When it comes to the dense labyrinth of our emotional lives, the paradigms offered by traditional schools of medicine can help us gain clarity and insight into how to process dark and challenging situations. According to herbalist and Ayurvedic practitioner Tom Wolfe, the system of energetics offered by Ayurveda can aid one in embarking on the best route to work through periods of grief and depression.
In this blog post for Smile Herb, he explains the three doshas, which are energy modalities that make up each individual: Kapha (Earth/Water), Pitta (Fire/Water) and Vata (Air/Ether). Imbalances in either of these elements can manifest in various ways. In the case of depression and anxiety, this signifies an imbalance in air (anxiety) and water (depression). It is important to note that this system applies to mild depression and anxiety -- as Tom says, severe mood disorders should be dealt with under the supervision of a mental health professional.
Wolfe further explains how these excesses affect our lives, and what changes in behaviors we can make to embark on a healing path:
Air: loud noise, bright lights, crowds, electronics (television, internet, video games, iPad, smartphone, movie theaters, etc.), an atmosphere of fear or anxiety (mean and/or unpredictable boss or co-workers, money trouble, relationship trouble, etc.), poor sleep, poor nutrition (including too much “fast food” or microwaved food), any chronically unsettled situation, excess of movement, thought, or stimulus.
Water: excess food (especially salty or sour foods), excess sleep (especially sleeping and then waking feeling unrested), lack of mental stimulation (TV and video games can be a problem here as well, as they masquerade as mental stimulation when they are in fact dulling to the mind), boredom, loneliness, lack of communication at work or at home, unsettled relationships, unprocessed grief or loss, low activity levels, weight gain, muscle weakness, any stagnant or boring situation.
If there is also restlessness and a tendency toward outbreaks of temper, then the Fire element is coming into play. Fire is best calmed by giving the suffering person productive work to do. More responsibility, a difficult or complex task, or challenging physical exercise can be the perfect solution to an excess of Water (Depression) aggravated by Fire (Restlessness or Impatience). In a depressed economy, many highly trained, motivated and dynamic people find themselves doing jobs for which they are over-qualified. This is a perfect environment for Pitta-type Depression. Excessive competition, over-exercise, unsettled relationships (especially if there is a power struggle) and poor communication can all aggravate the fire element.
When we understand that Vata, made up of Air and Ether, is aggravated by cold and dry conditions, windy fall weather, and the bitter and astringent tastes, we can see that Vata is balanced by warm and wet conditions, hot summer weather, and the sweet, sour, salty and pungent tastes. If you suffer from anxiety, do you notice that it’s worse when it’s cold or windy outside? Do you crave sour or spicy foods when you’re upset? If so, you may have a classic Vata aggravation. Try covering your ears when you go outside, eating lots of warming foods or drinking ginger tea, and having a humidifier in your home or office during the drier winter months. These simple lifestyle changes can help the herbs you choose work even more effectively.
And if Pitta is your concern? Pitta is made up of Fire and Water, is aggravated by hot, humid conditions, hot summer weather, and the pungent and salty tastes. If you find it very hard to be patient with people, get grouchy when it’s hot out, and have very high expectations for yourself and others, you may be struggling with Pitta. If that’s the case, reducing the amount of spicy and pickled foods in your life (including aged meats and cheeses, coffee, and chocolate) can make a big difference. Be wary, too, of over-exercising. Pitta types tend to like sports, but excessive body heat and sweating can irritate an already fiery system. If you recognize this pattern in yourself, you may find that fall and winter are your favorite times of year, that it’s easier to think clearly when the weather is cool, and you may struggle with productivity in the humid summer heat. Pitta is balanced by cool and dry conditions, fall and winter weather, and the sweet, bitter, and astringent tastes.
And finally Kapha, made up of Water and Earth, is aggravated by cold and wet conditions, winter and spring weather, and the sweet, sour and salty tastes. Kapha types are the most likely to have what we consider “typical” depression, meaning losing enthusiasm for things they normally love, having low energy, weight gain, and sleeping to excess (often without feeling refreshed). If you tend toward weight gain, seek comfort in social gatherings, and have trouble starting new projects, you may be struggling with Kapha. Exercise is often the best way to break through a Kapha-type depression, but it’s often very hard to get things started. Find a friend or a group to walk or do yoga with. Group activity is much easier than solo for this most social of the doshas. Kapha is balanced by warm and dry conditions, summer and fall weather, and the bitter, astringent and pungent tastes.
Read Wolfe's full article at Smile Herb to learn about what specific herbs can help alleviate the different dosha imbalances.