Understanding the Holistic Notion of Stress, MASSAGE MagazineThe majority of U.S. adults suffer some adverse health outcomes as a result of stress. The American Institute of Stress estimates that 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are stress related. (1) Stress is in the news, on the newsstand and in the collective consciousness of nearly all adults, and is inextricable from the frenetic pace of modern life.

As massage practitioners and bodyworkers, one of the best effects you afford your clientele is a blissful reprieve from stress. Knowledge of the mechanism by which stress occurs and may be reduced is useful, as it allows the practitioner more breadth and creativity, more lateral leeway and a greater range of possible therapeutic applications. This article will explain the key Chinese disease mechanisms that conspire to create stress.

Chinese medicine has a literate history of 2,500 years demonstrating a continual evolution of logic, the result of which is holistic logic. In the interest of unveiling this logic, one must first address the often overlooked question: What is holism?

Holism is a system of medicine, as well as a way of considering reality. What makes holism unique and distinct is that it is based on a belief that inner psychic reality reflects, corresponds to and influences outer, physical reality and vice versa. In other words, what a person is thinking or feeling has a definite and discernible connection to their physical reality of health and illness; likewise, what is happening in a person’s physical environment, how a person treats and takes care of or abuses his body will affect what that person is thinking or feeling. This is holism.

In understanding the traditional Chinese medicine notion of stress, one must learn what physical organs and systems of the body correspond to the feelings of stress. Once this is clear, various therapeutic approaches present as possible clinical applications.

The subjective feeling of stress is understood as frustration over not getting one’s own way, or an unfulfilled desire. If a person desires something and cannot have it, as is frequently the case in adulthood, then there is a subjective feeling of stress. According to Chinese medical theory, the organ most susceptible to the effects of unfulfilled desire is the liver. What is the liver’s relationship to this emotional effect and how may one understand this mechanism?

In traditional Chinese medicine, each organ owns a specific function. The task assigned to the liver is to maintain the free flow of qi. All function in the body, psychological or physical, relies on qi. If qi is abundant and can move uninhibited, then emotions are smooth and physical health is good. When qi stagnates, emotions become erratic or explosive and, likewise, physical health will reflect pain, stiffness and unbalance.

The relationship between unfulfilled desire, stress and the liver is as follows: all desire indicates and requires a movement of qi. If one must check this desire, then qi must be halted. The stopping of qi as it moves to fulfill a desire is what causes qi stagnation (qi zhi). Thus the liver is micro-traumatized each time one cannot fulfill a desire.

Fortunately, re-establishing the free flow of qi and thereby disburdening the liver is one of the most reliable outcomes affected by any manual therapy. Manual therapies are also perhaps the safest, least-iatrogenic way to disinhibit the liver and free the flow of qi. Understanding this core mechanism is the key to more complicated diagnosis and treatment of other commonly presenting psychological conditions like anxiety and depression. Since holistic Chinese medicine differentiates and treats patterns of imbalance, there are traditional Chinese medicine patterns that are commonly associated with a disease complaint of stress. The names of those patterns, along with their professionally agreed upon signs and symptoms, appear below.

Patterns related to stress:

1. Liver depression qi stagnation:

  • Bowstring pulse
  • Irritability
  • Emotional depression, emotional outbursts
  • PMS/dysmenorrhea 
  • Dark-hued tongue

2. Liver depression with depressive heat:

  • Bowstring and rapid pulse
  • Dark-red tongue, inflated on the edges
  • Marked irritability
  • Bitter taste in the mouth (morning).

3. Spleen qi vacuity:

  • Fatigue (worse after meals)
  • Tendency to loose stools
  • Cold hands and nose
  • Orthostatic hypotension
  • Craving for sweets
  • Swollen tongue with teeth marks on the edges

4. Liver blood–kidney yin vacuity:

  • Vexatious heat in five hearts
  • Insomnia, restless sleep
  • Tidal fever
  • Afternoon flush
  • Dry mouth (afternoon)
  • Night sweating
  • Blurred vision or night blindness
  • Dizziness, tremors, contraction of muscles and sinews
  • Numbness of limbs
  • Fragile nails
  • Rib-side pain
  • Early, painful, scant, painful menstruation

5. Heart fire:

  • Red tongue tip with possible sores or sensitivity
  • Anxiety and restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Heart palpitations
  • Rapid pulse

6. Heart fire spilling-over to the small intestine/bladder. Same as above, plus:

  • Urinary frequency and urgency
  • Short, choppy urination
  • Burning, painful urination
  • Dark urine

7. Stomach heat:

  • Large appetite with rapid hungering
  • Red blemishes on the face
  • Yellow tongue fur
  • Bad breath

Manual therapies like acupuncture and massage are good choices for mitigating this mechanism that is the stress response. When one feels stress, massage or acupuncture at specific points on the body release stuck qi and re-establish free flow.; thus, stress is reduced and the client feels the subjective feeling of “coming down” or a release of nonessential tension. The client may sleep better, digest better, have a better appetite, report better elimination and will generally feel more empowered to manage her life and its challenges. So all pervasive is this mechanism of stress and so all encompassing its effects on health that to simply remedy stress is to prevent and treat the widest array of possible conditions and complications.

*Stay tuned for part two of this article series.


1. TIME Magazine: http://www.stress.org/americas.htm

To contact Christian Nix, L.Ac., visit ChristianNix.com, e-mail Info@BarefootMedicineTraining.com or call (866) 841-9139 ext. 1011.