Traditional Chinese Medicine and Anxiety

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), generalized anxiety disorder is understood as a disorder of Shan You Si or anxiety and preoccupation, and is thought to affect the Zang Organs. While the Heart Zang is said to store the Shen or spirit, which includes emotional responses to stimuli, traditional theory also holds that each of the Zang Organs plays a role in the emotions as well.

For example, the Spleen Zang is associated with excessive worry; the Liver with anger; the Kidney with fear and fright; and the Lung with grief, the inability to let go, and anxiety. When there is a disturbance in one or more of these Zang from any cause, an imbalanced emotional state can occur. Conversely, an imbalanced emotional state can cause a Zang disturbance. In all cases, however, the Shen is disturbed.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Categories of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

While a generalized anxiety disorder always affects the Shen, either primarily or secondarily, TCM classifies the cause of the disorder according to the extent to which individual Zang Organs demonstrate signs and symptoms of disturbance and the extent to which their Qi is affected. A typical differential diagnosis includes the following categories:

  • Heart/Spleen Qi Deficiency: This Pattern of Disharmony manifests as anxiety, preoccupation, obsessive worry, aversion to speaking, palpitations, insomnia, fatigue, poor appetite, abdominal distention, a pale tongue, and weak pulse.
  • Lung Qi Deficiency: This Pattern of Disharmony manifests as anxiety, preoccupation, rapidly changing moods, an inability to "let go," aversion to speaking, shortness of breath, fatigue, sweating easily upon exertion, a weak cough, a pale tongue with a thin white coating, and a thin pulse.
  • Liver Qi Stagnation Affecting the Spleen: This Pattern of Disharmony manifests as anxiety, preoccupation, feelings of irritability, moodiness, poor appetite, hypochondriac tightness or pain, muscular tension, fatigue, alternating constipation and loose stools, a pale or dusky tongue with distended sublingual veins, and a wiry-weak pulse.

  • Kidney Qi Deficiency: This Pattern of Disharmony manifests as anxiety, preoccupation, feelings of fear and dread, and may be accompanied by lower back and knee weakness, lack of sexual responsiveness, a pale tongue, and a weak pulse.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 02 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 01 Dec 2011