As a holistic medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) emphasizes the totality of human experience, in addition to our physical construct, as the creator and perpetuator of disease. In contrast to Western biomedicine, TCM holds no distinction between psychological and physical disorders. The lines are so blurred, the Venn diagram so overlapped, that individuals must be treated as a whole, not via separate specialties.

Generally, emotions cause disease when they are severe and/or persistent, creating enough affect to derange the body’s balance of yin and yang (homeostasis). Some of the time, patients are aware that a particular event caused enough stress to change the way our body works, simply by its timeline. This is an example of a severe emotion causing disease. At other times, they do not know the event but realize that they are anxious or depressed and that is affecting their experience, including their experience with their body. That is an example of persistent emotion causing disease.

(There is a very common third manifestation of stress/emotionally attributed disease in the clinic, that which the patient is unaware of the connection between their physical discomfort and their emotional discomfort, or that they are even in emotional discomfort or stressed. They are surviving. They are functioning. Usually there is an external pressure on them that does not allow this internal realization, like kids, or work. This disconnect from their emotional aspect is just as common as the two examples above. My job, then, is to demonstrate this relationship to the patient, and to emphasize that re-establishing this relationship is critical to their wellbeing.)

How do emotions cause disease in Traditional Chinese Medicine?

The answer lies in a 2000-year-old manuscript called the Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen (Yellow Emporer’s Classic). Comparable to the Hippocratic writings in ancient Europe, the Nei Jing provides origin and backbone to all acupuncturists. While the Hippocratic Oath is still a sliver of Biomedical training, the Nei Jing continues to provide insight and inspiration to acupuncturists both theoretically and clinically.

Using the Nei Jing, we will discover the mechanism of injury each emotion has in the body. First, a little Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory:

What is qi? Qi is translated to mean energy, or “life-essence”; it is shorthand for the functionality of an organ, or the whole, or the essential nature of something. It is what is behind the curtain. It is that thing that animates animate objects.

From the Nei Jing, each emotion has a very specific effect on our qi. If we consider each individually we can actually feel how our qi shifts in response to each emotion

Try this exercise

Imagine an experience that caused each emotion and notice the response the body has.

Feel where the emotion is located and the sensations that arise.

“Joy causes qi to slacken;

Anger causes qi to rise;

Thought [consternation, confusion] causes qi to bind;

Sorrow causes qi to disperse;

Fright causes qi to scatter;

Fear causes qi to descend.”

Now, if we imagine a very strong emotion, one that overwhelms our system and our experience, or one that is perpetual and does not stop, we can start to understand how the derangement of qi caused by the emotions can change the way the body functions. TCM is very specific about these mechanisms. I have outlined a few examples below.

“Joy causes qi to slacken;

(Excessive joy leads to fire in the heart, which weakens it leading to heart fluttering, insomnia, mania, ADD and hyperactivity.)

Anger causes qi to rise;

(Excessive anger causes the Liver qi to rise, resulting in red complexion, high blood pressure, headache, dizziness, or even stroke)

Thought [consternation, confusion] causes qi to bind;

(Excessive thought can cause binding of the normal movement and transportation in the digestion resulting in focal distention and fullness, poor appetite, gas, and incomplete stools.)

Sorrow causes qi to disperse;

(Excessive sorrow or grief can cause depression in the chest that transforms to heat, which disperses and wears out the lung qi causing crying uncontrollably, heat vexation and agitation (restlessness), pale white complexion, poor immune function and a lack of vigor)

Fright causes qi to scatter;

(Fright, manifesting as PTSD and trauma can cause significant mental suffering. The Nei Jing Su Wen, Chapter 39 states: When one is frightened, then the heart has nothing to lean on, the spirit has nowhere to return, and one’s deliberations have nowhere to settle.)

Fear causes qi to descend.”

(Fear can damage Kidney qi, causing low back pain, urinary incontinence or diarrhea.)

In conclusion, while we in the west recognize a vague connection between stress and physical disease, Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches us that the specific aspect of stress that causes disease is excessive and/or persistent emotions. Furthermore, TCM establishes direct relationships between the six emotions (anger, fear, sorrow, fright, over-thinking, and over-joy) and their physical manifestations. Amazingly, these relationships were recorded 2000 years ago and continue to be clinically relevant today, allowing acupuncturists to use needles and/or Chinese medicinals to balance and harmonize the emotional body. In addition, I have developed a unique approach to directly release trapped emotional energy called Emotional Energy Clearing.

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Dr Josh Eha, DAOM, L.Ac, C.SMA | Licensed Acupuncturist