Depression, Lack of Motivation, and Chinese Medicine

Last week I was at a networking event of CAM healers in the Minneapolis area, where I met a number of practitioners working with really interesting therapies. During one conversation, I was asked what kinds of conditions I treated most frequently. Hmmm…good question.

Acupuncture in MinnesotaActually, my answer was pretty simple and straight forward: Lately I seem to be seeing a lot of working women (and some men) who are dealing with depression, anxiety, and stress. One of the reasons why so many people are struggling emotionally is our current economy. While things seem to be getting a little better recently , I still see many people who are stuck in jobs they dislike (okay, hate) because they feel like any job is a good one right now. Many are working in positions where their co-workers have been laid off and not replaced. As a result, they are doing more work in the same amount of time for the same amount of pay. Under those conditions, who wouldn’t be depressed?

While depression is associated with a whole host of symptoms, one of the most life-altering is the lack of motivation and fatigue that some people experience. I have worked with a number of patients who experience this kind of sluggish depression in which they struggle to do anything during the course of the day. For some, just getting out of bed each morning or going to work is a challenge.

Why does this happen? In Chinese medicine, there are a number of answers. The simplest is that depression is considered a blockage–clearly something in the emotional realm is not moving smoothly. Over time any kind of blockage wipes you out–it literally depletes your energy–and you feel exhausted. Energetically, depression is like physical pain in that if it isn’t resolved, it takes all of your resources just to deal with it. This tires you out.

On a deeper level, depression is considered constrained Liver energy, or Qi. Your Chinese Liver is the organ system that regulates the smooth flow of all your body’s functions–physical and emotional. When the realities of your life are not what you want, it causes stagnation of your Liver Qi. Furthermore, each organ system in Chinese medicine has an emotional component, and the emotion most closely associated with your Liver is anger. It is frequently said that anger turned inward becomes depression.

So how do you explain the sluggishness sometimes associated with the depression/Liver Qi stagnation? Well, one of the first casualties of Liver constraint is that it heads right on over to your digestive system and shuts things down. Like an emotional upset that causes you to lose your appetite, depression messes with your digestion in slo mo. You will know that this is happening if you have symptoms like crazy cravings for sweets, weight gain around the middle, and absolutely no energy. The problem here is that your energy comes from eating good, healthy food, but also from digesting it well. When your digestive system is closed for business, you have no way of producing more energy, hence the feeling of exhaustion.

And there’s more. Your Chinese Liver is paired with the Gallbladder, which has a number of functions. However, it’s the emotional aspect of the Gallbladder that’s pertinent here. The emotion associated with your Gallbladder is something called courage. What we call courage may be the fearlessness that comes to mind for most. However, in this context, courage is also the ability to make a decision or a plan, move forward decisively, and follow it through to completion. Therefore, the inability to decide, act, or the lack of motivation to act is associated with a weakness of the Gallbladder system.

As an acupuncturist, the path to healing this chronic, sluggish, no-motivation depression is complicated. It involves soothing your Liver, strengthening digestion, rebuilding energy, calming your emotions, and addressing Gallbladder issues. This sounds like a lot, but through acupuncture, the use of Chinese medicinal herbs, diet, and some lifestyle modifications, many patients who are struggling with this kind of depression find relief from their symptoms.

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