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Mental Health Awareness Week: Depression according to Chinese Medicine

By May 11, 2015July 24th, 2015Acupuncture, Depression

A while ago I stumbled across a wonderful cartoon story that so perfectly describes the experience of depression.

While everyone will have a different experience, I think those of us who have suffered with depression can all claim to have felt apathetic, foggy and a distinct lack of joy. For many, the inability to feel anything at all really.

Acupuncture made a big difference for me, and now that I’m a qualified acupuncturist myself I am beginning to understand the hows and whys. Every case is different, the background to the illness, the experience of the illness vary with each individual. So diagnosis and treatment will be different for each individual. There is no “one pill cures all”.

Here is a brief and simplified overview of Depression and its relationship to the Five Elements in Chinese Medicine. Often patients fall clearly into one category, others are spread across several, but it is always interesting to recognise some of these characteristics within ourselves.


The root emotion of the Wood Element is anger. Anger is a positive and healthy emotion when felt and expressed appropriately and proportionately. The Wood Organ, the Liver, is profoundly affected by stress, frustration and unexpressed emotion. The function of the Liver in TCM is to maintain the free flow of Qi around the body, but when this function is damaged or interrupted Qi Stagnation occurs. Tension in body and mind, constriction of the chest, a lump in the throat, headaches, IBS, irritability are all symptoms of Qi Stagnation. An underactive Wood Element can result in someone lacking purpose and ambition, afraid to speak their feelings, burying everything deep inside. An overactive Wood Element creates rigidity, perfectionism and explosive emotions.




The root emotion of Fire is Joy. The Organ is the Heart, which in TCM houses the Shen (Spirit). When suffering from depression, there is usually at least a little Fire involvement. An imbalance of this Organ results in sadness, anxiety, low self-esteem, timidity, despondency and a general loss of joie de vivre. Insomnia is a common problem. When somebody looks dead behind the eyes, in TCM the Shen is said to have been extinguished. When over-active, Fire may cause over-excitement, excessive talking, self-centeredness, highly sensitive feelings and nervous exhaustion.



Over-thinking is the root emotion of Earth. Its Organs are the Spleen and Stomach, which oversee both physical and mental digestion. When we start to obsess on something or find ourselves stuck in a cycle of negative thinking, Earth is often at the root. Earth is also the nurturing Element, and the disproportionate worry and anxiety felt by a parent results from this Element being out of balance. A weak Earth Element may manifest in difficulty concentrating, a fuzzy head, a lack of mental clarity, dependency and neediness. When it overacts, Earth may cause over-protectiveness, constant worry and mental churning.


Metal is the Element of Grief. Its Organ, the Lung, takes in and lets go. Metal is imbalanced when we lose this ability to let go of something or someone, fail to accept reality and move on with our lives. It is no coincidence that following a great loss many people become ill themselves, feeling run down and often catch colds and other viruses very easily. When the Lungs are weak they are unable to provide Wei Qi, the body’s immunity and leave us vulnerable to infections. Metal is also the Element of connectedness. When it is imbalanced, we may find ourselves withdrawing from people and shutting ourselves off from friends and family.


Fear is the root emotion of Water. Again, this is a healthy emotion when felt at appropriate times – it keeps us safe after all. However, when Water is out of balance we can become too afraid to live our lives fully and lose our sense of Will. Loss of confidence and self-sufficiency, feelings of apathy and powerlessness are those of a weak Water Element. An over-active Water Element creates unsettled, workaholic personalities who demand far too much from themselves resulting in burn out. The Water Organ, the Kidney is the creator of our Yin and Yang and without this energy we become exhausted. We spend more energy than we create.