There’s a saying in Chinese medicine: “It’s better to eat the wrong food with the right attitude than the right food with the wrong attitude.” In other words, our invisible mental framework and overall emotional state may be more important in determining the body’s response than the nature of the material input or stimuli we happen upon. In fact, let’s replace the words “eat” and “food” in the original quote with “encounter” and “stimulus” in order to appreciate its broader and deeper application.
What the ancient Chinese sages knew long ago is now being corroborated by modern science, and slowly but surely gaining a footing in the belief systems of popular culture. However, the dominant approach to health and medicine is still largely under the dictates of materialism, in which there is no reality other than material reality. It’s a linear, cause and effect, partitioned, us vs them, militaristic model that discounts the roles of psyche, emotion, and spirit in the fabric of one’s well-being.
Medical researchers in the burgeoning field of Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) are affirming the intimate links between psychological/behavioral, neuroendocrine, and immunologic processes. PNI explains the biological pathways through which emotions dictate health and disease - something Chinese Medicine has conveyed for thousands of years (albeit in slightly different terms).
Physiological and psychological health are INTERDEPENDENT
In Chinese Medicine, the relationship between mind and body is reciprocal and communication is bidirectional. Emotions, when chronically excessive or insufficient, or sudden and forceful, can instigate illness. Likewise, unbalanced somatic states can provoke disharmonious emotional states. Physiological health depends on the free flow of Qi and blood throughout the body. Free flow of Qi and blood depends on freedom of the Mind (i.e., Heart Shen) from disproportionate or unrestrained passion (i.e., imbalanced emotion). Tranquility of the Mind also depends on healthy circulation of Qi and blood.
The Nei Jing (the central text of Chinese Medicine) cites seven basic emotions and their relationship to the five Yin Organs. An imbalance of a particular emotion can provoke a disharmony in its corresponding Organ System, producing an array of physiological symptoms. Fear and fright affects the Kidney, rage the Liver, excitability the Heart, worry the Spleen, and sadness and grief the Lung. These correspondences highlight the necessity of honing our capacity for harmonious emotional response in maintaining health.
“If one maintains a tranquil ‘heart/mind’ [without excessive cogitation or emotion], one will become a receptor of life’s healthful energies, and will be able to retain them and live a long life.”
The Link Between Consciousness and Biology
People diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) serve as staggering evidence that any given state of consciousness has a corresponding biological reality.
For example, a man with MPD got hives when he drank orange juice in all but one of his personalities. “Timmy” could drink orange juice without getting hives or having any other reaction. But if another personality appeared while the juice was still being digested, hives appeared. What's more, if Timmy returned while the allergic reaction was present, the itching subsided immediately, and the blisters began to diminish.
When people shift from one extreme emotional state to another they exhibit major physiological shifts similar to those seen in multiple personality patients. Consider the heart palpitations, shortness of breath, trembling, etc. of someone having a panic attack, for instance.
The Interplay of Emotions and Immunity
Fulvio D’Acquisto, a professor and researcher who christened the field of Affective Immunology, says that, “for every change in the way we feel or live, there is a ‘mirror correspondence’ in the immune system.” It’s known that emotions can provoke the release of pituitary and adrenal hormones, and thereby affect cardiovascular, metabolic and immune functioning. And studies have shown that a dysfunctional immune system can induce emotional disorders, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and suicidality.
“Homoeostasis of the immune system cannot be just interpreted as absence of threats from the external environment… Disturbance in emotional wellbeing is one of the leading causes that make acute inflammatory responses transform into chronic autoimmune disorders. Similarly, change in the immune system might constitute the tipping point for a weak emotional state to become a chronic and morbid mood condition.“
Luckily, this connection can also work in our favor. The more welcomed emotions, like happiness and love, foster a consistent positive effect on the immune system in folks of all ages.
Neuroscientist and pharmacologist, Candace Pert, wrote extensively about neuropeptides, the chemical messengers that communicate multi-directionally between the brain, glands, and immune system. She found, for example, that human monocytes - vital immune cells - contain receptors for emotion-affecting biochemicals (i.e., opiates, endorphins, PCP, oxytocin), but they also make neuropeptides, such as beta endorphins, which impact mood.
In speaking of the body as the subconscious mind, Pert declared that, “a feeling sparked in our mind or body will translate as a peptide being released somewhere. [Organs, tissues, skin, muscle and endocrine glands] all have peptide receptors on them and can access and store emotional information… Emotions are stored in the body, trying to move up and be expressed and thereby integrated, made whole, and healed”.
Express Yourself for Health
The trouble arises when our emotions are suppressed or prolonged (i.e., “feelings”) rather than freely expressed. Remember, health relies on the free flow of Qi, blood, and Mind. Neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, teaches that the physiological process involved in emotional reactivity normally lasts for only 90 seconds, but we often choose (perhaps unconsciously) to stay in that emotional loop by perpetuating the thought(s) that initially provoked it.
A strong emotional reaction triggers the stress response, which is designed to be a short-term measure to bring the body back to homeostasis. But when the stress response is chronically activated (by constant exposure to stressors, habitual thought patterns, or unprocessed emotions), we are essentially living in emergency mode, which is a recipe for disease. When, on the other hand, we are able and willing to meet our emotions with curiosity and courage, they can become the spark of health and personal growth.
In Chinese Medicine, the emotions are also connected with the five Spirits and five virtues. “The five Spirits should be able to harness the emotions and allow their energy to become virtues”. Worry might transform into creativity and loyalty, anger into benevolence, fear into faith and wisdom, grief into beauty and awe, and rapture into intimacy. “This transformation of emotional Qi into a virtue... often requires an inner effort of self-reflection. It may benefit from the assistance of herbs and acupuncture” and the support of a compassionate confidant. As an acupuncturist, it is my duty and my passion to facilitate this transformation in myself and others, and to marvel in gratitude at the blossoming of vital energy that transpires.
“‘When a physician does not make the effort to guide the patient’s mind and moods in a positive way, that physician has robbed the opportunity to achieve a cure. So much of all illness begins in the mind, and the ability to persuade the patient to change the course of perception and feeling to aid in the healing process is a requirement of a good physician.’” -Huang Di