Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) does not view the mind and body as two separate entities, but rather two intricately related halves of one whole. This ancient system of medicine has long understood that our emotions have a powerful influence over our physical health.
Western science is also catching up and beginning to recognise the interdependence between the body and mind. For example, we often refer to the gut as the second brain, and the toxic effects of chronic stress are now well-researched.
TCM takes this a step further, suggesting that every organ has its own distinct energy that relates to a particular emotion. Therefore, any disease can be seen as stemming from an imbalance in a specific organ or its meridian (energy channel).
Firstly, an emotional imbalance can cause physical symptoms relating to its associated organ. Equally, disharmony in the organ itself can lead to heightened sensitivity to a particular emotion. In some cases, this becomes a vicious cycle from which it is difficult to break free.
However, TCM also asserts that all emotions are physiologically normal and, in fact, necessary for good health. Emotions only lead to disease when they are expressed inappropriately, suppressed, or ignored.
In TCM, anger is associated with the liver and gallbladder. These organs are responsible for enabling the smooth circulation of qi and blood throughout the body.
In the modern world, we often view anger as a negative emotion; something to be held back and contained. However, when expressed appropriately, anger can be a positive driving force for change.
It enables us to see when we are unhappy with a situation and take steps towards a better life. This ties in with another function of the liver in TCM, which is visualising the future and planning the necessary steps to reach one’s goal.
Healthy expression of anger can be seen in people who are highly assertive and stand up for their rights. When people fail to do this, their anger can turn inwards, transforming into frustration and resentment. It can then manifest as irritability or outbursts of rage, both of which can have damaging consequences.
When a person has an unhealthy relationship with anger, the free flow of qi and blood may become blocked. This can manifest as physical symptoms like muscle tension, headaches, and migraines. An unhealthy liver can also cause menstrual disorders in women since it relies heavily on the smooth circulation of qi and blood.
Nowadays, it is common to have a busy mind. Juggling a career, family, relationships, and more can make it difficult to switch off and relax. Therefore, worry is a common emotion. In TCM, it is associated with the spleen and stomach, the main digestive organs.
On the plus side, these organs allow us to be concerned for others and compassionate in our daily lives. But when we worry about too many different things all the time, it can cause problems. In TCM, the energy of the stomach and spleen is circular. This can manifest as turning the same thoughts over and over again, possibly leading to anxiety and insomnia.
Not only do the digestive organs help us to process the food we eat; they also help us to process thoughts and ideas. So, when we spend too much time ruminating mentally, it can also affect our digestive function.
This might lead to problems like stomach cramps, bloating, or diarrhoea. It could also cause fatigue and muscle weakness as our spleen and stomach fail to extract enough nourishment from food.
Grief is another emotion that we often view as being negative. When we lose someone or something we care about, it hurts. But fully experiencing grief allows us to let go and move on, unencumbered by the past. In TCM, this is likened to the trees losing their leaves in autumn, nourishing the earth ready for the following spring.
Healthy expression of grief allows us to advance in life, embracing the new and discarding what no longer serves us. Meanwhile, imbalances in this emotion can cause people to cling to old hurts and regrets, perhaps becoming bitter and disenchanted over time. It could also cause people to remain in situations that are causing them harm, such as a toxic relationship or stressful job.
This idea is reflected in the organs associated with grief, the lungs and large intestine. They are responsible for endings and beginnings; taking in fresh air to enrich our bodies, and getting rid of waste we no longer need.
Failing to express grief appropriately can physically impact these organs, causing issues like asthma, skin conditions, or constipation.
It is perfectly normal to feel fearful in certain circumstances. It is our mind protecting our body by warning it about potential threats.
However, if we live in a state of constant fear, it can be damaging to our health. It can cause us to avoid situations that are scary, but might benefit us in the long run. Equally, if we do not feel fear when we are in danger, we could take risks that result in injury to ourselves or others.
The kidneys and the bladder have many important functions in TCM. As well as controlling the balance of water within the body, they provide the energy that the other organs rely on to keep them running.
Therefore, an unhealthy relationship with fear can have widespread effects throughout the body. It can cause everything from fatigue and back pain to anxiety and insomnia.
While joy is usually seen as a positive emotion, it is possible to have too much of a good thing! Excessive joy can cause overexcitement and restlessness, which could lead to issues such as insomnia. In its most extreme form, unhealthy expression of joy could lead to mania, risk-taking, or other harmful behaviour.
At the other end of the spectrum, some people struggle to experience joy at all. They may feel depressed, even when everything is going right. Either situation can cause a variety of problems.
The organs associated with joy are the heart and small intestine. These are the organs most closely related to our emotional and spiritual wellbeing. When imbalanced, they can cause agitation, sleep problems, palpitations, and dizziness. They can also cause further emotional problems, like anxiety or confusion. Stay tuned for Emotions and disease in TCM: Part 2, where we will discuss some simple techniques to keep your emotions balanced and your organs healthy and free from disease. We look forward to seeing you there!