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Woman in various emotional states

Conventional health care providers have just caught onto the notion that disease can be caused or at least perpetuated by emotional factors – just last night I saw a segment on the news that featured a MD at Harvard University who is “pioneering” the use of deep relaxation and meditation for the prevention and treatment of disease.  In reality, the idea that mental and emotional stress can cause disease is very old.  Chinese medical practitioners have espoused this idea for over 2,000 years.  In fact, according to ancient Chinese medical texts, “excessive emotions” are the primary cause of disease in adults (the primary cause of disease in children is their inherently immature digestive systems and improper diet).

According to ancient Chinese medical texts, without the energy generated by feelings and emotions the body would die. Strong emotions stimulate hormonal changes, enhance the function of organs, and energize the specific parts of the body needed to deal with urgent situations. For example, anger stimulates the energy that is needed for confrontation and fear mobilizes the body to flee from danger. When we are able to respond proactively and effectively to these situations, distressing emotions are generally transformed to a sense of empowerment, enhanced self-confidence, and satisfaction (for example when we use our anger to diplomatically confront a situation or when our fear motivates us to remove ourselves from a situation that is physically or emotionally dangerous). A problem arises, however, when the situation that stimulates strong emotions does not resolve and/or we ignore or repress our strong emotions in an effort to remain “calm, cool, and collected” at all times. This eventually results in other distressing emotions, such as when unresolved anger evolves into secondary but more insidious emotions such as resentment, hostility, bitterness, guilt, and depression.

There are seven extreme emotions that can cause pathology when they go unresolved or when they are repressed.  They are:

  • Anger
  • Worry
  • Pensiveness
  • Grief
  • Fear
  • Shock
  • Excessive excitement or gluttony

Obviously, these are feelings that are a part of the typical human experience – to not experience any emotion would be abnormal.  It is only when these emotions or mental demands become excessive or overwhelming that they become pathogenic.  Our bodies were not designed to experience intense emotions day in and day out and our minds were not designed to constantly be juggling the hundreds of decisions that need to be made and things that need to be remembered from the time we wake until the time we go to sleep every day.  In modern society, we are constantly being called on to process a huge volume of sensory information, as well as information that provokes emotional responses on a daily basis.  Just watching a half-hour of the evening news would be enough to send an ancient person into sensory and emotional overload (with all the advertisements clamoring for our attention and emotionally-charged news stories).

According to David Allen (author of Getting Things Done):

“In the old days, work was self-evident.  Fields were to be plowed, machines tooled, boxes packed, cows milked, widgets cranked.  You knew what work had to be done – you could see it.  It was clear when the work was finished, or not finished.  Now, for many of us, there are no edges to most of our projects.  Most people I know have at least a half-dozen things they’re trying to achieve right now, and even if they had the rest of their lives to try, they wouldn’t be able to finish them to perfection.  You’re probably faced with the same dilemma.  How good could that conference potentially be?  How effective could the training program be, or the structure of your executive’s compensation package?  How inspiring is the essay that you’re writing?  How motivating is the staff meeting?  How functional the reorganization?  And a last question: How much available data could be relevant to doing these projects “better”?  The answer is, an infinite amount, easily accessible, or at least potentially so, through the Web.  Almost every project could be done better, and an infinite quantity of information is now available that could make that happen.”

Although this quote refers primarily to the type of work that a person in the paid labor-force is responsible for, I would argue that full-time parents and students face the same demands.  You could always read another book or apply another technique in order to be a “better” parent, you could always be involved to a greater extent in activities like PTA or your children’s athletic teams.  Students could always be a little more prepared for that next exam, or could revise that paper one more time.  In the information age, there is no clear end to our responsibilities, and most people don’t have any real “time off” (our employers, children, or clients can almost always get access to us via e-mail or cell phone). For most people, these demands result in mental and emotional overload, which often leads to the development of physical symptoms.

Chinese medicine acknowledges what most of us already know intuitively – excessive demands on our minds and our emotions often result in physical illness. Have you ever come down with a bad cold just after finishing a major project or taking your final exams?  Do you ever experience physical symptoms like abdominal cramps, digestive disturbances, or headaches when you are upset or stressed?  Do you find that chronic symptoms get dramatically worse when you are angry or sad?  Did you develop a physical condition during a very stressful period of your life that just never went away?  Practitioners of Chinese medicine have known for thousands of years what conventional medical providers are just beginning to recognize – our minds and our bodies are intimately linked.  In Chinese medicine, the body, mind, and emotions are an integrated whole with no beginning or end.  Just because a physical symptom is caused by stress, it is not any less “real” than a physical symptom caused by an infection or injury.

Each yin organ is associated with a corresponding emotional and mental function.  Constitutional weakness of a particular organ can cause imbalanced mental or emotional function, and excessive amounts of a given emotion or mental function can weaken the associated organ.  For instance, a person with congenitally weak Kidney function might have a weak will or might be especially fearful.  Or, many students (who are called upon to exert the Spleen function of thinking and memorizing to an extreme) often develop symptoms of Spleen deficiency during finals season.

OrganAssociated EmotionMental/Spiritual Function
LungsSadness or griefDiscernment, critical thinking
LiverAnger or irritabilityDecisiveness, planning, ability to overcome resistance
HeartExcitement or gluttonyIntelligence, capacity to form relationships, spirit
SpleenWorry and pensivenessThinking, information processing, memorization
KidneyFear and shockDrive, will to carry out life purpose

According to Chinese medicine, learning to handle the emotional and mental demands of life more effectively is just as important to preventing and treating disease as herbs, acupuncture, better diet, or exercise.