Emotions and Your Body: A (mostly) Traditional Chinese Medicine view
What, if anything, do our emotions have to do with our physical health? In recent years, Western medical researchers have increasingly acknowledged the links between emotions and physical symptoms. Since I first studied cognitive neuroscience, the neurobiology of emotions has become a much hotter topic (thank goodness!)1
Western science is still in the early stages of understanding how our mind and body interact. Other healing traditions, such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), draw from millennia of experience and systematic observation of emotional/physical links.2
This article on emotional health draws from my experiences with:
- the clinical practice of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine
- meditation that trains the mind to notice extremely subtle energy throughout the body, and
- various forms of therapy I’ve experienced myself
The topic of how emotions affect the physical body (and vice versa) is immense, so here are just a few ideas to start with:
YOUR ENERGY FLOW
In Chinese medicine, good health results from adequate and balanced energy (‘Qi’) flow. Illness results from imbalanced or inadequate energy, or blocked circulation. Much like physical blood, energy has to flow in the right directions and amounts throughout the body for it to function well.
Feeling an emotion = feeling a certain wave of energy in the body that has physical effects. Have you noticed this? With practice, you can sit quietly and watch the wave come and go. This emotion might feel like an intense buzz, another might pull your chest in tighter, and another might make you warm. So, emotions and a change of ‘physical’ Qi flow go hand-in-hand. Chinese medicine has observed this systematically since ancient times; the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, one of the earliest medical texts (~2500 years old), states that “anger makes Qi rise, joy slows down Qi, sadness dissolves Qi, fear makes Qi descend… shock scatters Qi… pensiveness knots Qi.”
The emotional wave doesn’t have to last long, but we generally hang on. According to Buddhist psychology, we aren’t in the habit of letting go of emotional experiences. If it was a pleasant wave of energy, we tend to hang on and enjoy it. If it was unpleasant, we tend to hang on and stew in anger, hurt, or sadness about it. This happens by automatic habit, subconsciously replaying the situation in our mind, and reacting to our reactions. Without realizing it, we compound things – feeling angry that we’re hurt, sad that we’re angry, angry that we’re sad, etc. It’s even more difficult to let go when strong residual emotions are triggered.
IMBALANCE AND ILLNESS
Prolonged, repressed or extreme emotions can cause illness. In Chinese medicine, the major causes of imbalance and illness in adults are: environmental, food/lifestyle habits, trauma, and…emotions!
Let’s use an example:
Someone says “you’re totally selfish”, and I react with anger. Immediately my chest subtly tightens, shoulders tense up, breathing becomes shallow, and face feels warm. I may not realize this, but if I can’t face, process, and let go of this mental and physical reaction, if I keep replaying the event and regenerating the same anger, the built-up tensions and imbalances may lead to health issues. For example, it may reduce energy flow within, say, my intestines (or other internal organs) and cause constipation and/or diarrhea (or other internal problems), eventually weakening my digestion and causing food sensitivities. We see these consequences every day in the clinic.
The above is just one example of many possible consequences of chronic emotional tension. Chronic pain, for example, could be another development. Some doctors believe that most chronic pain/ health problems are caused by held, repressed emotions in the unconscious.3 I believe the causes of chronic pain/illness are more complex – injuries, repetitive strain, environmental toxins, genetic issues, etc. all play a role… but agree that emotions can be a powerful factor, as Chinese medicine understands.
Emotional memories can be held in the body and ‘retriggered’. The above example may seem exaggerated, but what can happen is that a simple incident (like being called “selfish”) can actually trigger old emotions “held” in our body. It’s like our Qi system (think of it as our nervous system, in this situation) ‘remembers’ strong reactions from earlier life. Any stimulus that touches a similar ‘memory circuit’ can result in hugely amplified emotional reactions. This is how I believe triggers work, for those of you interested in trauma recovery. (More on trauma and triggers in a future article.)
Affecting one’s emotions changes the Qi flow in the body. By managing my emotions, I can also make changes in my physical Qi. So by thinking differently about the situation, letting go, confiding in a friend or counsellor, meditating, journalling, or talking things out respectfully, I can change my thoughts, emotions and the qualities of the energy flow I’m feeling.
For example, in the above situation, maybe I realize I misheard and she’d actually said “you’re totally selfless.” My anger fades, I let my breath out, my shoulders relax, my face cools down, and I might get a light feeling in my chest. Or maybe I talk things out with another friend, who reassures me that I’ve done the best I can and the offender just has their own misconceptions. I relax and feel calmer (as long as I can catch myself before going back into the ‘angry’ belief about being wronged). If I can release my emotional tension often enough, I can avoid some of the longerterm health effects of a chronic Qi reaction pattern.
CHANGING YOUR ENERGY FLOW
Changing Qi flow also affects emotions. In Chinese medicine, cause and effect often go back and forth. That means physically manipulating Qi flow can change your emotional state. You can change your Qi flow countless ways, e.g. by: deep or conscious breathing, relaxation, yoga, exercise, food and drink, hanging out with others, taking a hot bath, getting acupuncture or a massage, etc.
For example, have you felt really angry and then gone for an intense workout, or an acupuncture treatment? Were you ever anxious and then had a delicious meal? Were you ever feel frustrated and tense, and then soaked in an epsom salt bath?
Once I was feeling wired, hyperactive and rushed on a long-distance cycling trip. We’d done half of the 100 km for the day, and I was raring to finish as fast as possible. After a 15 minute massage, though, I was a completely different cyclist. I glided along serenely, gazing at ducks and flowers, drinking in the fresh air like it was my favourite summer cocktail.
Releasing body tensions can help release old, stuck emotions – as many who have experienced or given bodywork can attest to. Emotional releases during acupuncture, massage, body-based meditation, dance and yoga, are fairly common. I’ve even had a number of people recall specific memories when massaging or needling certain areas of their bodies.
But if we don’t change our thoughts and beliefs, those tensions may recur – it’s like the tensions and physical symptoms are ‘branches’ and the thought patterns that are hurting us inside are the roots. This is why I believe bodywork is especially powerful for emotional healing, when done along with working on one’s thinking (through meditation, talk therapy, etc.). For resources on meditation and talk therapy in the Greater Toronto Area, check my More on the topic of ‘Emotions and the Body’ in future articles. Your feedback is 110% welcome, as this is a huge topic to explore!
For a free personal 20 minute consultation on how emotions may be affecting your symptoms, contact me today!
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1. Daniel J. Siegel, The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009).
2. TCM Doctors Take on Emotions, http://www.china.org.cn/english/Life/173064.htm
3. Sarno, John E., MD, The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain (Warner Books, Inc., 1998).