Most people that come into my office for treatment come in for various physical ailments – a torn rotator cuff, chronic back pain, women’s health issues, digestive upset. Others come for a diagnosed emotional problem or mental health issue – depression, anxiety, ADHD, OCD. But few people think of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to help them deal with negative or difficult emotional responses to life events – which is a shame, because acupuncture can be wonderfully effective in helping people through a difficult time.
We’ve talked a lot on this blog about how TCM can help you manage stress and help you during particularly stressful life events. But the beauty of TCM lies in its intricate way of understanding the web of energy in the human body – and that energy manifests in the physical, the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual sides of ourselves. Thus, TCM can be a wonderful tool to ease some of the emotional pain of a break-up, the loss of a loved one, or other disappointment, heartache, and grief. This is not to say, obviously, that acupuncture will make you feel immediately happy again amidst these feelings. But it can realign the energy systems in your body and rebalance you so that you are better equipped to deal with whatever the difficult emotion is. It can also help you to fully experience your feelings – most of us have a tendency to close ourselves off from how we really feel, to protect ourselves. But this shutting down hinders true healing and stops us from completely feeling whole and healthy and well again.
In this post, though, I’d like to talk more specifically about grief, and about what grief does to us, from a TCM perspective. First off, grief is a normal human emotional response to a loss, be it loss of a job, a loved one, a relationship, financial security, physical safety, mental faculties, or a dream. And grieving is an incredibly important healing process. While everyone experiences grief differently, there are common symptoms, such as feelings of shock, disbelief, sadness, anger, guilt, and fear. There are also physical symptoms of the emotional grieving, which can include headaches, weight gain, changes in appetite, dizziness, fatigue, trouble sleeping, nausea, body aches, and frequently getting sick.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first wrote of the 5 Stages of Grief in the late 1960s – and these stages are still widely talked about today: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. While the 5 Stages can be useful to understand what you might be feeling, it is important to remember that you don’t need to experience each of the stages in order to heal, and that people will progress through those stages at different speeds and with different manifestations.
In TCM, grief exerts many effects on the body. Grief “knots” the qi (energy). Think of common physical symptoms of grief like it feeling hard to swallow, or your throat feeling constricted, or a feeling of heaviness in the chest – these would be physical examples of the qi being knotted by grief. Imagine that it is doing the same thing at am emotional level, too. In Five Element theory (another important part of how we view the body in TCM), each human emotion is associated with an organ system. Grief is associated with the Lungs. This means that a prolonged state of grief weakens the Lung energy in the body. The Lungs in TCM control our immunity, and this is why people so often get sick after experiencing an episode of grief. To support someone in their grieving process, we will thus always treat the Lung energy in the body, to strengthen it on a physical level to and to help the emotional component heal.
But like anything in TCM, nothing exists in isolation – everything functions only by its relationships with others. And this holds true for our energy, as well. While the Lung energy may be the first or most easily affected, other energy systems will also be impacted by grief. We all have certain weaknesses, our energetic Achilles’ heel, and grief will often weaken these systems even more. Depending on what our natural tendencies are, this effects how we experience grief. For instance, if the dominant emotional response during our grieving process is anger, it is likely that grief has affected both our Lung energy and our Liver energy (the Liver is associated with experiences of anger.) If the dominant emotional manifestation is fear, then the energy of our Kidneys is involved. If our response to grief is more on the manic side of things, that would indicate that the Heart energy is involved. And if we are turning things over and over and over again in our minds, ruminating, obsessing, fixating on the situation, that indicates that the Spleen is weakened by the grief, as well. And just like everyone moves through the 5 Stages differently, so too does the grief move through these various systems. There is no right or wrong pathway for it. The important thing is to recognize it, to understand it, and to strengthen the parts of ourselves that can help us move through the experience with grace, and out to the other side.
TCM has a very nuanced way of understanding the emotions and how they relate to one another, to our physical body, and to our place in the world. And through this understanding, we can choose acupuncture points and Chinese herbs that can help you to get to that place of acceptance at the end of the grieving journey. And hopefully, take some of the edge off along the way.