If someone asked us to describe a healthy lifestyle, we would probably talk about a wholesome diet, plenty of exercise, refraining from alcohol and smoking and getting sufficient sleep. According to Chinese medicine teachings, however, cultivating our mind and emotions is even more important than these aspects.
Being able to calm and expand our minds, manage our emotions, and cultivate mental states such as kindness, generosity, compassion, patience etc. may support our health, assist in healing disease, and may even extend our lifespan.
Having emotions such as joy, sadness and anger are all of course perfectly normal experiences we have in our daily lives. They are part of being human!
It is when these emotions are excessive, out of control, held or repressed, that they are able to harm our body and mind, cause disease and deplete our vital energy (Qi).
Furthermore, when our emotions are out of our control we generally find it much more difficult to take care for ourselves in a loving way. Our intentions to eat well, exercise, and sleep sufficiently will often be undermined.
Yet, there is something deeply attractive about these out of control, intense emotions. If we think about the films or TV shows we watch, the books we read, etc. – there is often an element of great drama, a story filled with fiery passion, jealousy or fury. Experiencing these strong emotions is addictive, distracting, yet also exhilarating, thrilling and they make us feel truly alive!
Hence, the notion of emotional moderation seems to challenge our core values.
But let us explore how these emotions can affect our well-being!
The Seven Harmful Emotions
According to Chinese medicine, the ‘seven harmful emotions’ are considered to be anger (including frustration, resentment), joy and excitement, overthinking, grief and sadness, worry and anxiety, fear, and shock. There are of course many more that could be added to this list, but for the simplicity of this article let’s keep it to these main ones.
Chinese medicine holds the belief that the mind and the body are inseparable. This means that when the body, or an organ is out of balance it can create an emotional imbalance. In turn, an emotional imbalance can produce imbalances within the body and an organ.
Anger is said to impair the Liver, while extreme excitement can harm the Heart, grief and sadness may impair the Lungs, over-thinking and worrying impairs the Spleen, and fear and fright may harm the Kidneys.
Anger is a particularly challenging and potentially harmful emotion to deal with. A single bout of rage may result in coronary heart disease, reduced lung function, headaches, high blood pressure, stroke, and disorders of the eyes and ears.
While Joy is a wonderful emotion to experience, over-excitement can significantly raise blood pressure and the heart rate, which is why a thrilling football game, for example, doubles the risk of an acute cardiovascular event.
We have between 50,000 – 70,000 thoughts a day. However, as with every aspect of our life, thinking has to be kept in balance. While worry and anxiety can enable us to anticipate difficulty and danger, and plan strategies to deal with them, it is ceaseless thinking, known as the ‘monkey mind’ that is a mindless mental activity hindering us from being present and depleting our energy. When worrying becomes habitual and chronic it can diminish our appetite, impair our digestion and give rise to a host of symptoms including chronic muscle tension, dizziness, shortness of breath, fatigue, etc.
Grief is inevitable. We are all going to lose people that we love, and as we age we also lose our strength, vitality and as women the ability to bear children. To experience grief appropriately is not harmful, indeed it is a necessary aspect of our life experience that helps us develop wisdom, empathy and understanding. Yet, excessive or prolonged grief has shown to heighten the risk of heart attacks, cancer, and respiratory infections.
While grief focuses on the past, worry and anxiety fixate on what might happen in the future. What they share in common is that the beauty of the present moment is lost on us.
Beyond these seven harmful emotions there are of course others that we can identify as damaging to our well-being, for example stress.
Stress is a term that is so broadly used these days that it appears to be a normal state of mind. Still, stress refers to a combination of frustration, anxiety, worry, fear and overthinking – and as such it is an amalgamation of the harmful seven emotions already discussed.
Stress can essentially impact every body system, from contributing to headaches, to muscular aches and pains, chest pain, fatigue, PMS, digestive disorders, to insomnia. It can further underlie diseases such as infertility, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and more.
One of the reasons for this mind-organ relationship is the concept of Qi, vital energy, which flows throughout our body, within our organs and in the spaces between muscles and the skin. Qi is necessary for our bodies to function. It is warming, moistening, and nourishing; it regulates and protects the body, and it maintains balance. It can be described as a homeostatic mechanism by which the body can heal itself and establish a state of wellness.
When we feel, experience intense emotions in our body they can influence and change our Qi flow, which in turn can cause an imbalance and disease.
Think for example of the physical sensations you may have when experiencing anger or rage. You feel heat rising up in your body, your face and chest may get red and hot, your blood pressure may rise and you may get a headache, or issues with your eyes and ears. This is due to anger making Qi rise. Joy is said to slow down Qi, sadness dissolves Qi, shock scatters Qi, and overthinking and worry knot Qi. Fear is said to descend Qi, in particular Kidney Qi, and thus may cause sudden urinary incontinence.
