The Physical Effects of Emotions
Lauren Dyer, DAc
“We carry our attachments and pain in our bodies. As we let them go, our bodies change”
Stress is a well-known culprit for creating illness in the body, but it’s also necessary: when confronted with threatening situations, it activates our fight-or flight (sympathetic) response to protect us. Of course, there’s a huge difference between running from a predator to remembering to send back that time-sensitive email or make it to that evening spin class during rush-hour (been there). But in this day and age, our stress response to everyday tasks tend to be just as heightened as if our lives were in danger, and that is when the body becomes more susceptible to sickness and internal health issues.
Granted, there’s a few different types of stress. For example, there’s “physical stress,” such as an injury or accident plus “chemical stress” from contracting a virus, hormonal imbalances, and even blood sugar fluctuations. And then there’s “emotional stress” that stems from a sense of fear or difficulty coping with what we perceive to be a threat (insert relationships, deadlines, bills, and job security here). This type can be more or less silent, leading to conditions like high blood pressure, insomnia, headaches, and chronic fatigue.
When it comes to emotional stress, however, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has always understood how it affects the body—but it takes this connection one step further.
In Chinese Medicine, each emotion is associated with an internal organ—and when one emotion is too intense, it impacts that organ’s ability to function properly. This is because each emotion impacts the circulation and direction of energy (Qi) in the body in distinct, but predictable ways.
As opposed to Western Medicine where mental and emotional processes are connected to the brain (reactions in the cerebral cortex, limbic system, and hypothalamus), in Chinese Medicine, these processes are driven by the internal organs themselves. If you’ve ever heard anyone say they had a “visceral reaction” to something, that’s why: when emotions are felt strongly, we feel them physically.
In other words, our psychology affects our physiology, aka how our body is supposed to function under healthy circumstances.
Of course, emotions are natural and healthy, but when one is experienced repeatedly, inappropriately (out-of-context), or repressed for too long, that emotion can manifest physically as symptoms associated with the internal organ it is paired with. The same is also true in reverse: if the functioning of a certain organ is impaired, it can reveal itself as it’s paired emotion. In TCM, there are a few key emotions that are responsible for this phenomenon:
Joy is interpreted more broadly in TCM to describe “overstimulation,” excessive excitement, and mania.
Associated Organ: Heart
Joy is the emotion of the Heart. The heart’s function in TCM is to regulate itself as well as the body’s blood vessels; maintaining an even and regular pulse. The Heart is connected to our vitality and consciousness. The health of the heart is expressed through the tip of the tongue, complexion, and arteries. Joy relaxes and slows the movement of Qi.
Symptoms from a Heart or Joy imbalance can result in:
Sadness is said to include grief and regret, and is closely connected to feelings of nostalgia.
Associated Organ: Lungs
Sadness affects the Lungs, whose functions in TCM include respiration, creating and distributing qi throughout the body, regulating sweat glands the skin, as well as maintain boundaries between our internal and external as seen in a healthy immune system. Sadness ultimately weakens the Lungs and causes the Qi to dissipate.
Symptoms of a Lung or Sadness imbalance can result in:
Shortness of breath
Allergies & Asthma
Getting sick frequently
Dry skin, eczema, etc.
Waking between 3am-5am
Crying easily & frequently
Worry is one of the most common emotional imbalances that includes obsessive thinking, dwelling, and mental work that requires intense focus.
Associated Organ: Spleen
Worry primarily affects the Spleen, whose responsibilities include food digestion, nutrient absorption, energy production, as well as the formation and management of blood. For women especially, the Spleen plays an important role in maintaining a regular menstrual cycle by influencing the duration and quantity of blood lost each month. The Spleen also governs the “sinews” and muscles of the body and is connected to the mouth and lips. Worry weakens the Spleen and causes the Qi to become stuck and “knotted.”
