Look to Chinese Medicine for Links Between Mind, Emotion, Body Organs and Disease

It’s interesting to see that the concepts of Chinese medicine — in particular the interplay of mind, body and spirit (emotion) and their role in health as well as disease — are beginning to seep into mainstream medicine. Here in the Western world, physicians have been trained to separate mental, physical and emotional symptoms. In contrast, Chinese medicine views the patient as a whole, with each part intimately connected. Now, here in the US, an increasing number of studies tie emotional health with physical ailments, in particular heart disease, cancer and autoimmune disorders… a step in the right direction, even though the scientific community continues to focus on finding the physiological “root” of illness as they apply their cause-effect mentality in an attempt to identify, isolate and manage “the problem.” But the Chinese take a very different approach, looking to the whole body system and the concept of balance in every aspect, including between emotions and the physical self.


I spoke with Jeffrey Zimmerman, OMD, doctor of Chinese medicine, practitioner of acupuncture and founder of the OptiMotion system of body alignment, who explained that in Chinese medicine, feeling any emotions intensely is considered an imbalance. When there is balance among the mind, body and spirit, everything that happens, good and bad, is processed naturally, in a fluid way. It’s all experienced as normal, without great intensity. Getting “stuck” in emotions is what blocks energy, inviting or creating an opportunity for illness and unrest.

Chinese medicine asserts that each organ has an emotional spectrum. A Chinese medicine practitioner asks a patient about his/her state of mind and identifies relationships between the responses and the internal organs. The concept is that when one emotional state dominates, smooth flow of energy (known as qi) to specific organs is impeded, so the emotion and the organ must be treated concurrently.

  • FEAR: The kidneys and the work they do, including elimination of waste, are associated with strength and willpower — and on the negative end of the spectrum, with fear.
  • GRIEF: The lungs and respiratory system are connected to our sense of order and can move along to perfectionism and, at the opposite end, grief.
  • ANGER: The liver, which filters toxins, supports planning and decision-making — the skills needed to manage life well. At the far end of the spectrum, the liver is connected to anger.
  • SADNESS/JOY: The heart is the center of the body and soul and not surprisingly, is connected to sadness as well as to joy.
  • WORRY: The stomach/spleen, responsible for digestion, can be the source of sympathy on one end, worry on the other.


The emotional-physical ties are not as direct and simplistic as Westerners would like them to be, but the dots can indeed be connected. To better understand how, I spoke with Kathryn White, PhD, LAc, a practicing psychologist and acupuncturist who is the president and chief academic officer, American University of Complementary Medicine (Beverly Hills, California), which focuses on what she calls Chinese Classical Medicine (CCM), one of many different forms of practicing the ancient art. She told me that at the heart of CCM is the concept that all disease has roots in a need to change in one of three basic aspects of life — physical, emotional or lifestyle — that comes up against an inability or unwillingness to do so. Sickness can be an expression of these conflicts.

One simple illustration: Chinese medicine respects the body’s natural ability to expel toxins by vomiting them up, sneezing them out or through urination or defecation. Medicine that treats the symptoms gets in the way of this natural process, sending the toxins from the now-suppressed symptoms into the body’s energy channels where ultimately they can get stuck and cause serious disease. Treatment must address the entire person, not just the symptoms.


Both Dr. White and Dr. Zimmerman have suggestions for using these basic concepts to promote personal health and well-being and eliminate toxicity that intrudes on our mind, body or spirit. Here are some of their tips…

  • Live in harmony with the seasons. The winter months can be valuable for rest and rejuvenation… in the spring, you can ramp up activity. Summer is the time to expand and expend the most energy in many activities, while in autumn we can benefit by slowing down and retreating from all that busyness.
  • Follow the light. “In the old days people got up with the sun and went to bed soon after it set,” says Dr. White. “The instinct to follow light is a good one — it both increases longevity and protects health.” One idea she suggests is to become aware of your mental and physical posture throughout the day and learn to use it consciously. To gear up for productivity at work in the morning, for example, many people strike the type-A jutting-chin, fast-talking, vigorous-thinker posture… which can be physically, mentally and spiritually exhausting if maintained all day. Make an effort to ease into a more relaxed posture, slowing down your speech, thoughts and pace when you go home at night. By the time you are ready for bed, you should have relaxed and slowed to the point that you are truly ready for sleep… if so, it will come easily to you.
  • When illness sets in, respect your body and mind — take time off to heal. Within reason, it’s a good idea to “tough it out” if you have a cold, for instance — let the cough and congestion run their course untreated by drugs, so your body can rid itself of the pathogen. Use natural substances such as spring water, whole fresh foods and spices to strengthen your body and provide the resources required for recovery.
  • Recognize that your disease may be happening for a reason. Perhaps you are working or playing too hard (or both) which is putting your body out of balance or maybe you are not taking proper care of yourself. Review and readjust for a better balance.
  • Remember, true healing always involves increasing your awareness. Any illness is a call and an opportunity to evaluate your internal state. Are you heartsick about something… suffering from anxiety… in a troubled relationship? This is your chance to sort through the problems that are creating toxicity for you and figure out what might help you heal, in every way.
  • Use daily reflection as a conscious tool for balancing your energy. “Think about what things are truly important to you and how you are using your chi (spiritual and physical energy) to work toward those goals,” suggests Dr. White. “Ask if you are getting caught up in a spiral of need for things that don’t really matter.”

The principles of Chinese medicine should not be understood to mean that having physical, emotional or lifestyle problems indicates you are doing something wrong. Life, it teaches, is school and it gives all of us the lessons we need to learn. Deal regularly with your issues and be willing to confront whatever comes your way. This will make you less likely to have pathology and more likely to obtain real and deep meaning from your life.

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