Furthermore, we are generally not in the habit of easily letting go of an emotional wave. If we feel joy and excitement, we hang on to it, become addicted to that feeling, desire and crave more of it.
When we feel something unpleasant, then we often tend to hang on to it even more. We stew in the emotion, play a certain situation and our reaction to it over and over again in our heads – until it forms a physical memory that can be retriggered at any time.
Additionally, one of the most common causes of disease are repressed emotions. If emotions are not being expressed, but are locked up inside, they can put stress on our bodies and have a negative impact on our physical health.
How this stress or disease manifests is completely individualised and is contingent on many factors. Chronic stress, for example, can not only upset the body’s hormonal balance and deplete the brain chemicals that are necessary for feelings of happiness. It can also have a detrimental effect on the immune system and result in a range of health conditions, such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and digestive disorders.
The mind-body connection is undeniable; and while the consequences of intense or repressed emotions may seem disheartening, there are ways we can learn to manage them and cultivate emotions such as kindness, contentment, compassion gratitude and calmness.
As we train our body through exercise, to become stronger, fitter and more flexible, in the same way we can train our mind, learn to control our emotions and benefit our mental health.
So how can we do that?
Cultivate your mind and emotions through meditation. Meditation has been practised since at least the time of the Vedas, ancient Hindu scriptures (around 1500 BCE). It has been a fundamental part of Asian spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, Daoism etc. and is these days often given the title ‘mindfulness’, in order to not be connected with any religious traditions.
When we practise meditation regularly, we can actually change the physical structure of the brain, allowing it to grow in regions, which help with maintaining focused attention and emotional control. Meditation has the ability to calm our mind and teaches us to stay in the present moment. Recent research has shown that a regular meditation practice can relieve anxiety and depression, it can alleviate pain, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, strengthen the immune system and it can even improve chronic lower back pain, lower blood pressure and improve conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.
2. Providing An Outlet for Stress
Just telling ourselves not to be stressed generally does not work. We have to find a way to provide an outlet, an opportunity for our physical body to release the chemical storm that is going on in our mind. When we find ways to release and redirect this kind of stress, we will effectively be stepping out of the way to allow our body’s natural processes to take place.
One very effective outlet is exercise. However, there is no point in going to the gym and working on those machines if you consider it a chore and do not actually enjoy it. Find an activity that works for you and that makes you happy, i.e. hiking in nature, yoga, Qigong, dancing, running, swimming, rock climbing etc.
Chinese medicine also encourages the pursuit of hobbies as a useful tool to manage your emotions. Traditionally this meant activities such as calligraphy, chess, playing an instrument as well as spending time in nature. The idea behind this is that when you are engaged in a joyful activity, your mind releases the stresses of everyday life.
Another outlet is sleep. When we are stressed, anxious, or worried, then we do not tend to sleep so well, which means that our body does not regenerate, replenish and repair itself, as it should. Try and have a 20-minute nap during the day or meditate just before going to sleep at night. Also, shutting down all electronics, not watching TV, and not checking your phone for at least 30 minutes before going to sleep, and having a bath with lavender oil before going to sleep, may provide you with a more restful night’s sleep that will benefit your body and mind the next morning.
3. Harmonise the flow of Qi
As we discovered, affecting one’s emotions changes the Qi flow in the body. This means that by managing your emotions you can also make changes to the physical Qi. So by thinking differently about a situation, letting go, confiding in a friend or counsellor, meditating, journaling, or talking things out, can change your thoughts, emotions and the quality of the energetic flow.
Many Chinese medicine tools, such as herbal medicine, Qigong, and acupuncture can also be useful to regulate, control and harmonise the movements of Qi. Qigong is not only useful for stress release but it is also said to be effective in treating anxiety and depression.
Being able to understand the connection between emotions, the mind, and the body (and organs) is extremely valuable. With this knowledge you can develop an understanding of your own emotion-organ relationship. This can help you to prevent emotional rollercoasters, and allow you to strengthen your mind through exercise, rest, awareness and presence.
Keep your emotions healthy and in balance by proactively keeping the corresponding organs healthy, and begin to better understand your body by observing the emotions that take hold of you.
We all live full and busy lives, and it is easy to get overwhelmed by stress and imbalanced emotions. Be kind and gentle with yourself, and to try to do at least one nice thing for yourself every day – go for a walk in nature, read a book… Go for whatever makes brings you happiness! Life can be an intense journey, yet if we live it with mindfulness and awareness, that journey will lead to a lot more balance and happiness.
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