Signs of Stress and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash

Signs of Stress and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)


Chinse hieroglyph for Signs of Stress
Stress hieroglyph


Signs of stress are common.

Feeling stressed out? Everyone gets stressed out. So did the ancient Chinese.  (See above their hieroglyph for stress, pressure, tension and anxiety).

They had wars, famine, tornado, anxiety, fear, grief, anger, loneliness and over-excitement: like us now. Not much has changed.

What we feel is what they felt. Stress symptoms haven’t changed!

What we all want is a way to feel in control and to know that we can keep our work secure and our family safe and healthy.


Signs of Stress
Stress – Photo by Dark Labs on Unsplash

If you have children, you will want to understand how circumstances build up their stress symptoms – affecting you too!

More, you’ll want to know what are the best ways to help them to calm down so that you all feel secure and happy.

If you get tired and irritable, stressed, you want to know why and what to do about it, preferably without medication or alcohol!


What is Stress – Qi Stagnation and Pressure?

The feelings and symptoms people experience when stressed nearly always come down to two categories of experience, which the Chinese labelled ‘Wind’ and ‘Heat’.

With them as they develop, you nearly always get a sensation of pressureIn the West we don’t always describe it as pressure!

We might call it tension, or a sense of distension or fullness. Whatever we call it, it comes from what the Chinese call Qi stagnation

Stress Symptoms from ‘Wind’ and ‘Heat’

Here are some stress symptoms examples:

  • Abdomen feels full, distended, need to loosen belt
  • Adam’s apple seems to want to push up into mouth     
  • Claustrophobia – the feeling that you’re being pressed in upon
  • Bladder ‘full’ feeling; sudden urge to pee
  • Women’s breasts feel too big like before the monthly period
  • Breathing feels tight
  • Ears: oppressive feeling, as in a lift descending fast
  • Eyes feel too big, need to blink
  • Forehead feels squeezed, as if trying to push out
  • Guts tighten or cramp
  • Heart pounds as if too big or struggling
  • Jaw feels stiff, almost as if you’re chewing a huge mouthful
  • Limbs feel rigid, hands get hot or cold
  • Nose feels narrower on one or both sides: harder to breathe
  • Rectum feels full like having the urge to pass a stool (“shit”)
  • Shoulders feel as if there’s a huge weight on them
  • Throat tightens
  • Voice feels strangled


 … and that’s just a few examples!

Nowadays we could add hypertension, ie high blood pressure.


Tension - a sign of stress
Rope tension – Photo by Aditya Wardhana on Unsplash

Emotional Tension is not the only cause

Although emotions aren’t the only cause, they are a big part.

Besides emotional tension, the Chinese grasped that food and diet were huge sources of stress. Or, at least, they could easily make it worse, or make you more susceptible to stress. 

Yes! That means what you eat could make you more likely to get stressed!

That hasn’t changed much: we all know people who can’t eat certain foods. Other causes included the environment and climate.


“Margaret’s not a lot better yet. The doctor says it’s nervous exhaustion. It’s been building up over the last 35 years.”

Victor Meldrew, One Foot in the Grave

Strategies for Stress

Chinese medicine is full of ways to treat stress. Treating it has made some acupuncturists rich and they deserved their earnings! It can take great skill.

Thousands of years before Western Medicine analysed stress hormones like cortisol from emotional strain and adrenalin from physical shock, the Chinese recognised how it worked and what to do.


Worry, Grief, Fear, Anger and ‘Joy’

Connected to all stress symptoms they understood there was an emotion. It might not appear at first, but it was there.

For example, many people at first have ‘lack of anger’.

What is it, and why?

Lack of Anger

Many people lack assertiveness skills. If you are one of them, you’ll know what ‘lack of anger’ is. You experience it, short-term, when someone barges into a queue in front of you and you don’t complain.


Lack of anger - leading to stress
Queues – Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

Some people have pushed their frustration so deep that they are always accommodating, helpful, mild, uncomplaining and, well, sat upon! They almost certainly have lack of anger, long-term.

In its own way lack of anger can be just as destructive to health as anger. That’s because it can cause illness to the individuals themselves, of course! But it also causes it in others via misunderstanding and resentment, which can then go on to cause signs of stress and illness in them.

Anger needn’t be actual anger! It could be frustration or nervous tension especially if it goes on over a long period of time.

Both prolonged or inappropriate anger, as well as the inability to express it, can cause disease.


Lack of Grief

Some cultures experience grief more than others. One thinks of terrible environmental traumas, tsunamis, tornadoes and earthquakes, war and diseases, famine and barbarity, that afflict some parts of the world more than others.

In war, everyone knows someone who has died or been killed: shared loss sometimes makes it easier to bear.

These societies often evolve ways to recognise death and help the grievers come to terms with it.

If a society lacks those customs, grievers may be unable to show their emotions, and other people won’t know how to comfort and support them. For some people who have lost dear ones, the grieving can go on for years, out of sight: a possible source of illness.

Emotional Stress and Suppression

Any long-term suppression of an emotion will lead to signs of stress. If you’re tough, resilient and active, you won’t notice.


Photo by DDP on Unsplash

The younger you are, the less resilient and the less active you are, the sooner you’ll notice signs of stress beginning to wear you down.


