In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), emotions and physical health are intimately connected. This integrated mind-body approach to health and healing operates in a dynamic loop where emotions impact the health of the body and vice versa.
For example, according to TCM theory, excessive irritability and anger can affect the liver and result in multiple ailments, including menstrual pain, headache, redness of the face and eyes, dizziness, and dry mouth. Alternatively, imbalance in the liver can result in stormy moods.
Diagnosis in traditional Chinese medicine is highly individualized. Once an impaired organ system and/or emotional imbalance is identified, the unique symptoms of the patient determine the practitioner’s treatment approach.
The Connection Between Mental Health and Physical Health
Traditional Chinese medicine has been practiced for over 2,000 years and its use in the United States as part of complementary healthcare has grown dramatically over the last few decades. In fact, from 2002 to 2007, there was a 50% increase in acupuncture use, from around 8 million to over 14 million people accessing this treatment.1
TCM is based on the principle that mental and physical well-being are intricately entwined. In turn, practitioners believe that optimal health is governed by balancing a person’s qi (vital life force) with the complementary forces of yin (passive) and yang (active) and the five elements of fire, water, earth, wood, and metal.2
In TCM, it is believed that emotional imbalances can act as both symptoms and causes for physical issues. Additionally, mental health conditions are linked to specific physical ailments of key organs.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, emotions are narrowed down to five basic feelings that are each associated with a corresponding element and organ in the body:
Anger with the liver
Fear with the kidney
Joy with the heart
Sadness and grief with the lung
Worry with the spleen
For example, under the TCM theory, breast distension, menstrual pain, and irritability during menses are treated with certain herbs and acupuncture points that target the liver. Headaches, dizziness, excessive anger, and redness of the face point to an alternative type of liver pattern and are treated in a different way.2
The TCM Approach
What does the liver have to do with migraines or PMS? Organ systems in TCM may include the Western medical-physiological functions, but they are also part of the integrated, holistic body system. So, the entire mind and body may be evaluated and treated to improve a specific health concern.
The liver, for example, ensures that energy and blood flow smoothly throughout the body. It also regulates bile secretion, stores blood, and is connected with the tendons, nails, and eyes.
By understanding these connections, TCM practitioners explain how an eye disorder such as conjunctivitis might be due to an imbalance in the liver. Or, excess menstrual flow may be due to dysfunction in the liver’s blood-storing ability.
On the emotional side, the liver is connected to anger, which when out of balance, can be expressed in the extremes of excess wrath and irritation or as a lack of feeling, as in depression or PTSD. These mental health imbalances can be both symptoms and/or contributing causes of liver dysfunction.3
When ailments occur, TCM practitioners seek to untangle the mind and body imbalances that contribute to a person’s physical and mental health conditions using a variety of treatments, including acupuncture, herbal medicines, moxibustion (heat therapy), cupping (a suction procedure that cultivates blood flow), tui na massage (therapeutic massage and bodywork), and nutrition.
In addition to emotions, TCM philosophy believes that other elements, such as dietary, environmental, lifestyle, and hereditary factors, also contribute to the development of imbalances and the body’s ability to heal itself.
Understanding the interplay of each of the five organ-emotion pairings is key to unlocking the healing potential of TCM. Below, we summarize traditional Chinese medicine’s beliefs on how the connections and imbalances between these organs and emotions contribute to basic mental and physical health concerns.
