One of the most valuable lessons I learned while teaching Western Medicine courses at an acupuncture college was that, unlike Western Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) included emotion as part of the evaluation and management of disease. Now, I am not an acupuncturist nor do I have any official training in TCM, so please bear with me while I try to explain this from my perspective. Emotion as a key factor in overall health or illness.
What a great idea! As humans, so much of our experience in life involves emotion. It makes sense to me to include that as part of an evaluation of an entire person. But all my years studying human anatomy, physiology and pathology never taught me that.
I remember the first time I really understood the TCM idea about emotion and physical health. While giving my TCM students a bathroom break, I took a phone call that became very stressful. When I hung up the phone, I let out a big, aggravated sigh, thinking about all the work I would need to do as a result of the phone call. One of my students jokingly said something like “Wow, that was some serious liver chi”! I didn’t understand what they were referring to, but replied, “No, no, that was just a difficult phone call. I’ll work it out”. My student smiled a little and said, “Exactly”.
We went on to have a discussion in which my student explained that, in TCM terms, the anger and frustration I felt build up inside me during my phone conversation would have been in my liver. And, by sighing/groaning, I was helping to move that yucky, frustrated chi around again. Thus, the toll of my negative emotion would be somewhat decreased and my liver would, hopefully, rebound.
This was an amazing idea to me in several ways. 1) It addressed the connection between negative stress and health in a way that was concise and logical 2) It explained chronic conditions like ulcers, gallstones and chronic bronchitis in a way that Western Medicine had never been able to do. 3) It made me realize the immediacy of health.
By expressing my frustration and not holding that emotion inside me, I moved my liver chi and prevented it from stagnating. In that moment, I made my liver healthier. If we extrapolate that thought, I could prevent conditions like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and chronic hepatitis (conditions that Western Medicine is not very good at explaining the origins of) from ever happening to me, simply by expressing my anger/frustration in a timely manner. This, further, means that, at every moment of every day, finding ways to express my emotions in a healthy way has a direct health benefit on the physical function of my body. Literally creating the connection between emotion and health.
It also means that emotions are just as important as diet and exercise when it comes to our overall wellness and long-term health.
So think about this: you’ve decided it’s time to cut back on the junk food. You’re skipping the drive-thru and making a nice meal at home. You’ve been doing great at this for several days, maybe even a few weeks. And then, the cravings begin. You know the ones: you just want a piece of chocolate; or some cheese; or maybe some coffee with cream. Just a taste! Well, sometimes it gets to the point where those cravings are so frustrating, they begin to affect our mood. We become sullen, irritable and snap at those around us.
If you think about the negative effect that lousy mood is having on your liver and the rest of your body, you should be motivated to turn that mood around fast!
So, go for a walk. Drink some water. Play a game. Maybe even eat some healthy fat so that your body feels satiated. Get your mind off that craving! Because the bad moods it has put you in is just as bad for you as the food you are wishing for.