Emotions are a part of being human. But it’s important to know how to control emotions so we don’t feel overwhelmed by extreme feelings to the point of becoming ill. Conversely, internal health imbalances can sometimes be the cause of our emotional disturbance. This is a key aspect of holistic medicine as taught in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Our body and the state of our mental and emotional health are separate from each other.
The Relationship Between Physical Health and Emotions in TCM
TCM physician Lim Sock Ling explains that in TCM, each of the five organ systems associate with a particular emotion. Anger is associated with the Liver, fear with the Kidneys, joy with the Heart, sadness and grief with the Lungs, and worry with the Spleen.
In some cultures, languages use certain organs as a figure of speech. For example, in English, we are familiar with “heartbreak” or “heartache”. Great examples from Malaysia include the Malay expression of anger or resentment, literally being “liver pain” (sakit hati), as well as the fact that the Chinese word for “heart” (心) is used for the word “mind”.
“In TCM, the relationship between an ailment and emotional changes is bi-directional,” physician Lim states. An emotional disturbance could cause an ailment or, conversely, an emotional disturbance could be a symptom of an imbalance in the organ system.
“For example, the Liver plays an important role in regulating emotions attributed by its role in qi (life force) circulation. Hence, Liver imbalance can lead to poor qi regulation among other organs and cause you to lose control over your emotions. This could for example, manifest as depression. In turn, depression itself can be a symptom of or a contributing cause of Liver dysfunction. A person with such a condition finds it difficult to find joy, and tends to be worrisome and down,” she further elaborates. The Heart is another important organ in emotional regulation because it contains shen or spirit. If this organ system is compromised, an unstable and depressed mood can be the result.
When it comes to reproductive development and aging, it is especially common for women to experience this connection between emotions and changes in the organ system. Many women experience irritability as part of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). This is not surprising since Liver, associated with anger, also regulates menstruation. For women around the menopausal age of 49, declining Liver and Kidney essence can not only show up in physical symptoms such as hot flushes, but also extreme emotional mood swings that can sometimes feel uncontrollable.
Other Conditions Linked to Emotions
In TCM, there are other conditions associated with emotional dysregulation. These include:
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Complex post-traumatic stress disorder
- Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder
- Foetal alcohol syndrome
How to Control Emotions
In today’s society, there is one thing that nearly every adult, and increasingly even children, have in common – stress. “To regulate emotions, one should ensure optimal qi (vital life force) circulation among the five viscera. As it turns out, stress is one cause of qi stagnation,” physician Lim shares.
Managing your stress is how to control emotions. Be mindful of how much you take on to begin with. And when stress starts to be too much, learn to recognise the tell-tale signs and how to regulate it with these methods:
- Stay active and engaging in suitable physical activities such as yoga and tai chi to ensure qi circulation
- Practice meditation and breathing to help you immediately relax just when you need it
- Maintain a healthy sleep schedule to allow your body the time to recharge
- Keep your body resilient by maintaining healthy eating habits; avoid binge-drinking
- Be patient and forgiving with yourself
- Spend quality calming time with people who nourish your spirit and don’t drain you
- Work with a professional to diagnose any conditions you may have – mental health or otherwise
TCM Modalities to Consider
Acupuncture is often the first line of treatment TCM prescribes for many ailments, including emotional disturbances. Needles are placed at specific points on different meridians. “Acupuncture helps circulate qi which can improve emotions related to qi stagnation such as depression,” physician Lim explains.
A recent eight-week acupuncture study by researchers in China, South Korea, and the United States showed that depression treated with both anti-depressants and acupuncture yielded significantly better result than medication alone. Another study by Harvard Medical School also found that acupuncture is an effective treatment for depression and anxiety in pregnant women.
Based on each individual’s needs you can choose acupressure, which is similar in principle to acupuncture . “To regulate Liver qi, you can massage the Tai chong (LR3, 太沖) acupoint. It is located at the depression distal to the junction of the first and second metatarsal bones,” physician Lim says.
Herbs in TCM to control emotions
“TCM herbs can also help to regulate qi circulation, resolve stagnation, calm the mind and remove frustration,” reminds physician Lim. Commonly used classical formula and herbs include Xiao yao powder (逍遥散) and Chai hu shu gan powder (柴胡疏肝散). Recent scientific studies through animal models have shown efficacy of the latter.
Other herbs include rose buds, and finger citron, and wild American ginseng. “Silktree bark is also a great herb that acts on the Heart and Liver meridians. It is sweet in taste and neutral in nature, functions to remove stagnation, harmonise blood, calm the Heart and resolve swelling. People with insomnia, and when one is under the weather often use this,” physician Lim explains. However, she also cautions that many of these herbs have contraindications for pregnant women or those with certain medical conditions. It is critical that you work with a registered TCM practitioner.
There is great freedom in learning how to control emotions, rather than being prisoner to them. Recognise that this is not a flaw or weakness, but an imbalance that our busy lives can cause. Fortunately, with TCM, there is a clear path to peace and wellness again.
- Frontiers in Psychology. 2019. An East Meets West Approach to the Understanding of Emotion Dysregulation in Depression: From Perspective to Scientific Evidence. [Accessed 17 April 2022].
- NeuroImage Clinical. 2016. Repeated acupuncture treatments modulate amygdala resting state functional connectivity of depressive patients. [Accessed 17 April 2022].
- Boston Magazine. 2013. Acupuncture Helps Depression, Study Says. [Accessed 17 April 2022].
- Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2014. Xiao Yao San Improves Depressive-Like Behaviors in Rats with Chronic Immobilization Stress through Modulation of Locus Coeruleus-Norepinephrine System. [Accessed 17 April 2022].
- Pharmacognosy Magazine. 2014. Antidepressant-like effects of Chaihu-Shugan-San via SAPK/JNK signal transduction in rat models of depression. [Accessed 17 April 2022].
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