Can our emotions make us sick?
Sunday 5th July 2020
Can our emotions make us sick? Or is it purely the physical body that is the source of our aches and pains? Eastern thought, from Chinese medicine to yoga, have associated illness and disease with our emotions for thousands of years. It seems as though only in the last century has Western medicine began to realise that our mental health, emotions and thoughts can have a significant impact on our physical bodies. It’s encouraging to see that the Western world is finally beginning to understand just how important our mental health is. I’m writing this as lockdowns around the world are starting to come to a cautious end. The total impact of this period on our mental health is yet to become apparent, but I’m sure there are going to be countless people who are experiencing anxiety, stress, worry, fear and grief more than they’ve ever known.
I’m going to focus this blog on the emotions according to Chinese medicine, and of Five Element theory. But it is worth remembering that there are cultures around the world that have recognised for a very long time that the mind, body and spirit are not separate. When we try to separate them or disregard one of them (much like we tend to ignore the soul in the West), then imbalance and disease will be suffered.
We all have a wide range of emotions. Emotions are healthy and give us the capability of enjoying life to the fullest, to protect us from hurt and harm and to encourage us to grow. How many of us have become angry at something not going our way, only to change our approach for the next time? Or felt fearful of a dangerous situation, so we’ve stayed out of harm’s way entirely. Our emotions trigger a bodily response within. If we’re faced with a possible threat, our body releases adrenaline so we can get out of there. If we’re out with friends and having a wonderful time, the body releases dopamine, the feel-good hormone so that we can respond to others with joy and love. When we get angry, the Heart beats faster, and cortisol is released into the bloodstream. All of these in moderation are perfectly fine and help keep us in an appropriate state of balance. When too much of these hormones are released, we can suffer from bad moods, anxiety, high blood pressure, insomnia and even diabetes.
And so, onto Five Element theory! When the ancient Chinese were observing nature thousands of years ago, they saw that everything fell into two different qualities. These qualities are easily recognised around the world as yin and yang. These qualities weren’t separate to each other, and so are different parts of the same whole. On further observation of the seasons and the changes that occurred during these times, they observed five different qualities of energy. These qualities became known as the Five Elements. They recognised that what was happening outside in the world around them was also happening inside each of them. The cycle of the seasons could be observed within the human being as much as in nature. We must remember that we aren’t separate from nature! We are all microcosms of the macrocosm, and the ancient people of the world recognised this critical fact. These Five Elements each have two organs (4 for Fire) associated with them:
· Fire – Heart and Small Intestine, the Three Heater (our internal thermostat) and the Heart Protector (the pericardium) which protects the Heart from external shock
· Earth – The Spleen and Stomach
· Metal – The Lungs and Large Intestine
· Water – The Kidneys and the Bladder
· Wood – The Liver and Gall Bladder
Each of the five elements has an associated emotion. When in balance and appropriate, each of the emotions enables us to live a varied and multi-facetted life and to experience everything our lives has to offer. When out of balance, we can suffer from several problems or ‘symptoms’ that correspond to the Element and its associated organs.
Each emotion reflects the feeling of the season of the Element. For instance, joy is the emotion associated with the Fire Element. The heat from a long summer day inspires us to open up, to communicate with our friends and loved ones, and to be more social. Someone with an appropriate level of joy can express themselves to others and take in the love and kindness that others have to show them. For someone where this isn’t the case, they could shy away from others, unable to respond to the joy and compassion that is shown to them. Or they could seek love in all the wrong places, getting hurt along the way. Living a life without joy is a pretty bleak experience, and for someone with an imbalance in the Fire Element, can be an everyday experience.
Anger is the emotion of the Wood Element and the season of spring. Anger is often given a bit of a bad rep. We must state our claim in the world, stand up for ourselves and get things done. If we sit around and let things happen to us, we’d be pretty miserable and depressed at not being able to make any progress in our lives. Anger helps us to achieve, to better ourselves and to grow. When anger is out of balance, it can be devastating to the person and those around them. Someone that lives in a constant state of frustration and fury will push people away and damage their relationships, ruin their jobs and end up in a pretty desperate way.
