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The ancient Chinese did not view emotions in the same light as most people today see them. This different approach to how emotions impact our bodies has implications for the treatment of common disorders associated with the mind, such as anxiety and depression. If you could remove the obstruction in your body that is causing the impairment of the smooth flow of emotions, then it is quite possible to reverse the symptoms of these normally mind-based disorders.

Emotions are not in your head. They are not cells firing within your brain. They are patterns of nature, just like wind or heat or cold, and they move with the motion of breath. This makes them neither good nor bad. They just are. They exist in a smooth, cyclical motion, irrespective of how you feel about them. And what we feel can actually make us ill.

Emotions have certain effects in certain regions in your body, and when the cycle of emotions is moving without restriction, they allow you to function in life. When this motion is impaired, however, there tends to be obstruction.

This obstruction is similar to that of climate patterns, in that an actual physiological obstruction exists within the tissue in a particular location. If you experience trauma, for example, the trauma is in the tissue and stays in the tissue memory. Your brain will reference it, but it is not in your head. It is in the local tissue associated with the trauma.

What follows is a short summary of key emotions and how they can affect your body.

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ANGER: Frustration, Irritability, and Resentment

If you think about where anger is placed within the qualities of nature, it sits firmly within wood. And the nature of wood is very much about rising, opening, and expanding. It is when the sun comes up. It is springtime. It is when the flowers break out of their winter dormancy.

This is where anger fits in. It allows us to move and grow, and to cut through any obstacles that appear in life.

When we get angry, we often “erupt”, “burst”, “blow a fuse”, “go through the roof”, or “see red”. These common words and phrases describe the dramatic rising motion that can quite literally bring heat up to the face and head. Angry emotions can suddenly stop the smooth flow of circulation throughout the body, but all things being well, normal functioning is resumed soon afterwards.

What sometimes happens is that the emotion of anger or frustration does not totally disappear. It can linger, especially if it is repressed and part of long-running emotional issues, and can easily “fester” inside. This is because, if there is an obstruction pattern in your body, it quite literally gets stuck.

This is not a metaphor. There really is something within the connective tissue that is blocking how the circulation pathways pass through it. And what happens is the same as what happens to a river: There is a buildup behind it, and the pressure and subsequent overflow or counterflow will eventually cause physical pain or discomfort or emotional stagnation.

Common related conditions include: Mood swings, depression, timidity, overcontrolling, inflexibility, and physical symptoms such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), internal growths, uterine fibroids, and other intestinal conditions.

Anxiety: Over-thinking and Fretfulness

The act of deliberation allows us to judge and weigh up the quality and value of the things around us. It allows for a measured and moderate assessment of situations and the ability to take in all viewpoints and opinions.

Deliberation becomes pathological when it becomes excessive. When you are particularly worried, for example, you can feel a tightening feeling in your stomach, which is often described as being “tied in knots”.

Physiologically this makes sense as worry-type emotions are associated with the earth quality and the two associated systems, the stomach and pancreas. The feeling, therefore, is quite literally in the stomach area and represents an impairment in the smooth breath motion of the stomach system.

These systems are responsible for digestion and extracting the nutrients we need from the food we eat. An impairment in the stomach and pancreas systems can also make someone more susceptible to worrying, and then a vicious circle can develop, whereby continued worrying weakens them.

Common related conditions include: Ulcers, nausea, digestive problems, constipation, diarrhoea, frontal headaches, and a tendency towards repetitive thinking, a lack of clarity, and obsessiveness.

GRIEF: Sadness, Loss, Regret, and Separation

If we look at where grief is placed in the qualities of nature, it is within metal. This means that it is connected to the releasing quality of the western direction. It is the sunset of the day or the autumn of the year, a time of letting go and allowing the breath to go on. We need to do this on a regular basis in order to continue on through life.

The sudden experience of grief and loss can cause temporary breathlessness and a struggle to “catch your breath”. This is often felt because the emotion of grief goes directly to the lung system (which is metal), where it causes dispersion and obstruction.

Grief does not have to be due to events like the death of a loved one and can be felt in less obvious situations, such as when something changes in your life. It can also come from looking back on how things used to be with some regret.

If the emotion is expressed and worked through, grief can strengthen your lung system and your general health, but when it is repressed it can do the opposite.

The paired system of the lung within the metal quality is that of the large intestine, hence there are often intestinal symptoms connected with this emotion.

Common related conditions include: Lung congestion, asthma, recurrent lung infections or colds, skin conditions, and intestinal problems such as IBS and colitis. There may also be a tendency to be detached, critical, arrogant, and stubborn.

SHOCK: Fright and Distress

Shock can seem to almost freeze time. When shocked we cannot speak, cannot think, and cannot move. It is only when the emotion sinks in that time appears to start up again and the body responds.

This physiological response is because shock quite literally scatters qi. This means the fabric that is usually holding you together and ensuring that everything is in its place suddenly loosens.

Stamp your feet near a flock of feeding pigeons and they fly off in all directions to temporary safety. When they think you are no longer a threat, they will fly back and continue their pecking at the scattered breadcrumbs on the ground.

The same thing happens to qi after a shock. It shoots off in all directions, and normal functioning is resumed only when it returns to its natural ordered state some time later.

