Traditional Chinese Medicine looks at things differently and while it may be a little confusing, there is usually some common ground that can be found upon examination and explanation. The idea of shen, in TCM, is an important concept in mental health.
What is Shen?
In Chinese medicine, the term shen is interpreted as the spirit or consciousness. The shen lives in the heart organ system and it is considered to be one of the vital substances of the body. The shen is said to preside over the activities that take place in the spiritual and mental planes – thought, memory and emotion. So, for many TCM practitioners, the term shen is interchangeable with the mind.
The term shen also covers the idea of mental health and emotional outlook. Ancient texts stated that a patient with “good shen” would recover from illness faster. And if we look at serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, the shen or mind is where the dysfunction actually appears. Chinese medicine refers to these conditions as the shen being “misted” or “clouded”.
As stated, the theory is that the shen lives in the heart. So if a person has a disturbed shen, there may be symptoms that involve the heart or chest. These can include feelings of anxiety or stress, difficulty breathing or feeling like the chest is constricted, and heart palpitations. Many people with a disturbed shen experience insomnia. Chronic insomnia can then lead to actual mental illness. If we follow this logic, we can see how the shen (in Chinese medicine) and the mind (in Western psychology) are related and somewhat interchangeable.
When we approach the shen from the standpoint of Western psychology, it is hard to deny there is a lot of shen disturbance in the modern world. These mental health issues range from stress, anxiety, depression and addiction to the aforementioned serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia. A person with balanced shen will present as healthy, harmonious and level-headed. A person with disturbed shen will present with a lack of spirit or emotion, illogical reasoning and symptoms of mental illness.
A Balanced Shen
Ultimately, we want to have a balanced shen. This means being able to react to the world in a healthy way. Balance means finding the middle ground between super-human calm detachment and irrational over-reaction. A person will a balanced shenmay still experience an emotional reaction to external stimuli but they are able to control the reaction and let it go. Somebody who has a disturbed shen, may have difficulties dealing with a situation and may act out irrationally while drawing attention to themselves. An example would be getting cut off by another driver on the Deerfoot. A person with a balanced shen may swear at the other driver or honk the horn, but they tend to let the anger go and feel relief after the emotion has passed. While somebody with a disturbed shenmay continue swearing, honking and even tailgate the other driver, but then feels off balance and angry for the rest of the day and can’t let the anger go. In severe cases they might need intervention to return to a somewhat balanced state.
Tips to Achieve Balance
Maintaining a healthy shen also means that maintaining a healthy body. Mental health is an important component of overall health. sA strong shen is fundamental to good health. When the shen is weak, the body will eventually fail. To keep the shen healthy, focus on maintaining a positive mindset, getting enough rest, seeking peace, connecting with nature, meditating and showing compassion. Things to avoid include overwork, chronic stress, an erratic daily schedule, lack of sleep and volatile emotions such as anger, hatred and resentment. This may seem pretty logical, but people often neglect to practice holding a healthy mindset. Like all aspects of health, it requires diligence and practice. The rewards are worth it though!