Most of us realize that our emotions affect our health. Even Western Medicine now acknowledges that strong negative emotions over a long period of time can cause problems: stress-induced high blood pressure and heart attacks are examples. We feel some effects of fear, worry, depression, rage, or grief in our breathing and heart rates, as headaches or lethargy, hot flashes or cold sweats. The more insidious effects on hormone levels and the immune system can’t be felt, but affect us profoundly. Studies showing the ill effects of emotional stress and the benefits of relaxation abound and help us understand the special value of alternative healing modalities in recovering and maintaining health. Spirituality, meditation, prayer, and counseling, as well as bodywork, biofeedback, herbs, and acupuncture, have each been shown to work effectively on this emotional-physical interface.

Chinese Medicine has a special contribution to make to this discussion. Here in the West, we all grow up with the Mind-Body Dichotomy as part of our thinking. Psychiatry is a separate branch of medicine, clearly separated from physical medicine. We may think of ourselves as hypochondriacs or say that someone’s problems are “all in his head.” In China these ideas never developed. A traditional Chinese medicine textbook doesn’t have a special chapter on Psychiatry. Instead, the mental, physical and spiritual are seen as inextricably linked. For this reason, all general practitioners of Chinese medicine must be trained to assess and treat a patient’s mental and emotional state as part of holistic health. And, this gives us a great set of tools for addressing health – because excessive emotions are seen as both the result and the cause of disease, we can look at mental and emotional symptoms to diagnose body problems, and treat the body to relieve emotional and mental distress.

How does this work? There are seven primary emotions that correspond to five organs of the body. Joy relates to the heart, anger relates to the liver, worry or pensiveness affects the spleen, sadness and grief influence the lungs, fear affects the kidneys. Excessive emotional outbursts can damage the energy of an organ, and even subtle energetic imbalances in a particular organ can create an emotional tendency or outlook. For example, someone with a history of stress, suppressed anger, and a poor diet may develop a Liver-Spleen imbalance that expresses itself as a tendency to depression and worry. Acupuncture and herbal treatments to balance the Liver and Spleen along with diet changes could relieve the emotional symptoms while helping the patient handle stress more easily in the future. In a more serious illness such as hepatitis, a condition which may seriously damage the liver, we would not be surprised to see a patient having a tendency to depression and flare-ups of rage. Controlling stress and emotional excesses would be very important in this case in order to prevent additional (energetic) damage to the Liver

The Liver is a great exemplary organ for us because, while each of the organs may suffer from emotional excess, in modern American society, the Liver usually suffers first. Stress, anger, frustration, and depression all affect the Liver. In addition, this is the organ responsible for detoxifying the body. Polluted water, food and air decrease the liver’s ability to smooth the flow of qi (energy). The Liver also “stores the blood” and is intimately related to the menstrual cycle. Treatments to calm the Liver are used to relieve the emotional and physical symptoms associated with PMS.

You may be pleasantly surprised to find that addressing physical health through alternative medicine, improves your emotional well-being and harmony at the same time.