Chinese Medicine and the Emotions: What Does the Neijing Say?

One of my professors, whom I admire very much, has a bit of a reputation at school for denigrating the focus of many Chinese medicine students and practitioners on emotional causes of disease. What I think I understand him to mean is that the involvement of emotions in the average patient is overemphasized in some circles. I have an abiding interest in the emotional life and its role in health and disease. Thus, it is important to me to come to an understanding of how I might treat people who are suffering from problems of an emotional nature as well as comprehending how emotions play a role in the development of seemingly unrelated problems. As a Classical Chinese medicine student, it makes sense for me to turn to the classics for this information. What follows is the beginning of an attempt to sketch what it is that the Chinese medical classics say, and do not say, about emotions and human health.

Round 1 : The Neijing and basics of the emotion – body connection : As the foundational text of Chinese medicine, the Neijing is a logical place to start this exploration. I will only note the most extensive and, by my judgment, interesting passages. I will use Maoshing Ni’s translation of the Neijing here, as it is my usual quick-access translation.

  • Chapter 5: “Overindulgence in the five emotions – happiness, anger, sadness, worry or fear and fright – can create imbalances. Emotions can injure the Qi while seasonal elements can attack the body. Sudden anger damages the Yin Qi; becoming easily excited or overjoyed will damage the Yang Qi. This causes the Qi to rebel and rise up to the head, squeezing the Shen out of the heart and allowing it to float away. Failing to regulate one’s emotions can be likened to summer and winter failing to regulate each other, threatening life itself.”
  • An important note is that it is over-indulgence that causes problems. This sentiment is echoed in chapter 39, which indicates that only severe manifestations of negative emotion create problems. I think this is an important point. While I am sure that even mild experiences of the emotions cause some problems, the body is likely able to readily bring the body back into balance. This would not be the case if the person was already wildly out of balance – in which case even a mild emotional experience might rapidly become a serious difficulty.
  • Because of this – some kind of technique to master one’s emotions, such as is taught by various spiritual traditions or as excellently explained over at in the series discussing the keys to emotional mastery. Also, when strong emotions are unavoidable, finding an excellent Chinese medicine practitioner can help to keep you in balance.
  • Also note that anger damages Yin while over-excitement damages Yang. What could be the reason for this? Your thoughts are most appreciated – just leave a comment!
  • Chapter 19: “Worry, fear, grief, over-excitability, and rage, because they often do not follow the creative cycle, may result in a more severe disorder. Extremes of excitability injure the Heart. When the Heart is deficient, the Kidney energy overcontrols. In cases of rage, the Liver is in excess and invades the Spleen. Grief causes the Lung to overcontrol the Liver. Fear weakens the Kidneys and causes the Spleen to overcontrol the Kidneys. In excessive sadness, the Lung qi becomes deficient, allowing the Heart to dominate.”
  • This passage notes how emotions damage organ systems via the control cycle. It also indicates which extreme emotions damage which organ systems, although it doesn’t give a complete picture. For the purposes of informing those who may not know much about Chinese medicine and emotions, I will offer the following standard set of correspondences.

Grief (extreme sadness) harms the Lung : Rage (extreme anger) harms the Liver : Over-excitability (extreme joy) harms the Heart : Panic (extreme fear) harms the Kidney : Obsession (extreme worry) harms the Spleen.

  • Translations of the character for each emotion vary, and I have seen different Chinese characters used in different situations – but do not yet know enough to say why different characters are used. In general, when an organ is weakened (made deficient) by its representative emotion, it will be easily overcontrolled by the organ that stands in a control relationship with it. Some organ systems may be put into a state of excess by an emotion, causing them to be more likely to overcontrol the organ they stand in a control relationship with. If all of this is a bit confusing for you, see my article about how I use the five element model to be more productive, which contains some basic information about the five element model that forms the basis for the above discussion about the control cycle. But how can a single emotion cause both excess and deficiency conditions?
  • In other situations, we think of an excess condition being one where a pathogen is impeding the normal function of the organ system. For example, an invasion of heat in the Liver channel. Similarly, we think of a deficiency condition being one where a vital substance (Qi or Blood, for example) has been consumed and not replaced in some part of an organ system. For example, overwork has consumed the blood causing a deficiency condition of, say, Heart. It would be easy to say that, taking as an example rage, that it simply consumes Qi and Blood in one case – causing deficiency. In another case it acts as an agitator, disrupting the normal flow of the Liver channel. But that is largely unsatisfying. In the latter case, does the emotion act as a pathogen in a similar way to Heat or Cold? Regardless, what differentiates when an extreme emotion acts more as an instigator of excess or deficiency?
  • Because I have found that comprehension problems often come from relying on an unfaithful translation, soon I will offer my translation of this passage and decide whether it clears up my trouble. There is also a very large passage in Chapter 39 of the Neijing that warrants a post of its own.

In this initial, brief survey of Neijing passages explicitly treating emotions and their role in disease – I have learned a few things:

1. The Neijing definitely lists emotional causes of disharmony in the body. It is unclear in what situations this occurs, and what the result is but there is a classical precedent for all the information so popular in contemporary literature about Chinese medicine and the emotions.Harmony.jpeg

2. The emotions are correlated with specific organs and may act on organs via the control cycle of the five elements.

3. Emotions can impact the basic Yin and Yang balance of the body.

Has anyone out there done Classical text research on the emotions they would like to share? If so, post to the comments. No registration is necessary.


About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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