COVID, The Lungs, Grief, and Chinese Medicine

By Marcie Bower, Lic.Ac.

This sure is a strange time, folks.

For some, the coronavirus is a very real and personal threat, terror, or literal pain. Those who are sick, those who have loved ones in the ICU; those who have lost friends and family members; the nurses and doctors on COVID floors in hospitals; the EMTs and medical assistants and respiratory therapists bearing witness to the terrible wake of destruction caused by this virus.

But for all of us, the coronavirus is impacting our lives in a very real way. Whether it is the worry for an elderly parent you can’t see, the frustration of trying to apply for unemployment insurance, the fear for a friend who has to go to work each day, the exhaustion of figuring out yet again how to safely go grocery shopping, the stress of parenting and homeschooling children while working from home, the anger at how this has been so mishandled by leaders who are supposed to lead, the impatience with your spouse or roommate you aren’t used to being around SO MUCH, the concern about an adult child making decisions not in the best interest of their health…the list goes on and on. But one current theme that I hear a lot from friends, patients, coworkers, and family far and wide…is sadness and grief.

For whatever reason, we as a society seem slower to label this completely normal reaction to COVID-19 than we are to express our stress, fear, anxiety, or anger at the situation. But it seems to be underlying so much of what many people feel, and it ties into these other emotions intrinsically.

A few weeks ago I read an article in Harvard Business Review that was titled “That Discomfort You are Feeling Is Grief” and it was so clear. Yes. That angsty, sad, fearful, anxious but not anxiety feeling…it is Grief.

What are we collectively grieving? There are the lives lost, for sure. But even at this stage, at least here in MA, many of us are not touched personally in that way yet. (Thankfully.) And yet there are so many smaller but significant losses that this time has brought…

Loss of connection

Loss of social relationships (at least in how we are used to them)

Loss of purpose, for those out of work

Loss of sense of self, for those thrust suddenly into different life circumstances

Loss of habits and routine

Loss of trust in the systems and agencies meant to protect us and serve us

Loss of a sense of safety and security

Loss of financial stability

Loss of faith (for some)

Loss of ability to plan for the future

…And so many more.

These are real losses, and cause real grief.

*

In Chinese Medicine, each organ system in the body is associated with a particular emotion, and also a particular “element” (or force at play in the natural world.)

The organ system associated with grief, loss, and sadness, is the Lung.

I don’t need to tell you what organ system is most often associated with COVID-19 infection.

*

The Lungs, in a Chinese Medicine view of the body, have numerous physiological and energetic functions in our bodies. You can read more about them here. However, the Chinese Medicine Lung energy seems so important to understand right now, that I’d like to highlight four functions in particular:

1) The Lungs control breathing and respiration

Just as in a biomedical view of the body, the Lungs in Chinese Medicine control our respiratory function. They take the air that we breathe and turn it into vital components of our Qi, or energy. Healthy Lungs, therefore, are an essential part of a healthy constitution.

2) The Lungs control our immunity

In Chinese Medicine, the Lungs control the Wei Qi, or the protective Qi. This is very loosely correlates to our immune function, although not entirely. The Wei Qi flows just under our skin, and is the Qi that first pushes external pathogens out of the body. During cold and flu season, for instance, it is typical to focus on boosting and strengthening the Wei Qi during acupuncture treatments, or with herbal medicines, to prevent getting sick.

Obviously this is relevant right now, as individuals try not to get sick, and our medical and scientific communities work to figure out why some people may get so much sicker than others.

Additionally, the Lungs control the skin – yet another protective barrier against the external world getting inside.

3) The Lungs are related to the Large Intestine

In Chinese Medicine, each organ is paired with another organ system in the body. The Lungs are paired with the Large Intestine, and together they represent the Metal elemental forces. Metal has to do with our boundaries – both physically and emotionally.

The Large Intestine’s main function is elimination. It is tasked with effectively removing waste and toxins from the body – again, both on a physical and an emotional level. If you are interested in learning more about the Large Intestine’s energetic nature as it relates to letting go, please check out this, our most popular blog post.