The spleen plays an important part in the body’s immune system and acts as a blood filter, removing old blood cells, bacteria, and impurities from the body.4 In TCM, the spleen is linked to the following emotions and ailments:
Emotions: Excessive mental work such as worry, dwelling, or focusing too much on a particular topic
Spleen function: Food digestion and nutrient absorption, helping in the formation of blood and energy and keeping blood in the blood vessels; connected with the muscles, mouth, and lips; also involved in thinking, studying, and memory
Symptoms of spleen imbalance: Tiredness, loss of appetite, mucus discharge, poor digestion, abdominal distension, loose stools, diarrhea, weak muscles, pale lips, bruising, excess menstrual blood flow, and other bleeding disorders
Spleen conditions: Spleen qi deficiency, spleen qi descending, spleen yang deficiency
The lungs bring oxygen into the body and remove carbon dioxide. In TCM, this organ is believed to be connected to grief and the following conditions:
Emotions: Grief, sadness, and detachment
Lung function: Respiration brings energy from the air and helps to distribute it throughout the body; they work with the kidney to regulate water metabolism; they are important in the immune system and for resistance to viruses and bacteria; they regulate sweat glands and body hair and provide moisture to the skin
Symptoms of lung imbalance: Shortness of breath and shallow breathing, sweating, fatigue, cough, frequent cold and flu, allergies, asthma, and other lung conditions, dry skin, depression, and excessive crying
Lung conditions: Lung qi deficiency, lung yin deficiency, and cold damp obstructing the lungs
Digestion and the processing of nutrients are primary functions of this vital organ.5 In TCM, the liver is associated with anger, depression, and the below physical symptoms:
Emotions: Anger, resentment, frustration, irritability, bitterness, and “flying off the handle”
Liver function: Involved in the smooth flow of energy and blood throughout the body; regulates bile secretion and stores blood; is connected with the tendons, nails, and eyes
Symptoms of liver imbalance: Breast distension, menstrual pain, headache, irritability, inappropriate anger, dizziness, dry, red eyes, and other eye conditions, and tendonitis
Liver conditions: Liver qi stagnation, liver fire
The heart pumps blood throughout the body. In TCM, this organ is linked with joy but the imbalance of joy is expressed as either too much (agitation or restlessness) or too little (depression). Below, are the mental and physical ailments linked with the heart:
Emotions: Lack of enthusiasm and vitality, mental restlessness, depression, insomnia, and despair
Heart function: Regulates the blood circulation and blood vessels; responsible for even and regular pulse and influences vitality and spirit; connected with the tongue, complexion, and arteries
Symptoms of heart imbalance: Insomnia, heart palpitations, irregular heartbeat, excessive dreaming, poor long-term memory, and psychological disorders
Heart conditions: Heart yin and heart fire
The kidneys remove waste and excess fluid to make urine. In TCM, the kidney is related to fear, which can manifest as chronic fear or anxiety when qi out of balance, as well as result in:
Emotions: Fearful, weak willpower, insecure, aloof, and isolated
Kidney function: Key organs for sustaining life; responsible for reproduction, growth and development, and maturation; involved with the lungs in water metabolism and respiration; connected with bones, teeth, ears, and head hair
Symptoms of kidney imbalance: Frequent urination, urinary incontinence, night sweats, dry mouth, poor short-term memory, low back pain, ringing in the ears, hearing loss, other ear conditions, premature gray hair, hair loss, and osteoporosis
Kidney conditions: Kidney yin deficiency, kidney yang deficiency
Other TCM Conditions
Below are a few more conditions related to emotional and organ imbalances that traditional Chinese medicine practitioners may diagnose:
Blood stagnation: chronic and acute pain
Blood deficiency: headaches, dizziness, and fatigue
Stomach heat: digestion issues
Despite the growing popularity and anecdotal evidence, it’s important to note that many TCM treatments and philosophies have not been vetted in the same way as conventional Western medical care. While TCM has been practiced for centuries and has been shown to be effective for treating some conditions—particularly those related to pain and stress—much research is mixed or unclear.6
More research needs to be done to determine the efficacy and safety of TCM treatments for specific health issues.
Interestingly, in some cases, the benefits of TCM treatments are correlated to the placebo effect.7 However, rather than simply dismissing the efficacy of those TCM practices, these findings reinforce the powerful (and in many ways, still mysterious) link between mind and body in the healing process, which is the underpinning theory of TCM itself.
As the symptoms of many alternative medicine TCM syndromes may be linked to a number of serious health conditions, it’s important to consult your traditional medical doctor for assessment as well. Self-treating a health condition and/or avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.
That said, TCM can be a productive component of an integrative health approach, which many people find to be beneficial to their mental and physical well-being.