Mental health and physical well-being have always been linked in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In fact, every internal organ and associated acupuncture meridian is associated with a particular emotion. For example:
1) The “Spleen” complex includes the stomach, pancreas and the bodily functions of digestion, nutrient absorption, the formation of blood, blood vessel integrity, muscle development, mouth and lips and forehead.
The “spirit” of the Spleen is “thinking”. When in balance, the amount of “thinking” is appropriate to the situation, which involves being present to the situation at hand. Excessive thinking (pensiveness, worry, OCD…even excessive studying especially while sedentary) can result in imbalanced Spleen Qi. This is often associated with digestive problems, eating disorders, poor nutrient absorption, constipation, and similar issues.
2) The “Lung” complex includes respiratory functions, the nose and the skin and often Spleen issues as well (there is a saying “Spleen is mother of Lung”). Lung and Spleen are both associated with the immune system and with phlegm production. This is in line with recent Western medical findings that the immune system “starts” with gut health and the microbiome.
The “spirit” of the Lung has to do with “letting go”. During meditation we focus on breathing in and breathing out. With each breath, we have an opportunity to let go of what we are holding on to and take in what is fresh and new. Sadness and grief (the pain of not “letting go”…of not fully accepting our losses) leads to Lung Qi imbalances, which can lower our resistance to infections or cause other Lung related disorders. Rigidity or an “anal type” personality is also associated with Lung Qi imbalances.
3) The “Liver” complex includes the liver, gallbladder and bile ducts, the eyes, the flanks, temples and ribcage areas and the tendons. The Liver meridian passes through the (both male and female) genitals, and the breasts. The liver is a “regulator”: it is in charge of the smooth release of hormones, the smoothness of menstrual cycles and of movement. Issues of irregularity (irregular cycles, irregular bowel movements, spasticity of the muscles/tendons, tics, uncontrolled movements), and some pain conditions, such as migraines are associated with Liver imbalances.
The “spirit” of the Liver has to do with assertiveness and vision. When healthy, it is direct, decisive, confident and visionary (knowing what one wants and going after it). When this energy is impeded or thwarted, it results in an imbalance of anger. There can be on the one hand uncontrolled rage and lashing out. Conversely, there may be long term frustration leading to depression turned inward (with the anger rarely acknowledged or expressed directly).
4) The “Kidney” complex, includes the bladder, the lower back, the legs and feet, and the ears (especially with regard to hearing). The Kidney is associated with stamina, fertility, memory and alertness. It relates to our capacity to grow, develop, conceive, concentrate and conserve. One can think of the Kidney as the “reserve tank” that our parents gave us when we were conceived. Due to genetic differences, some people can “burn the candle at both ends” without sustaining damage for longer periods than other people. We need to cultivate wisdom in order to know when we’ve exceeded our limits. Even with this understanding, sometimes life events exceed the capacity of our “reserve tanks”. This can age us prematurely. Replenishing Kidney Qi allows us to “age gracefully”.
Chronic fear and fright damage the kidneys. In children, this may result in bedwetting and night terrors. In adults, this may result in hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, dark circles under the eyes, “adrenal exhaustion”, problems with body temperature regulation, low sex drive, and waning stamina. Thyroid disorders are not uncommon.
5) The “Heart” is such an important complex that it has four meridians associated with it: Heart, Pericardium (the “protector” of the Heart), Small Intestine and San Jiao or “Triple Warmer”). Its physical functions overlap with what we would consider to be cardiac disorders in Western medicine. Poor circulation, cold hands and feet, and palpitations, arrhythmias and disorders of the veins, arteries and capillaries are Heart related conditions.
The “spirit” of the Heart is “Joy”. “Joy” in Chinese medicine represents a person’s zest for life, the light that radiates from their eyes, and their ability to emotionally connect with others. Similar to the other emotions, “Joy” can be excessive or deficient. “Excessive” joy is similar to mania…a sleepless, restless, excessively talkative and hyperactive state. Versus deficient Joy can manifest as apathy, melancholia, agoraphobia, and the inability to feel pleasure and connect with others. The person lacks warmth.
Emotions are healthy when they are appropriate to the situation, free flowing and not excessive. When we get stuck in certain emotional states for long periods of time, they “poison” our system.. This has physical repercussions. Similarly, physical trauma, chronic pain or illness, gut problems, breathing problems, etc. will have repercussions for our emotions. All stuck emotions, no matter how or where they originate, eventually affect the Heart.