Symptoms of a Spleen or Worry imbalance can result in:
Loss of appetite
Poor digestion, bloating
Loose stools or diarrhea
Bruising easily; bleeding disorders
Anger is also interpreted more broadly in TCM to include emotions of frustration, irritability, resentment, and animosity.
Associated Organ: Liver
Anger affects the Liver whose main role is to ensure the smooth flow of qi and blood throughout the body. It also stores blood, which again, for women is important for ensuring a pain-free, regular cycle. The Liver is also expressed through the strength of the tendons, hair, nails, as well as the eyes. The effect anger has on the body depends on how it is processed: whether it is bottled up or expressed outward by yelling, for example. Overall, anger causes the Liver Qi to stagnate and fester, which inevitably leads to poor circulation and/or the generation of internal “heat” (think: redness, a rising dynamic, agitation).
Symptoms of a Liver or Anger imbalance can result in:
Verbal or violent outbursts
Red face and eyes
Dizziness, High Blood Pressure
Waking between 1am - 3am
Stiff Neck & Shoulders
PMS & Painful Menstrual Cramps
Fear arises from chronic anxiety, insecurity, or trauma—things that are not present. It is also linked to weak willpower and isolation.
Associated Emotion: Kidneys
Fear impacts the functioning of the Kidneys (and Adrenal Glands which are considered one system in TCM). The Kidneys are considered our “life gate.” Figuratively like our body’s batteries, the Kidneys are responsible for longevity, growth & development, metabolism, temperature regulation, reproduction, as well as managing our energy levels on a daily basis. They are expressed in the low back, bones, ears, and teeth as well. It’s no surprise the Kidneys govern fear: in Western Medicine, the adrenal glands produce cortisol and norepinephrine when we are faced with threatening situations, stress, and major life changes. Fear weakens the Kidneys causing the Qi to descend.
Symptoms of a Kidney or Fear imbalance can result in:
Frequent urination & incontinence
Night sweats & hot flashes
Shock is considered a sudden emotional reaction to something that is present and is associated with terror, fright, and being startled.
Associated Organ: Gallbladder
Although shock can be associated with joy and affect the Heart, it is more closely linked to fright and therefore the Gallbladder, whose primary role in TCM is to store bile produced by the Liver. It’s channel runs up the side of the body, along the back of the shoulders, as well as the side (temporal region) of the head. When affected, symptoms in these areas of the body can arise. When the Gallbladder is balanced emotionally, one is capable of sound judgement, courage, and making decisions easily. Shock causes the Qi to scatter.
Symptoms from a Gallbladder or Shock imbalance can result in:
Timidity (startled easily)
Inability to make decisions
Bitter taste in the mouth
Poor Digestion, especially with fatty foods
Ribside or R. Shoulder Pain
Constipation (floating or pale stools too)
Waking between 11pm-1am
As an Acupuncturist and clinician of Chinese Medicine, I am always considering how my patient’s emotions are impacting their physical health and vice versa. I see these connections and symptoms described above all of the time and make it a priority to communicate what I am seeing so those I work with can understand them too. I enjoy using a combination of Acupuncture, Eastern Dietary Therapy, and Chinese herbal medicine to assist in the body’s ability to process these emotions, and treat the organs being affected.
If you think that your emotions are at the root of a something you are struggling with, or if you have been made to feel like whatever symptoms you have are “in your head,” I am here to reassure you this: they are not. As you just read, our physical and emotional health is far more connected than many of us like to think. I have helped others cope with these emotions when they arise from daily stress, loss, heartache, and major (difficult) life transitions. If you are open to naturally managing and treating your emotions and physical symptoms with a holistic perspective, our practice would be a good fit.
Feel free to connect with me directly with any questions you have! If you are ready to get started, click below to schedule your treatment and start feeling better:
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Disclaimer: Information contained in this article is not meant to diagnose or treat any medical symptoms/condition. If you have any health concerns or an emergency, seek out medical attention. If you are a patient of ours with a health concern, contact us so we can help and make appropriate referrals as needed.