Traditional Chinese Medicine and Mental Health

Acupuncture and tea can restore physical health. But what about mental wellbeing?


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Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been practiced in China for thousands of years. Some techniques such as acupuncture and gua sha have now become popular in countries across the world.

The Basics

The fundamental belief of TCM is in the flow of energy, qi, throughout the body. TCM’s goal is to keep qi balanced by using medicine, eating certain foods, and exercising.

The two most important types of qi are yin qi 阴气 and yang qi 阳气. Yin is dark and female, while yan is referred to as light and male.

An injury, illness or bad external environment can cause the qis to become imbalanced. As people age, they can also lose qi. 

Photo by Antonika Chanel on Unsplash

TCM practices and medicines can restore balance to the body’s qis. Acupuncture is said to remove yang qi. 

Foods such as melons or goji berries are also claimed to be high in yin qi. Meanwhile, massages and tai chi can help qi circulation in the body.


TCM and Mental Heath History

In recent years, it has become clear that mental health is essential to our wellbeing. With a global pandemic, instances of hate crimes, and social media rising mental health in the West is a crucial talking point. 

In China talking about mental health remains taboo. A third of people in the country reported symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, or stress in 2020.

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

But the widespread social stigma of discussing mental health makes these issues difficult to deal with.

Historically in China, social behaviour and health were deeply connected. Mental health issues were associated with immorality and showed a lack of respect for family

Yet, bringing attention to these issues through discussion or treatment shows disrespect. Ill individuals have been often forced to become socially isolated, worsening their health.  

Access to treatment has improved in the past few decades. Still, this stigma prevents open intergenerational and cross-cultural conversations both inside and outside of China.


Can TCM play a role in bettering mental wellbeing and tackling stigma?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are inseparable links between mental and physical health. 

While there are doubts about its effectiveness, the American College of TCM argues acupuncture stimulates the brain and nervous system.

Photo by Conscious Design on Unsplash

However, TCM practices such as meditation and exercise have been shown to improve mild symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

Researchers in a Hong Kong study even linked simply believing in the benefits of TCM to a better sense of mental wellbeing amongst caregivers. 

Despite expecting TCM beliefs to negatively influence the carers’ mental health, the researchers found that TCM-believers were able to cope better with challenging responsibilities. 

Photo by Jack Finnigan on Unsplash

The spiritual aspects of TCM combined with its emphasis on physical health provide a unique insight into mental health treatment. 

TCM has the potential to become a bridge in understanding between both.



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Isobel Haskell
Isobel Haskell is studying for a Master’s Degree in Chinese Studies at SOAS in London. As a language learner and noodle enthusiast, she hopes to write stories that inspire curiosity.

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