The connection between chronic emotional stress and negative physical ailments like heart disease and diabetes is commonly accepted and it is encouraging to see how more employers are providing Occupational Health services to their employees. However Western medicine, while acknowledging the effect of emotions on physical health, often treats these aspects separately and in a reaction to symptoms; typically entrusting emotional and psychological health to mental health professionals and treatment of physical aliments to physiotherapists and GPs.
In contrast, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) envisions health and well-being as an interconnected network of physical, emotional, and spiritual facets. This blog focuses on emotions and how emotional factors displayed by individuals can signpost disharmony or disease. The five emotions considered in the Five Elements Theory of TCM are: anger, joy, sympathy (or pensiveness), grief, and fear. According to TCM, imbalances in these emotions, either in excess or by absence can disrupt a person’s Qi (vital energy), resulting in disease.
Five Elements Theory and Emotions
The Five Elements Theory of TCM provides a comprehensive framework depicting the relationships between different phenomena. The five elements – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water – represent varying aspects of life, health, and spirituality, each correlating to a specific organ system (the Zang Fu organs), a season, and an emotion. This interconnectedness illustrates how one imbalance can create a ripple effect, leading to emotional and physical illness. For example, the Wood element is linked to the liver, springtime, and the emotion of anger. The Fire element corresponds to the heart, summer, and joy. Earth is associated with the spleen, late summer, and sympathy (or pensiveness). Metal connects to the lungs, autumn, and grief. Lastly, the Water element ties to the kidneys, winter, and fear.
The relationships between these elements, organs, and emotions are complex. When the elements are in balance, Qi flows smoothly, and we maintain good health. However, when one element is out of balance, it can affect the others, leading to disease. For instance, prolonged anger (Wood) can overstimulate and damage the liver, which can, in turn, affect the heart (Fire) leading to excessive joy or restlessness.
Tai Chi and Emotional Awareness
Tai Chi has different exercises that can be practised alone or with others, when Tai Chi movements are synchronised with practitioners choosing to follow the natural rhythm of the group it becomes a communal experience. It’s in these shared spaces that Tai Chi truly shines as a tool for enhancing emotional acuity with ourselves and of others.
An example of this comes from an exercise known as “sticky hands,” a traditional Tai Chi partner activity. This exercise is a gentle, cooperative activity where practitioners can take turns leading and following movements, aiming to maintain balance while gently redirecting their partner’s force showing each other when their partner is unbalanced.
During sticky hands, one must remain deeply attuned to their own emotions and emotional responses. It’s a practice that requires calm, patience, and respect for the other. If one person begins to express frustration or impatience, their movements become forceful and clumsy, disturbing the harmony of the exercise. This disruption serves as immediate feedback, prompting the individual to recentre and restore their emotional balance. The result is an increased self-awareness and a heightened sensitivity to one’s own and with time their partner’s emotional state and thoughts.
Moreover, the sticky hands exercise fosters a deep empathy and understanding of others. Practitioners must maintain an acute awareness of their partner’s movements and emotional state. Sensing their partner’s emotions through subtle changes in their movements or energy allows practitioners to respond empathetically and appropriately. It promotes the development of compassion and understanding, critical aspects of emotional intelligence.
In a larger group setting, Tai Chi exercises can further enhance our emotional acuity. The synchronization of movement in a group cultivates a collective energy that can be powerfully grounding and calming. This shared experience often leads to an increased sense of community and belonging, which is beneficial for emotional well-being.
In conclusion, through the practice of partner and group exercises, Tai Chi helps to foster an increased emotional awareness within ourselves and a deeper understanding of others. It creates a space where individuals can explore their emotions and reactions in a safe, supportive environment, leading to greater emotional connection, awareness and empathy.