Chinese Medicine divides illness into internal and external causes of disease, and treats them with an equal amount of attention and rigor. External causes of disease range from the obvious like viruses and bacteria to lifestyle choices such as poor diet and overwork, things we wouldn’t consider external in our modern Western cultures but are treated as external causes by Chinese Medicine practitioners. Internal causes of disease, on the other hand, are referred to as “the seven emotions.” These are anger, overjoy, pensiveness, grief, anxiety, fear, and fright - overarching emotional categories that encompass all of the emotions we experience as humans. (If you’re interested in learning more about the seven emotions, I highly recommend this blogpost.)
In Chinese Medicine, we address anxiety and stress as seriously as we address pneumonia and cancer.
This means that in Chinese Medicine, we address anxiety and stress as seriously as we address pneumonia and cancer. Both are wounds to the energy dynamics of the body - a trauma to the system. The word trauma comes from the greek word for “wound”, and Chinese Medicine
understands that wounds need to be taken seriously whether it’s a physical injury or a distressing emotional experience.
And we are collectively going through a global trauma. The world as we know has gone topsy-turvy. The future is uncertain. The right way forward isn’t clear. We’re worried about losing our jobs, our homes, our loved ones. The stress is palpable, both on a collective level as well as an individual one. This stress manifests differently for different people - for some it shows up in our sleep, for others in our gut, and for others in our reactions to the world outside of us.
This is where Chinese Herbal Medicine is particularly useful - since herbs are administered based on individual patterns, you can treat the symptoms that arise from stress as well as the central nervous system’s response that creates the symptoms in the first place. Below is a quick preview guide of Chinese Herbal Formulas that are designed to address the different manifestations of stress and anxiety:
If stress is affecting your sleep
Stress can easily affect our sleep. It can make it hard for us to fall asleep, wake up a bunch in the middle of the night, wake early and then not fall back asleep, or not let us sleep at all. Below are some examples of Chinese Herbal formulas designed to address different sleep patterns
- Suan Zao Ren Tang - The key symptom for this formula is difficulty falling asleep. People who benefit from this formula also tend to feel dizzy, irritable, persistent heart flutters, and sweat at night.
- Chai Hu Jia Long Gu Mu Li Tang - Rather than trouble falling asleep, the key symptom for this formula is difficulty in staying asleep. This pattern is also a really good general anxiety formula for those who tend towards mild panic attacks, constipation, and irregular eating patterns.
- Wen Dan Tang - This formula is for people who have intense vivid dreams and tend to wake early - around 3am - and then not be able to go back to sleep. People who this formula works well for tend to always be hungry, but after a little bit of food get full (think of the quintessential "snacker"). They also tend towards alternating episodes of anxiety followed by depression.
- Huang Lian Jie Du Tang - This formula is for intense insomnia with racing thoughts, read face, and feeling hot all the time. Someone who would benefit from this formula might even experience nosebleeds or manic episodes.
- Gan Cao Xie Xin Tang - This formula is used often in Japan for those who feel super tired but are unable to fall asleep and/or experience very restless sleep. It is often used in cases of sleep-walking or talking in one's sleep.
If stress is affecting your digestion
For so many of us, stress goes right to our bellies. It can make us bloated, cause pain, produce reflux, back us up or do the opposite and make it all come exploding out. Below are a few formulas that treat stress-induced tummy issues:
- Si Ni San - This formula is go-to for acid-reflux and heartburn that's worse with stress. People who benefit from this formula tend to have cold hands and/or feet along with pain along the rib-cage.
- Xiao Chai Hu Tang - This formula is beautifully designed for digestive symptoms of an alternating nature such as going between constipation and diarrhea and having no appetite and then incessant gnawing hunger. People with this pattern also tend to have intermittent abdominal pain and irritability that comes and goes. In Japan this is the most prescribed formula for stress.
- Da Chai Hu Tang - This formula is similar to Xiao Chai Hu Tang, except the digestive symptoms are more intense: burning diarrhea or extreme constipation and intense nausea with vomiting. These individuals will have a red face and pretty intense temperature changes - from really hot and sweaty to shivering over the course of a few hours.
- Ban Xia Hou Po Tang - This formula is for gassy stomach pains that are worse when you press down. The key symptom for this formula is feeling like you have something stuck in your throat that you can't seem to cough out.
If stress is screwing with your emotions
Stress obviously has an affect on our emotions, but each person is like a snowflake in that the emotions that come up during stressful times are so individualized. Some cry, some get angry, some can't stay still, some become paralyzed. The following formulas are common herbal formulas used to address the varying emotions that we can experience during stressful times:
- Gan Mai Da Zao Tang - The key symptom for this formula is crying without an obvious reason. People who would benefit from this formula have attacks of depression and crying spells that seemingly come out of nowhere and are uncontrollable.
- Xiao Yao San - This formula is best for those who get irritated easily and often. Someone who fits this pattern would likely have rib-side pain, a tendency towards headaches, and is fatigued. This is also a great formula for PMS symptoms such as breast distention and mood swings.
- Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan - This formula is for anxiety and irritability that affects your ability to concentrate. People who benefit from this formula tend towards dry stools, very restless sleep, and night sweats.
- Gui Pi Tang - This formula is for someone you would consider "jumpy". Those with this pattern tend to have constant anxiety and some marked phobias along with forgetfulness, a reduced appetite, and a pale complexion.
These formulas are examples of the way Chinese Herbal Medicine is designed to treat stress and anxiety, but remember that each of us is a snowflake. What works for your neighbor may not be what works for you, but given the depth, breadth, and adaptability of Chinese Herbal Medicine there's something for everyone! If you’re looking for the right Chinese herbal formula to help you manage your stress during this time, I HIGHLY recommend doing so under the supervision of a licensed practitioner and/or a professionally trained herbalist.