This Lung/Large Intestine relationship has also been playing out in the COVID arena as we have been learning that often the disease affects the digestive system, as well.

4) The Lungs are related to sadness and grief

As mentioned above, the emotion related to the Lung energy is sadness, loss, and grief. These are perfectly normal and healthy human emotions! They become pathological when they last for a very long time or impact a person’s ability to function. A weakened Lung can cause pathological grief, and pathological grief can weaken the Lung. The relationship is a circle.

You can probably see here, too, how that Lung and Large Intestine relationship comes into play on an emotional level. Prolonged or distressing grief often has an aspect of an inability to let go (the role of the Large Intestine.)

*

Ok, so we have all this information – now what do we do with it? Given how many things in our world stand to weaken the Lung energy right now, what can we do to strengthen it?

 

Breathing Exercises: Practice breath-work every day. Do this outside in clean air if at all possible. Find a practice that works for you. Here are some suggestions:

  • Deep belly breathing for 5 minutes
  • Inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 8, exhale for a count of 8
  • 10 Deep Breaths: Breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth, ensuring you completely empty the Lungs each time
  • Qigong to strengthen the Lungs (here is a great instructional video from Peter Deadman, a legend in the acupuncture world!)
  • Healing Sound – do any of the breathing techniques above, but make a “ssssssssss” sound (like a snake) on the exhale. The “ssssssss” sound is related to the Lungs in Chinese Medicine.
  • As you breathe, vividly picture inhaling health or healing and exhaling toxicity or grief

 

Food: There are numerous foods that strengthen the Lung energy from a Chinese Medicine perspective. The following are some Lung-nourishing foods. Try to add some these into your diet to promote health of the Lung energy. Also, avoid the common foods that weaken the body: refined sugar and fried or greasy foods. Eat warm, cooked food whenever possible and avoid raw foods or cold temperature foods or drinks. Eat dairy in moderation, unless you have a phlegmy-cough, in which case cut it out completely.

Garlic, Ginger, Onion, Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Cardamom

Sweet Potato, Cabbage, Radish, Leek, Asparagus, Broccoli, Cucumber, Celery, Mustard Greens, Parsnips, Turnips

Rice

Miso, Soybeans, Tofu

Pears, Apricots, Banana

Walnuts, Almonds

Eggs

 

Take Care of Your Skin: Because the Lungs control the skin and the pores from a Chinese Medicine perspective, doing things to promote skin health also promotes the health of the Lung energy. Here are a few suggestions:

Sunbathe (within reason)

Dry Brush your skin

Let your skin breathe – give your body a break from the constricting, overly fitted, non-breathable clothes many of us wear all day. (Maybe quarantine is good for this!)

 

Acknowledge Your Grief: If you are feeling some of those tell-tale signs of Grief, as so many are, don’t sweep it under the rug. Acknowledge your grief, put words to it, and communicate it to others. Shared stories help to heal.

Experts also recommend finding other ways to express your grief – art, music, writing. Create.

Let yourself experience things other than grief, too. Sometimes when you are in the thick of an emotion like grief or loss, it almost feels wrong to feel other things. Let yourself. Allow yourself to laugh with friends over Zoom, watch a funny feel-good movie, dance in your kitchen.

And if you are having a harder time than you think is appropriate, given the situation, talk to someone. Therapists are still open and providing services virtually. (If you are local and need a referral please email marcie@steppingstoneacu.com!) Soon the rest of us – acupuncturists, massage therapists, herbalists, etc – will be back in the office and treating you too.

 

Until then, breathe deep. We are all in this together.

 

Image credit: Pinterest

*Disclaimer: I in no way mean to imply that you can prevent COVID-19 infection through breathing techniques and food. I do mean to imply that you can strengthen the energy systems in a Chinese Medicine view of the body that play into your body’s ability to fight off infection, to process grief, and to aid in respiration. In my view, these things are not the be-all-end-all. But they can only help.

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