Many patients who seek acupuncture treatment come to us for
a specific physical ailment – such as knee pain, or back pain, or digestive
disturbances. Many of these patients report that over the course of treatment
for that physical ailment, they also notice changes in their psychological,
emotional, or mental state: perhaps they report better sleep, less anxiety,
improved outlook on life, a better ability to deal with stress, or increased
feelings of relaxation throughout the day. Why is this?
Acupuncture and Chinese
Herbal Medicine are holistic medical treatment modalities. This means that they
diagnose and treat by looking at how all parts of the body, mind, and spirit
are interacting and functioning. Thus,
by treating physical manifestations of imbalance in the body (such as low back
pain), we can also treat the mental, emotional, and spiritual manifestations of
imbalance, and vice versa.
So how does Traditional Chinese Medicine view the mind and
As we have mentioned before, meridians and energetic systems
in Chinese medicine share names with our biomedical organs. Each energetic
system (such as the Heart, or the Liver, or the Spleen) controls physical,
mental, and emotional functions of the body.
Each energetic organ system corresponds to a certain emotion. When that
organ system is weakened, there will be abnormal expression of that emotion.
Alternately, an overwhelming degree of a certain emotion will weaken the
corresponding energetic organ system.
In TCM, we talk of an entity called the Shen. The Shen is
the mental/emotional part of the human being. There are many different aspects
of the Shen, and each relate to a distinct energetic organ system in the body. The Heart (the fire element) is related to joy. Joy is a
good thing, obviously, but TOO MUCH joy is pathological. An imbalance of the
heart can therefore lead to symptoms of mania (what would be classified as
excessive joy.) Also, the Heart is the “emperor” of all the organs, and it
therefore oversees the healthy functioning of all of the emotional aspects of
the human being. The heart, simply said, controls the Shen, and is the
Shen. Pathologically, the heart is
closely tied to experiences of anxiety and depression, especially when these
experiences are associated with physical symptoms such as heart palpitations,
sweaty palms, feeling your heart racing, or even chest tightness. In Chinese
medicine, disturbed sleep (such as frightening dreams, frequent waking, or even
difficulty falling asleep), can be symptoms of a disturbance of the Shen. Because the Heart is the home of the Shen,
most serious psychological disorders involve an imbalance in the Heart
energetic system, including schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder, bipolar
disorder, and multiple personality disorder. A balanced Shen is one that is
even, with not too many highs or lows, and with appropriate emotional reactions
to events and occurrences.
The Spleen (earth) is related to worry and overthinking.
The Spleen controls the Yi, or our
intellect. The Yi and Spleen are damaged by overthinking, just as muscles in
your body will be damaged if you over-exercise. Frequently we see college and
graduate students come into our clinic complaining of symptoms that we relate
to a deficiency of the Spleen energy, such as fatigue, digestive upset, weakness
in the limbs, and difficulty turning off their mind at night. Worrying also
damages the Spleen – over worrying (which is similar to over-thinking) can
cause similar problems. Likewise, once the Spleen is weakened, we are more
prone to overthinking things and worrying about them too much.
The Lungs (metal) are related to grief. The Lungs in TCM are
called the “delicate organs” as they are the first energetic system to be
effected by any external diseases. There
are times, of course, when grief is an appropriate emotional reaction to a
situation. However, prolonged grief weakens the Lungs and can cause upper
respiratory illnesses, frequent colds and flus, and fatigue. It is not a
coincidence that often we get sick after a particularly sad period of time in
The Kidney (water) is related to fear and shock. In TCM, the Kidneys represent our core
energetic system, the one that is the deepest and in some senses most
important. It is natural, then, that the
Kidneys control one of the most basic, primal human emotions: fear. Think back to prehistoric times when you – a
human – suddenly saw a saber-toothed tiger, and your fear immediately kicked
into gear and made you run away. This
emotion, which today we know is tied to our flight-or-flight response, is an
integral part of who we are as a species.
(Interestingly enough, we know that the flight-or-flight response is
closely tied to the endocrine system which, you guessed it, is controlled in
TCM by the kidneys.) A severe fright or shock can damage the kidney energetic
systems, causing significant health problems. For instance, experiencing a
trauma in childhood can sufficiently damage the kidney energy, causing
developmental problems later in life.
Alternately, constitutionally weak kidney energy will predispose a
person to being easily frightened.
The Liver energy (wood) is related to anger and frustration.
Like all emotions, anger definitely has its place as a healthy emotional
response. However, a person with a Liver pathology will often experience
extreme anger outbursts, or have quite a noticeable temper. Likewise, prolonged
anger can damage the Liver, causing physical symptoms such as headaches and
migraines, PMS, digestive problems, and chest tightness. The Liver energy likes
to flow. That is what is tries to do. When the energy cannot flow throughout
the body as it desires, we often find ourselves feeling tense, irritable, and
quick-tempered. If this applies to you, try to get out and get some exercise –
even walking around the block for 10 minutes – as this will help your Liver
energy to flow more smoothly, and you in turn will find your emotions settle a
little more easily.
Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine can be a very useful
primary or complementary treatment for all manner of psychological and emotional
problems. In such cases, we focus our treatments on “calming the Shen” by
correcting whatever energetic imbalance exists in the system.
Like all aspects of this medicine, TCM teaches us to strive
for balance in our emotional lives. While some of our emotional tendencies may
be constitutional and woven into the fabric of our being, it is helpful to know
that by taking care of our bodies, we are also taking care of our emotional
selves, and vice versa. It is with this
understanding that we can begin moving towards a place of healing and wholeness…body,
mind, and spirit.