The emotion associated with the Earth Element, and the season of late summer (harvest time) is sympathy. When looking at sympathy from a Chinese medicine point of view, it is about being able to give and to receive care and to nurture, nourish and support ourselves and others. Just as mother nature provides us with enough food during this time to last us the winter, we too can provide for others and sustain each other’s spirits. If someone is unable to give or receive sympathy, they could become incredibly selfish for their own needs, completely disregarding the needs of others. Or on the other hand, they could be entirely selfless, endlessly fussing and supporting the people around them. When we ignore our health and wellbeing in favour of those around us, we could end up becoming bitter and resentful when that support isn’t reciprocated. Whether we realise it or not, we cannot be of use to anyone else if we don’t nourish and support ourselves.
The season of autumn brings the qualities of Metal and the emotion of grief. There is a certain melancholy to the autumn, and just as the trees let go of their leaves ready for the next years growth, we too must determine what we should keep and let go. The emotion of grief is often experienced as a sense of loss for the way things were, or for someone that was once with us. Grief is an essential part of life, as it gives us the capability of knowing what is important to us. We need to mourn those that are no longer with us, or for fond memories of times in our past. It’s when this grief turns into a permanent state of loss and regret that we begin to get lost in a state of despair that lasts much longer than is appropriate.
Water, and the season of winter, brings us the emotion of fear. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are terrified during the wintertime. We need to have a healthy level of fear to get through the harsh winter months. In ancient times, the winter would be a dark and foreboding time, when fear for survival would dominate the season. Many of us might not think of winter like this anymore, but the feeling of fear is just as crucial now as before. For instance, we need to ensure we have enough money in the bank for food to feed ourselves and our families. If we didn’t have enough, the feeling of fear would magnify as we try to find ways to survive. Fear also stops us from walking out into oncoming traffic, from placing a bet that could result in financial ruin, or from putting our hand into an open fire. When someone has an inappropriate level of fear, they will often experience the anxieties and fears that they don’t have enough. They may feel as though they can’t face the world as they try desperately to protect themselves from the outside world. As a result, they could retreat from the world into their little bubble of safety. On the other hand, someone could live a fearless life, always seeking that next thrill, paying little regard to their safety or the safety others. In no way does this mean that the fear isn’t there. It means that they have developed a coping mechanism of confronting and quashing their fears in a dangerous and often deadly way.
When treating someone with Five Element acupuncture, the practitioner will diagnose which emotion they believe is the most inappropriate. This may seem a simple task, but us humans are very good at ‘acting’ and putting on a mask to suit the situation. Someone who is coming for treatment for a bad back may be surprised to be asked questions about their relationships or their childhood. It’s during these times where we may let our guards down, or our masks fall and can indicate the emotion that feels most inappropriate. For instance, if someone is asked about their most fond childhood memory but responds with frustration, this is an indication of an inappropriate emotion. If someone is talking about the loss of a loved one while happily smiling and laughing, this could be a clue that something is not quite right with the Fire Element. Again, this may seem easy, but every single person is different. We all show our emotions in different ways. The same angry response I would give is going to be entirely different for someone else. The way one person deals with grief will differ significantly to someone else. It is essential for a Five Element practitioner to build rapport with the person that they are treating, so that conversation can flow naturally, and inappropriate emotions can be recognised. Once the inappropriate emotion becomes clear, amongst a few other diagnostic indicators, then the practitioner will decide which Element to focus their treatment on. By focussing treatment on the Element that is the root cause of the imbalance, then relative balance and harmony can begin to be restored.
We’re excellent in the Western world at masking symptoms. The first thing many of us do when we have a headache is reach for the pills. Some of us hide or cover up our emotions with alcohol or drugs. But all these things do is precisely that. Mask the problem. When we get a migraine, it more often than not is caused by something unrelated to the site of pain. And it’s highly likely that our emotions have a considerable part to play in our suffering.