A Traditional Chinese Medicine Approach to Understanding Emotions

by Dr. Lauren Dyer L.Ac. DAC |

A Traditional Chinese Medicine Approach to Understanding Emotions

“We bury our connections and pain inside our bodies. As we let go of them, our bodies alter”

—Yung Pueblo

Stress is a notorious culprit for rising illness in the body, but it’s also needed: when dealing with alarming situations, it stimulates our fight-or flight (sympathetic) response to protect us. Of course, there’s a big difference between running from a predator to recalling to resend that time-critical email.
But in today’s day and age, our stress response to daily tasks can become elevated as if our lives were in jeopardy, and that happens when the body becomes more vlunerable to sickness. Perpetually living in survival mode without an “off-switch” or internal sense of safety can be the tipping point for emotions and experiences to manifest into physical symptoms.  

Granted, there’s a few different types of stress. For example, there’s “physical stress,” such as an injury or accident plus “chemical stress” from exposure to environmental toxins, hormonal imbalances, and even blood sugar fluctuations. And the next one is “emotional stress” that can be silent sometimes, based on if our emotions are appreciated and dealt with, or repressed and remain trapped.

A Traditional Chinese Medicine Approach to Emotions
When it comes to emotional stress though, Traditional Chinese Medicine theory has always understood how it affects the body—but it takes this connection one step further.  

Each emotion is linked with an internal organ—and when one emotion is extremely severe, it affects the functioning of the organ. This happens because each emotion leaves an impact on the circulation and direction of energy (Qi) in the body in different, but expected ways.

In the field of biomedicine, mental and emotional processes are associated with the brain (reactions in the cerebral cortex, limbic system, and hypothalamus). In case of TCM, these processes are regulated by the internal organs themselves.

Perhaps you have listened to someone say they experienced a “visceral reaction” to something. There is reasoning behind this: Our emotions are felt physically like they are experienced mentally.

You can say that our psychology impacts our physiology, aka how our body is predicted to work under healthy circumstances.

Of course, emotions are natural and healthy - they are not “good” or “bad.” However, they can be balanced, repressed, or excessive.  In TCM, when an emotion is crammed along with felt frequently or improperly (out-of-context), it is manifested as physical symptoms linked with its paired internal organ. The same is applicable in reverse: if the physical functioning of Qi (energy) of an organ is imbalanced, it can exhibit as that organ’s paired emotion.

Here are a few examples of common emotions and how they are embodied in Chinese Medicine. 

Joy & Your Heart
Although the Heart feels all emotions, Joy is the most closely linked emotion. Joy can also be seen as to explain over-excitement.

Associated Organ: Heart

The heart’s function in TCM is to regulate itself as well as the body’s blood vessels, maintaining an even and regular pulse. The heart is connected to our vitality and consciousness.

The health of the heart is analyzed through the tip of the tongue, complexion, and arteries.  Joy eases and slows the flow of Qi.

Heart or joy imbalance shows the following symptoms:

  • Palpitations
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Mania

Sadness & Your Lungs
Sadness commonly comprises grief and regret, and is closely associated with the feelings of sentimentality.

Associated Organ: Lungs

Sadness impacts the lungs, whose functions in TCM include respiration, creating and circulating Qi throughout the body, balancing sweat glands in the skin, as well as manage boundaries between our internal and external as seen in a healthy immune system. Sadness eventually exhausts the lungs and causes the Qi to vanish.

Lung or sadness imbalance can be seen by the following symptoms:

Symptoms of a lung or sadness imbalance can result in:
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Allergies & asthma
  • Getting sick frequently
  • Dry skin, eczema, etc.
  • Waking between 3am-5am
  • Crying easily & frequently

*When the Lungs are affected for a long time, it can directly influence the large intestine, its paired "Yang organ", causing issues with excretion (constipation, IBS, IBD, Ulcerative Colitis, etc.).

Worry & Your Spleen

Worry is frequently experienced by people that comprises uncontrollable thinking, dwelling, and mental grind that requires complete focus.

