In modern society we are overloaded with stimulation and instant gratification. We can use technology to get information about any topic instantly, we can get on-demand movies or watch hundreds of channels on our television, we can call or message someone wherever they are through a phone, and we can consume foods and beverages that overload our taste buds with sugar and other chemicals. Simultaneously, we are seeing a huge increase in children being diagnosed with attention deficit disorders like ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). With so much out there to grab our attention, it’s no surprise that children who are still immature and developing can have a hard time settling and focusing on what their caretakers may feel is most important.
When the symptoms of distractibility and hyperactivity are observed it is common for parents, educators, and physicians to conclude that giving a child medicines designed to force the brain into a focused state may be a solution. This has long been a subject of controversy, with limited research on the long term effects of those treatments. With many reports of adverse effects arising from medication use it is common for parents to seek non-drug alternatives to assist children who have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.
From a holistic wellness perspective it is important to look at each individual and see what factors are contributing to their symptoms. Then, a proper approach to helping that person find more balance can be suggested. From the perspective of those applying alternative medicine philosophies such as naturopathy, ayurveda, and Chinese medicine, the standard drug treatments for ADD and ADHD may suppress the symptoms for some period of time but they can often compound or perpetuate the underlying problems or imbalances. These holistic healing traditions offer alternative methods for addressing the issues that are associated with ADD and ADHD.
Carrie Demers, MD, reports that “In ayurveda, ADHD is classified as a vata imbalance. Vata is “wind energy”: it’s light, changeable, dry, cool, and mobile. It governs the movement of our bodies and our thoughts. Everyone has some vata in their prakriti (constitution), but those who have a predominance of this light, expansive energy (i.e., a “vata constitution”) tend to have sensitive nervous systems, so they experience the world with a heightened intensity. As a result, they’re prone to anxiety, inattention, restlessness, and sleep problems. Ironically, these children will often seek out sensory-stimulating activities (such as action movies or sugar-laden foods), creating a vicious cycle that agitates their already overactive nervous systems.”
Erik L. Goldman describes the work of pediatrician Dr. Stephen Cowan, who applies another Eastern medicine approach for ADD and ADHD. “Dr. Cowan, a holistic pediatrician in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, applies the principles of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and its “Five Elements” concept in working with children who have attention and behavior problems. Speaking at the 3rd annual Complementary & Alternative Medicine Expo East, he explained that attention problems are a symptom, not a disease.”
According to Dr. Cowan, “A lot of different things can result in attention problems, including fetal alcohol syndrome, lead toxicity, hearing loss, sleep disruption, anxiety, chronic stress, learning disabilities, dietary and digestive problems. It is like fever: it can reflect many different causes, but it is not a disease in and of itself.” Cowan points out how technology and school environments are making children’s lives increasingly stressful, something which cannot be resolved with a homogenous approach of medicating their symptoms.
Understanding the Five Elemental Types
Children respond differently to these pressures, and this is where the TCM concepts can come in handy.
The Five Elements idea is an ancient one, based on the notion that all natural processes and phenomena can be classified as belonging to or manifesting one of five basic “elements:” Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, or Water. The theory holds that every human, in his or her essence, belongs to one of these five “types” which colors how one asserts oneself in the world, what one finds attractive or repelling, how one copes with stresses, and how one seeks comfort.
Dr. Cowan, who studied TCM with Efrem Korngold, co-author of the modern TCM classic, Between Heaven and Earth, has spent the better part of 20 years verifying the Five Elements typology. He has amassed a vast video library of thousands of kids across the developmental spectrum, and he believes the elemental tendencies begin to show themselves within the first year or two of life.
Wood types are very physical. They’re the leaders. They’re competitive and want to be first. They always want to win, to be in front. They’re pioneers who see a path and want to take it. Natural leaders, they can usually win the enthusiasm of peers. Since they live primarily in the physical world, they often act out physically when stressed, becoming aggressive, argumentative, “in your face.” Under duress, they become the restless and assertive “Wild Child.”
Fire types are jovial pleasure-seekers. They like to relax, socialize and have fun. They often seek thrills and excitement, and love to entertain others. They’re fascinated by sensory stimuli and often get carried away by the “carnival” of light, sound and image that the world presents. They often dislike school because it is not fun; the dislike grows as they get older and the workload intensifies. They try to make things more amusing by becoming the “class clown.”
