Chinese Medicine, Emotions, and Mental Health

One of the most wonderful and invaluable things about Chinese Medicine, in my opinion, is its emphasis on the interconnectedness of all aspects of a person. Unlike Western Medicine, with its extensive specialization and compartmentalization of different aspects of health, Chinese Medicine focuses all treatment on the whole person. A good practitioner of this medicine sees all aspects of the patient as interrelated. In fact, one of an acupuncturist’s primary objectives is to see how a patient’s seemingly unrelated symptoms do relate to one another. Symptoms of mental or emotional disharmony are no exception.

Broadly speaking, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on the relative health or pathology of 12 organ systems. Five of these are of particular importance. Imbalances or problems in any of these organs – the Heart, the Liver, the Kidneys, the Spleen, or the Lungs – are responsible for most illnesses, including most mental or emotional disorders. This applies to both chronic and acute illness, and includes anything from mild depression to severe mental illness. There are infinite variations, but most mental/emotional disharmony can be traced back to an underlying imbalance which can be described as a deficiency or an excess in one or more of these five organs. Deficiency basically means that the organ’s functioning has been weakened somehow, and excess can be thought of as a situation where an organ is being overstimulated (for example, by an excess of heat in the system), or is, for various reasons, “working overtime.” When these five organ systems are balanced and working properly, peace of mind and stable mental health are the expected result.

Curiously enough, TCM places very little emphasis on the functions of the brain. Instead, it assigns the various aspects of what we think of as mental functions to these five organs. Of these, the most important is the Heart. The Heart is said to be the “Residence of the Shen.” Shen is sometimes translated as “Spirit,” but just as often it is translated as “Mind.” The state of health of the Shen is the single most important factor in an individual’s mental health, so a lot of mental and emotional difficulties are treated with therapies aimed at correcting pathologies of the Heart. This does not imply, in any way, that if a cardiologist were to examine a person who was depressed, or schizophrenic, that they would be likely to find physical disease in the heart. The organs referred to in Chinese Medicine are always better thought of as systems of which the physical organs are but one part. These systems encompass a broad range of functions, some of which are quite subtle and impossible to observe using laboratory equipment.

The proper functioning of the Liver, which is the “Residence of the Hun,” (or “ethereal soul”) is nearly as important as that of the Heart for emotional well being. Primarily, this is because of one function of the Liver: that of maintaining the smooth and even flow of Qi throughout the body. Any time this smooth flow is disrupted, “stagnant Qi” may cause discomfort, irritability, pain, or any number of unpleasant or difficult feelings. Anger and frustration are common manifestations of a Liver that needs attending to.

The Kidneys also play a significant role in our mental health. They are the “Residence of the Zhi,” which roughly translates to the will. Fear, in particular, is detrimental to the health of the Kidneys. And conversely, if the Kidney system is not functioning at full strength, the individual will tend to feel timid and fearful, lacking in self-confidence and will power.

The role of the Spleen in emotional health is probably the most purely “mental” in nature. The Spleen is the “Residence of the Yi,” which is the element of the soul most closely associated with thinking. This doesn’t mean that all thinking takes place in the Spleen, but it does mean that a healthy Spleen is required for a person to have the capacity to adequately concentrate, to commit thoughts to memory, and to think analytically. The Spleen’s energy is damaged by too much of this kind of intense mental activity. As the Spleen is considered the primary organ of digestion in TCM, it’s no wonder there is such a prevalence of digestive troubles in our culture, where we spend so many hours each day engaged in analytical problem solving, or other kinds of work that engage only our thinking, while our bodies are barely involved in the work at all.

The Lungs, of course, control the breath, and the effect of proper breathing on our mental and emotional health has become widely recognized. In TCM terms, the Lungs are the “Residence of the Po,” which could be described as the most physical part of our soul or our awareness. It is through the functioning of the Po that we experience physical sensations. The emotion said to most specifically affect the Lungs is grief. This can easily be observed in the way that a deeply saddened or grieving person will alternately close down and take in very little breath, and then engage in very forceful respiration through sobbing or crying.

This is, of course, just a very brief introduction to the theories and understanding of emotional health in Chinese Medicine. There are many good books available where you can learn more, and I’ll be delving into this topic more in other blog posts, particularly in the “TCM Series” posts.