Associated Organ: Spleen

Worry mainly impacts the spleen, whose functions are food digestion, nutrient absorption, energy production, and the formation and management of blood. For women, the spleen plays a significant role in regulating the menstrual cycle by controlling the time and volume of blood lost every month. The spleen also monitors the “sinews” and muscles of the body and is linked with the mouth and lips. Worry weakens the spleen, resulting in stuck and “knotted” Qi Spleen or Worry imbalance result in the following symptoms:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Poor digestion, bloating
  • Loose stools or diarrhea
  • Bruising easily; bleeding disorders
  • Long/Heavy Periods
Anger & Your Liver

In broader terms, Anger includes feelings of frustration, agitation, jealousy, discontent, and antipathy.
Associated Organ: Liver
Anger impacts the liver which functions to ensure the smooth circulation of Qi and blood throughout the body. It also stores blood which is helpful for women for a pain-free, timely cycle. The liver is also indicated through the potential of the tendons, hair, nails, and the eyes.

The anger’s impact on the body is based on how we process it: if it is suppressed or exhibited through actions like shouting. On the whole, anger causes the "Liver Qi" to become static and rot, leading to improper circulation and/or the formation of internal “heat” (think: redness, an increased powerful, agitation).Liver or anger imbalance can result in the following symptoms:

  • Verbal or violent outbursts
  • Depression
  • Red face and eyes
  • Dizziness, High Blood Pressure
  • Waking between 1am - 3am
  • Headaches
  • Stiff Neck & Shoulders
  • Tendonitis
  • PMS & Painful Menstrual Cramps
    Fear & Your Kidneys

    Fear results from chronic anxiety, insecurity, or trauma—things that are not visible. It is also linked to weak willpower and isolation.

    Associated Emotion: Kidneys

    Fear affects the kidneys’ functions (and adrenal glands which are thought as single system in TCM). The kidneys are regarded as our “life gate.” They function similar to the Thyroid. Figuratively, the kidney’s are like our body’s batteries. They are responsible for our longevity, growth & development, metabolism, temperature regulation, fertility, as well as managing our stress response/energy levels on a daily basis.

    They are shown in the low back, bones, ears, and teeth too. Interestingly, the kidneys monitor fear: In biomedicine, the adrenal glands release cortisol and norepinephrine when we encounter frightening situations, stress, and major life changes. Fear eventually tires the kidneys making the Qi to fall.  
    Kidney or fear imbalance lead to the following symptoms:

    • Frequent urination & incontinence
    • Night sweats & hot flashes
    • Poor memory
    • Low back + knee pain
    • Ear ringing
    • Hearing Loss
    • Premature aging + hair loss
    • Infertility
    • Osteoporosis
    Shock & Your Gallbladder

    Shock is referred to as an abrupt emotional reaction to something that is present and is linked with trauma, fear, fright, and being alarmed.

    Associated Organ: Gallbladder

    Although shock can be linked with joy and impact the heart, it is more closely associated with the fear and hence the gallbladder, whose mainly role in TCM is to store bile produced by the liver. Its channel moves up the side of the body to the back of the shoulders, and the side (temporal region) of the head. When influenced, it gives rise to symptoms. When there is emotional balance in the gallbladder, healthy judgement, courage, and making decisions comes easily. Shock causes the Qi to scatter.
    Gallbladder or shock imbalance can result in the following symptoms:

    • Timidity (startled easily)
    • Inability to make decisions
    • Bitter taste in the mouth
    • Temporal Headaches
    • Poor Digestion, especially with fatty foods
    • Ribside or R. Shoulder Pain
    • Constipation (floating or pale stools too)
    • Waking between 11pm-1am
      As an Acupuncturist and clinician of Chinese Medicine, I focus on how my patient’s emotions are affecting their physical health and vice versa. I see these connections and symptoms described above all of the time and make it a point to gently bring awareness to them to allow for self-healing and processing.
      If you think that your emotions are at the root of a something you are struggling with, or if you have been made to feel like symptoms you are experiencing are simply “residing in your head,” I am here to ensure you this: they are not. Conclusively, our physical and emotional health are way more interlinked than you can imagine. If you are up for naturally routing and recovering from emotions and symptoms that are negatively affecting your health (from daily stress, trauma, loss, heartache, and difficult life changes), I am here to support you.

      Dr. Lauren Dyer, DACM, L.Ac., was inspired to study Acupuncture by how Acupuncture promoted wellness instead of just combating disease, and how it took a person's lifestyle, diet, and even psychology into account while treating the underlying factors contributing to imbalance for sustainable relief. Lauren is passionate about bridging the gaps in understanding between Traditional Chinese Medicine and Bio-medical paradigms, and she incorporates current research and evidence-based approaches into her practice. You can learn more about Lauren at runeacupuncture.com.

      Related Articles

      Older Post Newer Post

      To a healthier lifestyle and receive holistic recipes | TCM TIPS | SPECIAL OFFERS
      My Dao Labs