Using Chinese Herbs for Stress and Anxiety

We have several patients in the clinic who come to us for stress reduction. Many of them also suffer from more crippling symptoms, like anxiety and panic attacks, and are looking for ways to help manage these problems without using medications or turning to methods of “self-medication” like alcohol or binge eating. In Chinese medicine, we speak of treating stress and anxiety as “calming the spirit.” Shen is the Chinese word for Spirit and it literally means our countenance and demeanor, but also that part of us that animates us—that twinkle in our eye (or the lack thereof) that can give away whether we are truly at peace. If you’ve been to the clinic, you know that acupuncture by itself is relaxing. Over time, the effects of acupuncture treatments are cumulative, meaning that a first treatment can keep you relaxed for a day or even a few and as you continue treatment, the effects last longer and longer. Herbs can help speed up this process by helping to maintain the effects of the acupuncture between treatments. Most Chinese herbal formulas are specific to each patient’s constitution; each stressed or anxious person does not get the same herbal preparation. Yet, there are several herbs in the Chinese Materia Medica that are calming without being sedating and so can be appropriate for the various forms stress can take in each person’s body. Below are some of our (and our patients’) favorites at the clinic:

Calm Spirit is a Chinese herbal formula that is used to alleviate stress-associated emotions like anxiety, depression and anger. It is extremely effective for insomnia, particularly a restless insomnia, one where the person tosses and turns throughout the night. It treats other symptoms that a person experiences when stressed, like stress-related constipation and forgetfulness. It contains enzymes that help digestion (which can be affected with stress) and enzymes which help intercept free radicals that are produced during stress. It also contains magnesium which calms nervous activity and helps sleep.

An Shen Bu Xin Wan translates to “Calm Spirit and Tonify the Heart Pill.” This formula is geared toward the heart. Literally this means it treats palpitations or that feeling of a racing heart but figuratively, this means it “calms the spirit” (the shen as we spoke of earlier) for a person who feels nervous, anxious or panicked. The formula is very calming, and is known for its soothing effects. It is mostly used for insomnia, particularly the type of insomnia where the person has trouble falling asleep.

Calm Dragon is a classical Chinese formula with many modern applications. It can be used for a wide range of psychological and emotional disorders, including acute anxiety. It is highly effective in substance abuse for ameliorating withdrawal symptoms of cigarette, alcohol or drug dependencies. It can also be helpful to reduce the side effects of withdrawal from anti-depressants. It has a combination of warm, cold, supplementing and draining herbs which help to restore equilibrium to body and mind.

Zizyphus Sleep Formula is another classical formula that is effective in treating agitation, an inability to sleep, excessive dreaming and scattered thoughts. These symptoms are most common in patients who are stressed and overworked as well as emotionally and physically depleted. It treats anxiety, irritability, palpitations, dizziness and night sweats, which makes it an excellent formula for menopausal and post-partum women.

Relaxed Wanderer is technically not a calming formula but contains herbs that “smooth” the qi. This means it is a great formula for times when stress has built up and is causing edginess, irritability and tension (even physical tension in the neck and shoulders). Like its classical name suggests, it helps us to go with the flow a little easier. It is very useful for supporting pre-menstrual tension with breast tenderness, headaches and irregular menstruation.

If you’re under a lot stress and feel like you could use a little help, speak with your acupuncturist to determine if an herbal formula might be able to ease your symptoms. There is no need to let stress accumulate in your body—there are always healthy and helpful ways to manage it naturally.

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