How Our Minds Make Us Sick: Acupuncture Treatment for Psychosomatic Issues
Much of our suffering is caused by our minds. Most of us are not even aware of the extent to which our thoughts make us suffer. The way we see the world (and ourselves) has a tremendous effect on how we experience life. Studies have shown that how we feel about ourselves and the world affects many areas of our physical bodies, including our immune systems, sleep and blood chemistry.
Psychosomatic medicine is the study of the mind’s effect on the physical body. As an acupuncturist many of the disorders I see in my patients have either a root in conflicts within the mind or are complicated by the mind, preventing full healing.
At this moment in time working with our minds feels even more important. Collectively, the world is experiencing a great deal of violence brought on by an undercurrent of fear. There is a rigidity to the collective thinking of communities. Nationalism, racism and exceptionalism are outgrowths of a rigidity in thinking.
Within Chinese medicine, the organs responsible for digestive function are seen to have the greatest effect on the mind and thought. They are grouped into a trio of associated organ systems collectively called the “triple heater.” The Kidneys, Spleen-Stomach-Pancreas and the Lungs comprise what is called the “Triple Heater mechanism.” The closest concept within Western medicine is the endocrine (glandular) system.
Chinese medicine is expansive in its view of organ function, seeing the 12 primary organs of the body as hubs within greater systems. Each organ is associated with functions that are physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual. For example, the Kidney system is associated with the gonadal (prostate and ovaries) and adrenal glands, while the Stomach-Spleen is associated with the Pancreas. The Lungs and Heart are associated with the thymus, while the Thyroid with the Stomach and Lungs. The body is an interwoven network where system benefits every structure in the body in some way or another. For example, every structure is dependent on blood for its nourishment. Therefore the Stomach (that produces the blood) and the Heart (that circulates the blood) has an effect on every part of the body as a whole.
The physiology of mental function is detailed just as precisely in Chinese medicine as it is with the body’s physical function. Each organ system has a role to play in mental function. This is one of the most impressive aspect of Chinese medicine. When there is a problem in any aspect of a person’s mental, emotional or spiritual life, it can be pin-pointed to a particular organ’s influence. The problem can therefore be adjusted.
Chinese medicine has done extensive study throughout its 2000 year history into the relationship between mental dysfunction, emotional issues and their (psychosomatic) physical manifestations. For example, abdominal pain has been seen to often be physical accompaniment to obsessive thinking. Lower back or genital pain can often accompany mental paranoia or fear. