Health and emotions in Chinese medicine

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How often, in everyday life, do we say that we are frozen in fear, that worry ties a knot in our stomach, or that something joyful warms our heart?

Increasingly, modern science is recognizing the connection between our physical and emotional states as more than symbolic – we know now for instance that the gut acts as a ”second brain”, and that prolonged emotional stress can severely impair digestion.

So, can emotions really make us sick?

Traditional Chinese Medicine has always considered emotional issues to be an important factor in the onset or aggravation of physical ailments.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the physical and emotional self are seen as closely intertwined expressions of the same person, that constantly influence each other. If one suffers, so does the other eventually, so that there can be emotional causes to physical disorders, as well as purely physical causes (such as a faulty diet or lack of sleep) to emotional disturbances. Both processes often occur at the same time and reinforce each other.

This does not mean that specific emotions, in and of themselves, are pathogenic factors that will necessarily lead to disease. Under normal circumstances, even fear and anger can be healthy reactions that will not cause any harmful, long-lasting effects on the body.

It is only when an emotion is experienced intensely or repeatedly, or inversely repressed or denied, that it becomes a source of imbalance in the body. When an emotion is so strong that your body does not know how to handle it, or is suppressed to the point that you are unaware of it, it can stagnate and block the normal flow of vital energy that is essential for good health.

Chinese Medicine identifies five main emotions that, if persistent or unexpressed, can open the door to physical ailments. Each of them is related to a specific organ system in the body that has the psychological function of governing it, in addition to its usual physical functions. These are:

  • Joy or mania, associated with the heart,
  • Worry, associated with the spleen,
  • Grief and sadness, associated with the lungs,
  • Fear, associated with the kidneys,
  • Anger, associated with the liver.

A disturbance in any or several of these emotions can cause a disturbance in the corresponding organ system, and vice versa.

The fear of making other people angry, the feeling that other people have it worse than we do, or simply the fast paced rhythm of modern life that leaves no time for rest can all be enough to prevent us from expressing our emotions properly, provoking physical symptoms that will cause even more difficult emotions, in a vicious circle that can be further aggravated by diet and other lifestyle factors.

What can we do?

Fortunately, the same interconnectedness of emotions and physical states means that improving one can improve and support the other.

Re-balancing your body with the help of acupuncture, reflexology, naturopathy, tuina and other methods from Chinese medicine can start to make strong emotions settle down. While it will not change the circumstances of your life, it can reduce the intensity of these emotions so that you can address stressful situations in a more peaceful way. In some cases, nothing more is needed.

Addressing emotional issues is important as well in order to avoid causing or aggravating physical symptoms.

Sometimes, action needs to be taken. You may need to have a conversation with somebody at work, stop doing certain activities, or take a vacation. Working beforehand to reduce the intensity of your emotions can be helpful to defuse potentially difficult situations.

Sometimes, we simply need to find outlets for our emotions as they arise in everyday life, express them in a healthy manner and let them go before they have a chance to linger and wreak havoc on our health:

  • Taking a short, quiet moment to observe an emotion as it appears, pay attention to the physical sensations and thoughts that accompany it is a good way to become more aware of your emotions, especially if you have acquired the habit of repressing them in the past.
  • Talking with a trusted friend or a trained therapist, crying if you need to, writing and creative activities are all powerful ways to vent feelings and release emotional tension.

Finally, take the time to go for a walk, practice deep breathing or meditation, take a warm bath, laugh with your loved ones – if repeated distressing emotions can hurt our well-being over time, repeated positive ones might be one of the keys to improve it!

Marie B.

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