Sometimes this ordered state is not the same as it was before, and an impairment can develop. This could result in a general feeling that things have never been the same since.

Shock can take many forms, from a difficult birth or an accident to a marriage breakup, and the heart is the main system affected. The sudden loss of circulatory force around your body affects the heart system and can lead to a weakening of the yin motion of the heart and a weakness in the circulation of blood around your body.

Common related conditions include: Chronic pain, sleep disturbances, chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia.

FEAR: Panic, Anxiety, and Apprehension

Fear is part of the water quality. It is also part of an essential natural response to dangerous situations. I think we may all agree, a little fear is a healthy thing to have. If not, danger would be lurking around every corner as you would not be able to make a sensible risk assessment of any situation. We perceive a danger, recognize it and respond to it, usually by reducing the threat in some way.

When we feel fear, the kidney system induces a rapid downwards motion. For this reason, it can sometimes feel as if our insides have sunk, and there is an urgent need to visit the toilet.

Weakness in the kidney system can often feed or be the cause of some fears and anxieties. Any strong imbalance can lead to a state of general fear and anxiety, where the actual threat is undefined.

Common related conditions include: On a mental level, symptoms such as panic attacks, paranoia, suspicion, phobias, and a sense of anxiety about life; on a physical level, symptoms like backache and urinary problems.

JOY: Mania, Overexcitement, and Vulnerability

Joy is placed firmly within the fire quality and is very much about love, laughter, and enjoyment. When we feel these, the storage system most affected is the heart.

The heart system slackens with these emotions, and we can then experience the normal range of happy feelings, often to the benefit of our core and the release of stagnation in the body. This is because the motions of yin and yang become temporarily balanced with joy.

This can affect not only our own happiness but those around us. According to a heart study in the US, feelings of joy increase the likelihood of partners, siblings, and neighbours being happy by up to one-third. The study also found that the relationship between people’s happiness can extend much further—up to three degrees of separation, in fact (to the friend of one’s friends’ friend), and that people who are surrounded by many happy people are themselves likely to become happy in the future.

When, however, an imbalance in the heart system develops, people can find it very difficult to deal with feelings of joy and happiness. Sometimes their reactions are inappropriate—too much at the wrong time or in the wrong place, or even a total absence of happiness. An insatiable desire for joy, pursued relentlessly through work or play, can put a great deal of stress on the heart system and can sometimes be the cause of this imbalance.

The heart and the mind are part of the same continuum, hence an excess in the heart can disturb your mind. For this reason, many of the symptoms connected to imbalances in the heart and the effects of joy come under familiar psychological names.

Ancient Chinese Treatment of Emotions

It is common for people to complain of a condition that began soon after a strong emotional issue, such as a skin condition soon after the death of a loved one; intestinal problems after a much loved only daughter left home for university; a stiff neck and shoulder after a particularly stressful, frustrating week at work.

The connection between these events and resultant health problems is rarely acknowledged or, if it is, can often be dismissed as coincidence, since it cannot easily be explained in conventional terms.

For many people, it seems easier to treat the eczema with steroid cream than to see it as a representation of grief. The grief has impaired the motion in metal and within its two systems, the lung and large intestine. The imbalance in the lung system has spilled out into the skin, which is connected to the lung by its quality of nature. One of the key parts of eczema treatment would be to strengthen the metal quality, so that the grief can then be worked through and the skin can improve.

Likewise, a few pills may take away a mother’s anxiety and worry for a while, but the root of her anxiety problem is a weakened earth quality, and strengthening her stomach and pancreas systems through diet and treatment is preferable to the damage that might be caused to the stomach lining by medication.

A stiff neck and shoulders can also be medicated or injected to provide temporary relief. However, unless there is an acknowledgement that frustration at work is causing obstruction in the neck and shoulder rivers due to an impaired liver system, and the appropriate treatment given, the problem may never really go away.

For many people, emotions come and go, and there are no long-standing emotional issues. For others, though, especially when one of the qualities is weaker than the others, the emotion can be harder to let go of.

The longer an emotion remains unresolved in your body, the greater the potential for internal disruption and ill health. The problem is that, by this time, any connection between the health condition and the emotion that caused it can all too easily be forgotten.

Copyright 2023. All Rights Reserved.
Adapted with permission of Findhorn Press,
an imprint of Inner Traditions Intl.

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book cover of: Self-Healing with Chinese Medicine by Clive Witham.In this detailed and easy-to-follow guide, licensed acupuncturist and health promoter Clive Witham addresses how and why illness in the body occurs and what we can do to nurse ourselves back to health. With clear illustrations and step-by-step instructions, he shares effective and proven self-care treatments for a number of common health disorders, from colds and high blood pressure to backache, nausea, menstrual pain, and depression.

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About the Author

photo of Clive WithamClive Witham L.Ac., M.Sc., is a licensed acupuncturist and the director of the Komorebi Institute and the Gua sha Center in Spain. For more than a decade, he ran a chronic illness clinic in North Africa. The creator of Ecology in Motion Gua sha, he specializes in Gua sha and promoting the knowledge of ancient Chinese healing as a viable, practical world medicine. The author of several books, including Holographic Gua Sha and Facial Gua Sha, Clive lives in Barcelona, Spain.