We all experience moments absolutely free from worry. These brief respites are called panic.

Cullen Hightower

Inappropriate Emotions cause Stress …

Inappropriate? Meaning

  • always laughing at serious things
  • crying when there is no basis for it
  • talking angrily or too intensely when there is no cause
  • panicking, phobias, fearful trembling when there is no reason, or when it is irrational
  • constant, obsessional worrying without foundation


… and so do Appropriate Emotions from impossible situations …


  • constant targets to meet,
  • un-achievable deadlines,
  • impossible sales figures to match,
  • bills to pay, but no money
  • living expenses to cover when your pension isn’t enough
  • ungrateful patients to care for without rest
  • hungry children to feed when you’re exhausted
  • demanding partners with more energy than you
Time and Money pressures produce signs of stress!

Time And Money

© Alan Crosthwaite

Dreamstime Stock Photos


  • high nervous tension from constant partying
  • constant tension from too many jobs to do at the same time or within a tight time-frame
  • or from having too many jobs to do one after the other


 … all these produce signs of stress and eventually disease too.

We’re not made for long-term stress!

Fight or Flight, yes. Constant pressure and expectation, NO!

Over a long period when Chinese medicine was emerging, mankind was moving from a hunter-killer stage to an agrarian culture. Unfortunately our genes haven’t kept pace.

Our genes know how to make us fight or run, but not how to deal with ongoing stress, pressure, worry, expectations, anger, lack of anger and fear. These emotions and the signs of stress they produce make us ill.


Wind and Heat – symbols for stress symptoms

If the cause of the stress cannot be resolved, then the Chinese noticed that the body moves on to the next stage of signs of stress: what they called Wind or Heat.



  • always busy, doing something
  • restlessness
  • talking, talking
  • tics, tremors
  • biting fingernails
  • desire to swallow
  • distension
  • stuffy feeling
  • itching
  • fullness eg of bladder
  • tight shoulders


  • blushing
  • desire to be fanned
  • smelly stools
  • rashes
  • sweating
  • thirst
  • need to uncover, undress
  • dislike of heat
  • redness of skin
  • bleeding eg nosebleed
  • urgent diarrhoea
  • offensive discharges


Q. Why did they call it ‘Wind’?

A. Wind moves things. (Sometimes, if the wind is very strong, a door flung open by it can’t be shut, such is the force: here it causes the equivalent of a cramp or constriction.)

Hence ‘Wind’ symptoms are those of movement, often involuntary.  Sometimes, Wind produces the inability to move, as in a cramp or the inability to relax muscles.

Of course you can get ‘Wind’ and ‘Heat’ symptoms together!

Emotional Stress

Often with this you get emotions. They could be cause or effect.

  • Clam up – refuse to talk or reason or say what you feel
  • Cry
  • Hysterical or inappropriate laughter
  • Shout, talk too loudly, sudden outbursts
  • Anger, hysteria, worry, anxiety, grieving, fear …


Five Basic Patterns

Then what happens?

Emotions and symptoms, these signs of stress, coalesce into one of five basic patterns.

Of course, you get combinations of these five patterns too, but what the Chinese worked out takes full account of this and of how they interact with one another.

It’s really clever…

… and it shows you how to manage stress!

It shows you how to

  • spot the different kinds of stress
  • know what illness situations they might lead to … and …
  • what actions you should take short and long-term.


Multiple Chemical and Environmental Sensitivities producing Signs of Stress

Chemicals in atmosphere – Photo by Dark Labs on Unsplash

We now also have multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) including to:

  • petrol and diesel vapours
  • personal care products
  • office equipment eg printer ink vapour
  • building materials
  • herbicides
  • pesticides
  • sweeteners
  • flavourings
  • fertilisers
  • perfumes


and Environmental sensitivities, for instance to:

  • foods
  • plant fragrances
  • electromagnetic waves
  • moulds
  • pollution


All these produce in susceptible individuals signs of stress such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • respiratory problems
  • digestive problems
  • neurological problems


MCS symptoms are usually considered to be due to neuro-endocrine reactions rather than from your immune system. However, Chinese medicine doesn’t need to know this to be able to diagnose stress problems.

Chinese Medicine and its Theory

The beauty of Chinese medicine is that behind it stands a theory and outlook on life that has developed and been tried and tested for over 3000 years. 


Lessons from Antiquity
Antiquity – Photo by Dark Labs on Unsplash


This theory would be useless if it couldn’t account for the signs of stress! But it goes much further. It shows you what is the most appropriate action in a given situation, and this certainly includes stress symptoms and how to deal with them.

Throughout this site and in the book below you’ll discover some of the syndromes that explain stress in terms of Chinese medicine. If Chinese medicine can identify the syndromes correlating with your symptoms, however arising, then the experience from 3000 years says that your syndromes can be treated successfully.

When the author of this site started this subject, he expected to cover it in a few pages; nice and simple. Easy to read.

Eventually those ‘few’ pages became a book – see panel on right. The book, at the time of writing this, has never been sent for media/press review, because it received such praise from readers who’d bought it, from all round the world. See the reviews.

Links to the next stage on how to reduce and relieve stress!

Jonathan Brand colours

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