10 Feb Emotions through the lens of Traditional Chinese Medicine
[These are interview notes from a discussion with The Mindfulness Journal where Dr. Aicha Sebaa answers questions about TCM and emotions.]
[ Image Credit: Morgyn Danae ]
What is the underlying theory behind Chinese medicine?
Chinese medicine has a unique yet intuitive way of looking at the body. The idea is that an essential life force is present in all beings and all aspects of life. When this vital life force or qi is balanced, the body functions optimally. When there is an imbalance, we have symptoms–a way of the body informing us to respond in some way.
CM theory reflects on the basic elements of the environment around us (such as Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water) to contextualize and symbolically mirror an understanding of what is happening within the body. Essentially, the human body is a microcosm or micro-version of the universe around us.
At the core of it all, CM honors the body’s innate capacity to heal and repair itself. Sometimes we simply need to nudge ourselves in the right direction. Therapies such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, tuina (medical massage), nutrition therapy, and various mind-body practices (such as tai chi and qi gong) are used to bring the body back to its healthiest state.
How does Chinese medicine view the mind/emotions when approaching diagnosis and treatment?
Chinese medicine looks at both external and internal causes of disease. The emotional state of a person can be seen as an internal imbalance that can trigger disease states.
Now, emotions are obviously a normal and natural part of being human. We experience all kinds of emotions depending on what life throws at us and what we’re left to process. It’s when these emotions become excessive, suppressed, and chronic that pathologies can occur.
CM is unique in that physical organs (that corespond with the 5 environmental elements I mentioned earlier) are related to specific emotions–meaning some emotions may influence specific organs more than others. For example, the emotions of grief and sorrow are closely related to the lung system. It’s important to experience and release grief, especially when we experience a tragic life event, but when this goes on too long without an outlet, it can sink in and cause deeper issues. It’s important to literally breathe through it and be attentive with the emotions we experience.
Shallow breathing, stubborn ongoing coughs, phlegm stuck in the throat, a weak immune system with chronic allergies, asthma, and even skin issues (since the skin is related to the lungs in CM) can start to show up. CM sees these problems as symptoms of deeper issues and imbalances. As much as we try to address those conditions alone, it helps to peel off more layers to see what emotions may be triggering these issues.
Other emotions we look into in CM besides grief and sorrow are: mania related to the Heart/Small Intestine* system, fear related to the Kidney/Bladder system, worry related to the Spleen/Stomach/digestive system, and anger related to the Liver/Gallbladder system. [*Organs are capitalized to distinguish these energetic CM systems from strictly viewing them through the physical biomedicine paradigm as we know it.]
Experiencing ongoing fear and fright can causes issues like a weak/sore low back, night-sweats, libido and urination issues, ringing in the ears, and even premature greying of the hair since the KD are especially important when it comes to our general vitality and longevity. Over-worrying, dwelling on a particular issue, and pensiveness may cause digestive upset, bloating, bowel issues, fatigue, and even painful or weak muscles that we see in unexplainable chronic pain cases. Anger and agitation in the long run will affect the liver channel. This can manifest physically with headaches (especially on the top the head), ribcage pain, red irritated eyes, menstrual discomfort, and dizziness. So these are some examples of how emotions can manifest physically and what a clinician may be assessing when these symptoms are mentioned.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Chinese medicine?
Perhaps a common misconception is that Chinese medicine or acupuncture is mainly used to treat pain. While there are various wonderful modalities at the CM practitioner’s disposal to treat pain, there are so many other conditions that this medical system is useful for including: insomnia, anxiety, menstrual issues, fertility, digestive issues, chronic fatigue, skin issues, migraines and headaches, you name it.
Another misconception may be that CM is more of a technical profession. While CM is quite hands on, there is a rich bucket of theory and study that goes into it. It took me 4 years of full-time study to complete my MS and take my board license exam to practice acupuncture including the various modalities and to properly prescribe herbal medicine and an additional 2 years to complete my doctorate training and research project. So that’s 6 years post bachelor’s of study not to mention the ongoing continuing education to keep my license up to date, other certifications that many practitioners pursue, and simply because I’ll never be board with this field of study. This is lifelong learning. I could never do my patients (and myself) the disservice of being satisfied and stagnant in what I know now.
How often do you find a mental/emotional aspect to a physical problem you’re treating
I see this quite a lot. The connection between our emotions and mental state is very much tied to our physical wellbeing. While there are some clear conditions like musculoskeletal pain directly linked to an acute injury, there are often issues that seemingly don’t have a clear origin and require more digging.
For example, I’ve found that caregivers with no history of smoking who are holding on to grief and sorrow will present with chronic respiratory issues. Or patients diagnosed with fibromyalgia may be dealing with chronic worry about their loved ones. Or I’ve seen quite a few cases of uncontrolled anxiety, anger, resentment showing up with fibrocystic breasts and severe menstrual cramps.
While there may be other compounding issues that can be treated with herbal medicine and nutrition therapy, I find that addressing the emotional layers with more of the lifestyle and energetic modalities of CM truly helps to speed up recovery and prevent recurrence of symptoms.
How do you help people understand that a problem/illness isn’t “all in their head” but that there may be a mental/emotional aspect to it?
This is a tough one because I feel that we’re often taught as a culture to be dismissive of not just our emotions but of our physical symptoms until they get loud enough to seek help. This is quite unfortunate because we could begin to resolve things much earlier if we truly dialed into to how we feel on all planes–mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. Sometimes labs will come back normal but the patient is still experiencing some very real symptoms.
They may be told that everything is fine, but is it? This takes ownership away from the individual who is going through the pain and puts it into a system that may be missing some key puzzle pieces. It can be quite isolating.
I often find my patients sigh with relief when I share the physical-emotional link in CM with them. It seems to click and make sense. Suddenly there is a pour of memories and expressions that seem to untangle the condition further. It’s really a beautiful thing. The mind and the body are truly connected. Sometimes we just need to be reassured of that. There is no separation between these dimensions in CM; they’re woven together and I think we’ve gotten much closer to accepting this.
Su-wen Classic Chapter 39 describes emotional disruptions to our energetic flow (loosely translated as Qi) well:
“When there is anger, the Qi rises up.
When there is elation, the Qi becomes loose.
When there is sadness, the Qi disappears.
When there is fear, the Qi descends.
When there is cold, the Qi is gathered.
When there is heat, the Qi flows outwards.
When there is startling with fright, the Qi is in disorder.
When there is fatigue, the Qi is damaged.
When there is obsessive thought, the Qi is knotted.”