The modern woman is tasked with balancing career independence with family-oriented roles that have a historical precedent. Women face different forms of mental and emotional stress at various points of their life cycle. It could be just before the menses arrive, it could be when they are trying for a baby, it could also be during the later years of their life when their reproductive function slowly wanes.
There are also women who choose motherhood over career, and from that choice alone, longstanding and hidden stressors begins to take hold.
In this article, TCM Mark Chern brings in Naturopathic Doctor and Psychotherapist Sigrid Grosbys to share about mental and emotional stress in the modern woman.
Mark: Running a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practice where majority of my patients are women, I have seen patients who may be facing stress and are depressed, but ask to be treated for other conditions. For example, the patient who comes in to be treated for insomnia may be facing severe distress in a relationship with her a family member.
It is important in within a TCM practice not to just treat the symptom, but to allow space for the patient to reveal the real reasons for a health issue.
Sigrid: Yes, in our practices which are focused on women’s health, we go where most females tend to keep silent on: the unspoken daily causes of mental health.
Hormonal Imbalance Causes Mental Stress
M: Many women report feelings of sadness, irritability or mood swings during the premenstrual week. The Chinese medicine rational for this emotional distress is that stagnation of liver qi is more prominently present during this time. The cause is usually hormonal imbalance, which can be mitigated with a balancing formula that also balances the individual constitution.
S: Women are more sensitive in the premenstrual period, and are also more in tune with themselves. Certain issues in their lives will seem more prominent, since they cannot ‘sweep it under the rug’ during this time. Listening to their emotions can help them address the underlying issue, and understand what the emotional unrest is all about.
M: Yes, there is a similar feeling of emotional unrest as a woman approaches menopause. In Chinese medicine, it is not longer just about soothing liver qi stagnation to treat hormone imbalance. Rather we start using herbs to enrich the Yin and clear deficient heat, as well as others to manage insomnia, night sweats and hot flushes.
S: This is a general time of uncertainty for women as it often coincides with children leaving the familial home. All these factors create a difficult transition time in a woman’s life. I feel that it is important to work on balancing hormones naturally through the use of herbs and supplements, and I also believe in examining deeper aspects of her life context at the time of symptom development.
Stress from Subfertility
M: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is an ovulatory disorder that has become a common cause for infertility. The proposed interventions for PCOS have moved from ovarian drilling to endocrine and subsequently metabolic interventions. New ways of treating PCOS are still emerging. Knowing that you are having issues ovulating is stressful, but the stress is further compounded by all that you are trying to achieve with diet and exercise. Acupuncture for enhancing endocrine function can help by enhancing circulation to the ovaries and uterine lining. However, it is even more crucial to treat the shen, or what can be understood as the heart-mind in Chinese medicine.
S: Couples experiencing difficulty in conceiving are surprisingly unsupported through the emotional roller coaster that they experience. It is important to help these couples recognise that this is a difficult time, and put in place coping strategies.
M: New mothers are often inadequately supported during post-partum, which is a delicate time especially for first time mothers. When faced with the responsibility of a newborn—the demands of breastfeeding, constant care required by the baby, and inevitable sleep deprivation—many will develop symptoms of depression. This can be insidious, ranging from feelings of sadness and loneliness to irritability, mood swings, and negative feelings towards the baby.
S: It is important to address the mother’s hormonal situation through the use of gentle tonics and adequate nutrition, especially if the mother is nursing. It is also essential to help her voice the difficulties she may be facing, and help her recognise her inner feelings.
M: For many new mothers, the only time they have for themselves is during the one hour of treatment with their acupuncturist or therapist. I am told that new mums feel guilty getting an hour-long relaxing massage, but feel less guilty about getting treatment for insufficient breast milk. Both are equally therapeutic, in that they provide the mum with all-important me-time that is essential to the health of both mum and baby.
S: Most women have difficulty recognising that they are not quite themselves in this time period. For this reason, they may not have sought adequate help. Others may feel guilty or inadequate for finding it difficult to become a new mother, and will shy away from seeking help as well. Recognising that things are not okay is often the first step to making logistical changes in the home that will make the new mother feel supported and more fulfilled. In fact, this awareness empowers her to take action in collaboration with her health practitioners to not just treat from without, but also heal from within.
Both Sigrid and Mark agree that in many of the women’s health conditions they treat, mental and emotional health is a crucial underpinning that has to be addressed and can make all the difference for wellness in the modern woman.