Emotional Disorders and Chinese Medicine

By Jiang Liu, Diplomate of Oriental Medicine
AR Licensed Acupuncturist and Herbalist
Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine Clinic
2024 Arkansas Valley Dr., Suite 402
Little Rock, AR 72212


Emotional problems or mental illness can strike anyone! It knows no age limits, economic status, race, creed or color. With people working longer hours and dealing with the economic and social pressures of today, many are finding it hard to cope. During the course of a year, more than 54 million Americans are affected by one or more emotional or mental disorders. The researches show that more and more people are turning to acupuncture or Chinese medicine to alleviate symptoms caused by the emotional strains of everyday life.

Aetiology of mental-emotional problems
Emotional problems can be cause by extraordinarily stressful events that make you feel helpless and vulnerable, or any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone. They can be caused by single-blow, one-time events, such as a horrible accident, a natural disaster, or a violent attack. It can also stem from ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood or struggling with cancer. They can also be from falls or sports injuries, surgery, the sudden death of someone close, an auto accident, breakup of a significant relationship, a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, the discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition. There are some other factors such as constitution, diet, excessive sexual activity, overworking or drug, which can also cause emotional problems.

In Chinese medicine, there are seven emotions: joy, anger, worry, pensiveness, grief, fear and fright. Under normal conditions, the emotions are the physiological responses of the human body to environmental stimuli. Therefore, they are not pathogenic factors. In optimal health, our emotions flow freely, are acknowledged, responded appropriately and then we move on to the next “feeling”. However, if the emotional stimuli are too sudden, too strong, last a long time, or when we become “stuck” in our emotions, when we have excess emotional activity, or when we try to ignore or suppress them, yin-yang balance is disturbed, aberrations in the flow of blood and qi blockages or stagnation in the meridians would occur.

Emotions and physical health are intimately connected. On the one hand, an imbalance of qi, blood or yin-yang affects the individual’s emotional state. On the other hand, emotion can also affect the balance of qi, blood, and yin-yang, eventually resulting in impairment of vital organ functions. In Chinese Medicine, each emotion is linked to a specific organ.

Seven emotions
Joy is linked to the heart. Joy is a cheerful, positive concept. Positive side of joy is beneficial. However, excessive joy (over-excitement, over-stimulation, over-agitation, or rowdy over-exuberance), is harmful to the heart. First, heart energy produces joy. Excessive joy consumes heart energy, which leads to deficiency of heart energy so heart qi slows down, which leads to lack of enthusiasm and vitality, depression and despair. Second, excessive joy slackens the heart, which leads to heart qi scattered. Since the heart is a nest of the mind and spirit, so people are not able to concentrate or have confused behaviors or mental restlessness. A person with extreme disturbances of heart qi might be seen chattering happily to him or herself with outbursts of laughter. Heart imbalances are often associated with palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, irregular heart beat, excessive dreaming, poor long-term memory, or psychological disorders. Conversely, a person with heart imbalance may also exhibit emotional symptoms.

Anger Anger covers the full range of associated emotions such as resentment, irritability, explosive rage and frustration. Anger is linked to the liver. Anger is a normal emotion. We feel angry when we have been hurt physically or emotionally, or when we feel really frustrated. However, excessive, inappropriate or uncontrolled anger causes liver imbalance such as the stagnation of liver qi or liver-blood, and the rising of liver yang or liver fire. These will cause symptoms in the head and neck such as headaches, tinnitus, dizziness or red blotches in the front of the neck, flushed face, chest congestion or a bitter taste in the mouth. In the women, there are breast distension, menstrual pain and irritability during menses. In the long run it can result in high blood pressure. Anger can also affect the stomach and spleen, causing indigestion and other problems.

Worry Worry means dwelling too much on a particular problem, concerning too much and too long on a particular topic or excessive mental work. This emotion also includes too much studying, obsessive thinking or continually working something over in your mind. Worry is linked to the spleen. Worry is normal emotion but too much worry consumes spleen energy, which leads to the deficiency of spleen qi. Also it causes the stagnation of spleen qi. A person with this condition may exhibit digestive disturbances such as poor appetite, abdominal bloating and distension or poor digestion, loose stools or diarrhea. A weakened spleen cannot efficiently turn food into qi, eventually resulting in chronic fatigue, lethargy, inability to concentrate, depression, anxiety, weakened limbs or menstrual irregularities in women.

Pensiveness Pensiveness connotes a wistfulness, dreaminess or sad quality, which is considered to be the result of thinking too much, obsessing about a topic, or excessive mental and intellectual stimulation. Any activity that involves a lot of mental effort will run the risk of causing disharmony. Pensiveness is linked to spleen and heart. The ancient Chinese medicine considers that “thought” starts from the spleen and ripens in the heart; so, Pensiveness not only impairs the spleen qi, but also affects the heart qi. Pensiveness makes qi stagnated or obstructed. The obstruction or stagnation of spleen qi can decrease spleen function of transporting and transforming, leading to abnormal food digestion and absorption. Common symptoms are poor appetite, abdominal distension, diarrhea or constipation. A weakened spleen cannot efficiently turn food into qi, eventually resulting in chronic fatigue, lethargy, inability to concentrate, depression, anxiety, weakened limbs or menstrual irregularities in women. Spleen qi deficiency eventually affects the heart because the heart qi can not be nourished, thus producing the symptoms such as palpitation, amnesia, insomnia or dreaminess.