Earth types are all about the social world. They view their worth in terms of interpersonal relationships, and constantly seek social contact. They want to fit in, and often play the role of peacemaker. These are the constant-talkers who get in trouble because they can’t contain the need to connect with others. Quiet study periods are torture to them. Social matters are foremost in their minds, and they fret incessantly about who’s talking to whom, who’s mad at whom, and who will sit with them at lunch. This all seems far more important than their lessons.
Metal types are highly sensitive and detail-oriented. They see things few others do, and have an innate sense of order, beauty and perfection. They seek control and like to see their visions met. They value precision; where a Wood or Fire type might gloss over details, a Metal type digs right in. The downside is rigidity and inflexibility. They get stuck in their own vision of right or wrong, leaving no room for others. They have difficulty letting go of small details, get anxious when something’s not done “right,” and become negative when they feel out of control.
Water types think and feel very deeply. They live in the realm of ideas and imagination, and have only a modicum of interest in the physical, practical world. They’re natural wisdom-seekers, and have a rather advanced interior world for their age. They often seem to be “off somewhere.” They’re not particularly concerned with punctuality, and respond to time-pressures and other external demands by disconnecting, staring out the window, or retreating to their inner world. Unlike Wood types who become confrontational, or Fire types who seek thrills, Water kids become withdrawn in chronic stress situations.
All people manifest all of the elements to some degree, but if you observe yourself and others carefully, you’ll see that a certain element tends to predominate. In a healthy adult or child, the elements are in balance, so that even though one tendency is most prominent, it is well-tempered by the others.
Five Types, Five Drug Responses
Under constant stress, however, an individual typically defaults to the predominant element, and his whole being becomes unbalanced. Thus, the energetic outgoing kid becomes oppositional and aggressive. The wonderfully imaginative kid becomes remote. Dr. Cowan pointed out that the core tendencies of any of the five types, taken to the extreme, look like symptoms of “ADHD.”
Just as the manifestations are different, so will be the response to drug therapy. “Ritalin will work okay with the Wood kids, because they like speed. They like fast motion of any kind, be it action sports, emergency situations, or conflicts. So, giving these kids a stimulant feeds their imbalance, and since they basically like the effect, it can be extremely difficult to get the Wood kids off the drugs.”
Fire kids, on the other hand, will do whatever they can to avoid taking the drugs. Why? Because a stimulant narrows their focus, and this stops the Technicolor wonderwheel. The “focus” that parents and teachers prize seems to drain all the fun out of living.
Earth kids on stimulants often develop physical symptoms, especially stomach aches. The improved focus induced by the stimulant tends to be applied not to schoolwork, but to the social dramas that hold pride of place in their minds.
Give stimulants to a Metal kid and you create a detail monster. “They become super-hyper-focused, and where once they lost the forest for the trees, now they’re losing the trees for the bark,” explained Dr. Cowan.
Water kids on stimulants tend to become even more remote. They may look “more attentive,” but inside they may be experiencing profound disconnection that can easily morph into suicidality. These kids already feel tenuously connected to the physical world; stimulants amplify this, and can easily lead to a feeling that “this world is just not for them.”
Balancing the Elements
The core of Dr. Cowan’s therapeutic approach is to teach the child and his or her parents how to both nurture the core elemental tendencies while simultaneously balancing them, so they become assets rather than hindrances. He does this through a combination of diet and nutritional recommendations, acupuncture, guided imagery and other mind-body techniques.
With many studies suggesting that diet, nutrients, and food additives play a role in the presentation of ADD/ADHD symptoms it is valuable to consider those factors in helping promote balance. Lifestyle factors, such as exercise, sleep patterns, exposure to electronic stimulation, and family or school stresses can also play a major role in fostering the attention difficulties. An effective approach is likely to consider all these factors rather than merely offering a drug to suppress or compensate for the symptoms. ADHD and ADD symptoms are actually reactions to the stresses, challenges, and stimuli that are present in a person’s experience, based upon the person’s inherent strengths and weaknesses. Unless you help the individuals transform their coping strategies and skills or you transform the environment in a way that fosters more harmony, the issues are not likely to be resolved, and adding pharmaceutical medicines to the mix may just foster additional imbalances. For anyone seeking to help a person exhibiting attention difficulties to function in a more balanced way, these holistic approaches are important to consider.