These days the term “wellness” is often associated with self-help books, green juice, and an overall healthy lifestyle. While these touch the surface of our understanding of wellness, there are actually at least six dimensions: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, and environmental. These dimensions can be traced back to ancient civilizations from India, Greece, Rome, and China ie. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The Chinese understood the need for balance between our internal systems and external elements very early on. The internal systems do not stop at the physical parts but include our mental, emotional, and spiritual selves. An imbalance between the two can cause diseases and illness and manifests in the physical symptoms that we see and feel.
Many Asian American households have a complicated relationship when it comes to mental health priorities. Many families focus on the physical health of our bodies and neglect the other wellness dimensions since there is little discussion on how all the dimensions are mutually dependent. To tackle this issue we first need to understand the relationship of the mental-physical symptoms, the mental health stigma, and where we go from here.
What is the relationship between mental health and physical symptoms?
Our brain is interconnected to different parts of our body via complex mechanisms and vice versa. When we suffer from poor mental health it manifests itself in physical symptoms such as muscle tension, pain, headaches, insomnia, and feelings of restlessness.
For example, your skin responds to hormones triggered by stress and activates specific pro-inflammatory skin cells, and directly contributes to a number of skin conditions. On the other hand, your skin is constantly exposed to environmental stressors and the constant exposure can produce stress hormones in response to the stressors. So there are psychological stressors that contribute to stressed-out skin and environmental stressors contribute to psychological stress. While skincare may seem vain and minuscule compared to the challenges in mental health, it is the largest organ in our bodies and is interconnected to our mental, emotional, and spiritual selves.
TCM believes a block in our energy is causing some mental health issues.
To “fix” the imbalance between our internal selves and external environment, TCM works to reconnect our spirit with our sense of self by moving the energy that goes through our body more smoothly. This energy or qi has many functions such as ensuring our organs are working properly, assisting different processes, and regulating and protecting the body. It can’t perform its job if the flow of qi is blocked. There are elements called the Five Spirits that TCM believes are related to certain physical and mental health issues. TCM works to unblock and in some cases increase the flow of each of the Five Spirits.
- Hun is associated with the liver and is responsible for empathy, compassion, and tolerance
- Po is associated with the lungs and is responsible for the emotional and physical responses to situations
- Zhi is associated with the kidneys and is responsible for motivation or self-determination
- Yi is associated with the spleen and is responsible for conscious reasoning
- Shen is associated with the heart and is responsible for the establishment of meaningful relationships
So why is there a stigma around mental health for Asian Americans if we understand so much about it?
While we understand the importance of managing our mental health issues, it is often a taboo topic in Asian American households. In fact, only 8.6% of Asian Americans sought mental health services when suicide was the leading cause of death for Asian Americans between the ages of 15-17 in 2017. As with any complex issue, the reason for not seeking help is often multifactorial. Mental health issues are often seen as a weakness or lack of willpower so children often grow up controlling or hiding their emotions. Instead, silence is valued as a strength and seen as displaying obedience and respect to their elders. Children are often expected to accept whatever their parents ask them to do and not question their authority. Their feelings are often dismissed because there is a belief that the older generation experienced more challenging hardships. Although mental health services are more accessible today, it’s often difficult to even have that conversation with their elders.
Starting the conversation is one of the first steps to destigmatizing mental health in Asian American cultures. However, the fact remains that many households are not ready to have mental health be the main topic of their conversations.
What can we do to start the conversation?
While it may not seem like it, skin care is a great conversation topic starter. The skin is the largest organ in our body and including the physical symptoms that your skin is experiencing can be more useful to capture the attention of your family. Here are a few TCM and skincare 101s to prepare yourself with examples and descriptions that your family may be more familiar with.
- TCM is about understanding how the different systems in our bodies interact and affect one another. We have to understand both the physical and mental aspects to understand how our body works and interacts with the environment.
- There are 3 TCM pillars to healthy skin
- Herbology has been used for thousands of years to treat skin problems. Common ingredients include ginseng, green tea, aloe vera, purple yam, goji berries, and more
- Acupuncture/acupressure is a branch of TCM and is a great way to stimulate the skin’s natural healing abilities gently
- TCM philosophy is the physical appearance of the body is a reflection of internal health. The correct diet can help heal skin issues from within.
- Psychological stress can disrupt the barrier of your skin and prolong its repair. That barrier helps lock in moisture and protects the skin from external elements. External stressors can also disrupt the skin barrier and cause psychological stress thus creating the stress-skin cycle. There are multiple methods of treatment, but the integration of TCM and Western treatments can provide the most effective mental health results.