Grief Grief includes sorrow, regret, sadness, and senses of loss or remorse. Grief is linked to the lung. Grief is normal emotion. People normally cry to release their grief or sadness, which is natural behavior. However, an excess of grief, or grief that remains unresolved and becomes chronic can create disharmony in the lungs. Grief consumes lung qi and makes lung qi weakening, leading to respiratory problems such as bronchitis, asthma or shortness of breath. Grief also impacts lung’s function of circulating qi around the body and makes qi stagnated, leading to fatigue or depression. When grief reaches its extreme, it can affect the whole body and causes symptoms that we would call ‘shock’, which include pallor, difficulty breathing, a feeling of suffocation in the chest, but also other symptoms such as loss of appetite, constipation and urinary problems.

Fear Fear is linked to the kidney. Fear is a normal and adaptive human emotion. But when it becomes too intensive or it persists too long, fear leads to disharmony of kidney. Fear consumes kidney qi, which causes deficiency of kidney qi. Instead of moving upwards, kidney qi descends, which makes the loss of control of urination. This situation can readily be seen when extreme fear causes a person to urinate uncontrollably. The descending of kidney qi can also lead to listlessness, lower back pains, other urinary problems and a desire for solitude. In women, fear can also cause irregular menstruation. Fear can be the emotion responsible in children who suffer from bedwetting and also the related symptoms of shyness and timidity. Long-term anxiety due to worrying too much can deplete yin or yang or qi of kidneys eventually leading to chronic weakness.

Fright Fright, in western medicine, may be called “shock” or “panic attacks”, is an emotion that is considered an imbalance of heart and kidney. Fright is a state of panic aroused by a sudden external event. It is distinguished from fear by its sudden, unexpected nature. Fright primarily affects the heart, especially in the initial stages, but if it persists for long time, it becomes conscious fear and moves to the kidneys. Fright affects the heart qi and it causes it scattering, wandering around or adhering to nothing. The clinical manifestations of this emotion include a tendency to be easily startled, cold sweats, sudden palpitations or persistent palpitations, and mental restlessness. Severe fright can have a long-term effect on the heart, as is evident in victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Chronic stress from fright can cause a general dysfunction of qi, debilitating the entire system, leading to a wide range of problems such as anxiety, insomnia or weakness.

A diagnosis in Chinese medicine is highly individualized and is always done from a holistic point of view such as observing, auscultation and olfaction, questioning and pulse taking. However, there are some special diagnostic signs in mental-emotional problems such as:

  • Complexion : anger-greenish; excess joy-red color; worry-grayish; pensiveness-sallow; fear and shock- bright-white, crabbing-reddish, built-dark-ruddy.
  • Eyes: sadness, grief and shock-dull and without glitter; Joy-uncontrolled and slightly too watery; fear- bulge and shift frequently; guilt –shifty and eyelids flap.
  • Pulse: anger-wiry; grief-choppy or short and without wave; excessive joy-slow and slightly hollow or overflowing-empty on hear position; fear and fright-rapid; and guilt-rapid, shaking.
  • Tongue: anger-red on one side, both sides or tip of tongue, sticky, rough, brush-like yellow coating.

Treatment principle
The treatment for emotional disorders or emotion-induced disorders often combine acupuncture with other Chinese medicine modalities such as herbal formula, cupping, moxibustion, TuiNa, gwasha and so on, specifically Chinese herbal medicine. Here I would like to emphasize is that herbal medicine is the fundamental of Chinese medicine. In some complex cases, acupuncture should be combined with herbal medicine in order to get maximal results. As mentioned in some other articles, Chinese medicine is a personalized medicine. Each person has different cause, different symptoms, different course and different stage. And the treatment is different from a person to person. Each visit, patient may present different symptoms from last time, as a qualified practitioner, you should adjust your treatment plan according to patient’s response to your treatment and the symptoms the patient currently presents.

Pathology Treatment Principle
Stagnation of qi Move qi and calm the mind
Stasis of blood Move blood and calm the mind
Phlegm Resolve phlegm, open the orifices, and calm the mind
Blood-yin dificiency Nourish the heart and calm the mind
yin deficiency with empty-heat Nourish yin, clear empty-heat and calm the mind
qi stagnation Move qi and calm the mind
Blood stasis Move blood and calm the mind
Fire Drain fire and calm the mind
Phlelgm-fire Drain fire, resolve phlegm, open orifices and calm the mind
qi dificiency Tonigy qi, calm and clear the mind
yang deficiency Tonify yang, calm and clear the mind
Blood deficiency Nourish blood and calm the mind
yin deficiency Nourish yin and calm the mind

Acupuncture treatment often takes twice a week and four weeks as a course. Some people may recover quicker than others, which depends on individual patient’s situation.


  1. The practice of Chinese medicine: the treatment of diseases with acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Giovanni Maciocia, Churchill Livingstone (1994), ISBN 0443043051.
  2. The Seven Emotions: Psychology and Health in Ancient China. Claude Larre, Elisabeth Rochat De LA Vallem, and Caroline Root, Redwing Book Co (1996), ISBN-10: 187246808X