“We carry our attachments and pain in our bodies. As we let them go, our bodies change”
Stress is a well-known culprit for creating illness in the body, but it’s also necessary: when confronted with threatening situations, it activates our fight-or flight (sympathetic) response to protect us. Of course, there’s a huge difference between running from a predator to remembering to send back that time-sensitive email. But in this day and age, our stress response to everyday tasks can become just as heightened as if our lives were in danger, and that is when the body becomes more susceptible 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 then there’s “emotional stress” that can be more or less silent, depending on whether our emotions are acknowledge and processed, or suppressed and remain stuck.
When it comes to emotional stress though, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has always understood how it affects the body—but it takes this connection one step further.
Each emotion is associated with an internal organ—and when one emotion is too intense, it impacts that organ’s ability to function properly. This is because each emotion impacts the circulation and direction of energy (Qi) in the body in distinct, but predictable ways.
Compared to biomedicine where mental and emotional processes are connected to the brain (reactions in the cerebral cortex, limbic system, and hypothalamus), in TCM, these processes are driven by the internal organs themselves.
Have you ever heard someone say they had a “visceral reaction” to something? There is a reason: our emotions are experienced physically as much as they are mentally.
In other words, our psychology affects our physiology, aka how our body is supposed to function 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 stuffed-down as well as even experienced repeatedly or inappropriately (out-of-context), it can show in the body as physical symptoms associated with its paired internal organ. The same is true in reverse: if the physical functioning of Qi (energy) of an organ is impaired, it can reveal itself as that organ’s paired emotion.
Here are a few examples of common emotions and how they are embodied in TCM:
Although the Heart feels all emotions, Joy is the most closely linked emotion. Joy can also be interpreted to describe 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 expressed through the tip of the tongue, complexion, and arteries. Joy relaxes and slows the movement of Qi.
Symptoms from a Heart or Joy imbalance can result in:
Sadness is said to include grief and regret, and is closely connected to feelings of nostalgia.
Associated Organ: Lungs
Sadness affects the Lungs, whose functions in TCM include respiration, creating and distributing Qi throughout the body, regulating sweat glands the skin, as well as maintain boundaries between our internal and external as seen in a healthy immune system. Sadness ultimately weakens the Lungs and causes the Qi to dissipate.
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 impacted for long enough, it can directly affect the Large Intestine, its paired Yang organ, leading to issues with elimination (Constipation, IBS, IBD, Ulcerative Colitis, etc.)
Worry is one of the most common emotions that may include obsessive thinking, dwelling, and mental work that requires intense focus.
Associated Organ: Spleen
Worry primarily affects the Spleen, whose responsibilities include food digestion, nutrient absorption, energy production, as well as the formation and management of blood. For women especially, the Spleen plays an important role in maintaining a regular menstrual cycle by influencing the duration and quantity of blood lost each month. The Spleen also governs the “sinews” and muscles of the body and is connected to the mouth and lips. Worry weakens the Spleen and causes the Qi to become stuck and “knotted.”
Symptoms of a Spleen or Worry imbalance can result in:
- Chronic fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Poor digestion, bloating
- Loose stools or diarrhea
- Bruising easily; bleeding disorders
- Long/Heavy Periods
Anger is also interpreted more broadly in TCM to include emotions of frustration, irritability, jealousy, resentment, and animosity.
Associated Organ: Liver
Anger affects the Liver whose main role is to ensure the smooth flow of Qi and blood throughout the body. It also stores blood, which again, for women is important for ensuring a pain-free, regular cycle. The Liver is also expressed through the strength of the tendons, hair, nails, as well as the eyes. The effect anger has on the body depends on how it is processed: whether it is bottled up or expressed outward by yelling, for example. Overall, anger causes the Liver Qi to stagnate and fester, leading to poor circulation and/or the generation of internal “heat” (think: redness, a rising dynamic, agitation).
Symptoms of a Liver or Anger imbalance can result in:
- Verbal or violent outbursts
- Red face and eyes
- Dizziness, High Blood Pressure
- Waking between 1am - 3am
- Stiff Neck & Shoulders
- PMS & Painful Menstrual Cramps
Fear arises from chronic anxiety, insecurity, or trauma—things that are not present. It is also linked to weak willpower and isolation.
Associated Emotion: Kidneys
Fear impacts the functioning of the Kidneys (and Adrenal Glands which are considered one system in TCM). The Kidneys are considered our “life gate.” They share similar roles 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 expressed in the low back, bones, ears, and teeth as well. It’s no surprise the Kidneys govern fear: in biomedicine, the adrenal glands produce cortisol and norepinephrine when we are faced with threatening situations, stress, and major life changes. Fear ultimately weakens the Kidneys causing the Qi to descend.
Symptoms of a Kidney or Fear imbalance can result in:
- Frequent urination & incontinence
- Night sweats & hot flashes
- Poor memory
- Low back + knee pain
- Ear ringing
- Hearing Loss
- Premature aging + hair loss
Shock is considered a sudden emotional reaction to something that is present and is associated with trauma, terror, fright, and being startled.
Associated Organ: Gallbladder
Although shock can be associated with joy and affect the Heart, it is more closely linked to fright and therefore the Gallbladder, whose primary role in TCM is to store bile produced by the Liver. It’s channel runs up the side of the body, along the back of the shoulders, as well as the side (temporal region) of the head. When affected, symptoms in these areas of the body can arise. When the Gallbladder is balanced emotionally, sound judgement, courage, and making decisions comes easily. Shock causes the Qi to scatter.
Symptoms from a Gallbladder or Shock imbalance can result in:
- 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 am always considering how my patient’s emotions are impacting 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 just “in your head,” I am here to reassure you this: they are not. As you just read, our physical and emotional health are far more connected than many might think.
If you are open to naturally navigating and healing from emotions and symptoms that are negatively impacting your health (from daily stress, trauma, loss, heartache, and difficult life transitions), I am here to support you.