Emotions and Spirit

This post is copied from our older, original blog. Original post date 3/22/2011.

By Marcie Bower, Lic.Ac.

Many patients who seek acupuncture treatment come to us for a specific physical ailment – such as knee pain, or back pain, or digestive disturbances. Many of these patients report that over the course of treatment for that physical ailment, they also notice changes in their psychological, emotional, or mental state: perhaps they report better sleep, less anxiety, improved outlook on life, a better ability to deal with stress, or increased feelings of relaxation throughout the day. Why is this?

As we have mentioned many times, acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine are holistic medical treatment modalities. This means that they diagnose and treat by looking at how all parts of the body, mind, and spirit are interacting and functioning.  Thus, by treating physical manifestations of imbalance in the body (such as low back pain), we can also treat the mental, emotional, and spiritual manifestations of imbalance, and vice versa.

So how does Traditional Chinese Medicine view the mind and spirit?

As we have mentioned before, meridians and energetic systems in Chinese medicine share names with our biomedical organs. Each energetic system (such as the Heart, or the Liver, or the Spleen) controls physical, mental, and emotional functions of the body.  Each energetic organ system corresponds to a certain emotion. When that organ system is weakened, there will be abnormal expression of that emotion. Alternately, an overwhelming degree of a certain emotion will weaken the corresponding energetic organ system.

In TCM, we talk of an entity called the Shen. The Shen is the mental/emotional part of the human being. There are many different aspects of the Shen, and each relate to a distinct energetic organ system in the body.

The Heart (the fire element) is related to joy. Joy is a good thing, obviously, but TOO MUCH joy is pathological. An imbalance of the heart can therefore lead to symptoms of mania (what would be classified as excessive joy.) Also, the Heart is the “emperor” of all the organs, and it therefore oversees the healthy functioning of all of the emotional aspects of the human being. The heart, simply said, controls the Shen, and is the Shen.  Pathologically, the heart is closely tied to experiences of anxiety and depression, especially when these experiences are associated with physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, sweaty palms, feeling your heart racing, or even chest tightness. In Chinese medicine, disturbed sleep (such as frightening dreams, frequent waking, or even difficulty falling asleep), can be symptoms of a disturbance of the Shen.  Because the Heart is the home of the Shen, most serious psychological disorders involve an imbalance in the Heart energetic system, including schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and multiple personality disorder. A balanced Shen is one that is even, with not too many highs or lows, and with appropriate emotional reactions to events and occurrences.

The Spleen is related to worry and overthinking.  In TCM, each organ controls a part of the Shen. The Spleen controls the Yi, or our intellect. The Yi and Spleen are damaged by overthinking, just as muscles in your body will be damaged if you over-exercise. Frequently we see college and graduate students come into our clinic complaining of symptoms that we relate to a deficiency of the Spleen energy, such as fatigue, digestive upset, weakness in the limbs, and difficulty turning off their mind at night. Worrying also damages the Spleen – over worrying (which is similar to over-thinking) can cause similar problems. Likewise, once the Spleen is weakened, we are more prone to overthinking things and worrying about them too much.

The Lungs (metal) are related to grief. The Lungs in TCM are called the “delicate organs” as they are the first energetic system to be effected by any external diseases.  There are times, of course, when grief is an appropriate emotional reaction to a situation. However, prolonged grief weakens the Lungs and can cause upper respiratory illnesses, frequent colds and flus, and fatigue. It is not a coincidence that often we get sick after a particularly sad period of time in our lives.

The Kidney (water) is related to fear and shock.  In TCM, the Kidneys represent our core energetic system, the one that is the deepest and in some senses most important.  It is natural, then, that the Kidneys control one of the most basic, primal human emotions: fear.  Think back to prehistoric times when you – a human – suddenly saw a saber-toothed tiger, and your fear immediately kicked into gear and made you run away.  This emotion, which today we know is tied to our flight-or-flight response, is an integral part of who we are as a species.  (Interestingly enough, we know that the flight-or-flight response is closely tied to the endocrine system which, you guessed it, is controlled in TCM by the kidneys.) A severe fright or shock can damage the kidney energetic systems, causing significant health problems. For instance, experiencing a trauma in childhood can sufficiently damage the kidney energy, causing developmental problems later in life.  Alternately, constitutionally weak kidney energy will predispose a person to being easily frightened.

The Liver energy (wood) is related to anger and frustration. Like all emotions, anger definitely has its place as a healthy emotional response. However, a person with a Liver pathology will often experience extreme anger outbursts, or have quite a noticeable temper. Likewise, prolonged anger can damage the Liver, causing physical symptoms such as headaches and migraines, PMS, digestive problems, and chest tightness. The Liver energy likes to flow. That is what is tries to do. When the energy cannot flow throughout the body as it desires, we often find ourselves feeling tense, irritable, and quick-tempered. If this applies to you, try to get out and get some exercise – even walking around the block for 10 minutes – as this will help your Liver energy to flow more smoothly, and you in turn will find your emotions settle a little more easily.

Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine can be a very useful primary or adjunctive treatment for all manner of psychological and emotional problems. In such cases, we focus our treatments on “calming the Shen” by correcting whatever energetic imbalance exists in the system.

Like all aspects of this medicine, TCM teaches us to strive for balance in our emotional lives. While some of our emotional tendencies may be constitutional and woven into the fabric of our being, it is helpful to know that by taking care of our bodies, we are also taking care of our emotional selves, and vice versa.  It is with this understanding that we can begin moving towards a place of healing and wholeness…body, mind, and spirit.