Emmons describes as agitated depression. If you have this kind of depression, you may describe yourself as angry, irritable, or impatient. You may feel like the world just doesn’t move fast enough for you. In addition, there may be an element of heat to this pattern, which can cause you to feel hot or thirsty, or you may have difficulty sleeping because your mind is racing or you wake up hot.
Sluggish depression looks a little different. Several years ago, I treated Andrea, who was suffering from this kind of depression. Andrea was a young woman who described herself as depressed, and had absolutely no desire or motivation to do anything about it. She was miserable, but didn’t have the energy to help herself. She spent most of her days on the couch in front of her TV.
Poor digestion and lack of energy are behind this kind of depression. In Chinese medicine, eating good food and digesting it well fuels all the processes in your body and is your source of energy. When depression affects your digestion and its ability to transform food into energy, the result is sluggish depression. Some symptoms associated with this pattern include cravings for sugar, loss of appetite, weight gain, and digestive problems of any kind. Frequently people suffering from this kind of depression also have issues with obesity and clutter.
I often see patients in my clinic who are struggling with a combination of anxiety coupled with depression. This is anxious depression, and in Chinese medicine, involves the Heart organ system. While your Chinese Liver regulates the smooth flow of your emotions, your Chinese Heart is home to your thoughts, feelings, memory, and spirit. Anxiety is considered a disturbance of the Heart. Along with anxiety, you might experience chest tightness, heart palpitations, and insomnia with this kind of pattern.
Many years ago I treated Annette, who was struggling from what I call sadness depression. She was dealing with depression that began when she had been fired from her job as a teacher. Annette couldn’t stop crying when she told me how she had been betrayed by co-workers and had been fired unfairly. In fact, she told me she cried much of the time. She was sad, hurt, and felt she could not bounce back.
In Chinese medicine, this kind of pattern is associated with Liver stagnation, but other organs are affected, too. The Heart is damaged (or broken), digestion suffers, and even the Chinese Lung system is involved, because it is associated with the emotion of sadness and grief. This kind of depression is situational and is usually associated with some kind of a loss—the death of a loved one, a break-up, or some other kind of personal disappointment. I have found that this kind of depression is relatively short lived, and responds especially well to acupuncture.
In Annette’s case, after her first treatment, she was much better. When she came in for a follow-up appointment, Annette reported she had stopped crying regularly. She was able to smile and after another treatment or two, she was ready to get her life back on track, socialize with friends, and begin looking for another job.
When treating people who suffer from depression, a practitioner of Chinese medicine will take into account more than just your depressive symptoms. They will also look at your general health for clues as to how best to treat the source of your problem. Treatment for depression may combine acupuncture with a Chinese herbal formula, food therapy, heat, movement, and other lifestyle changes.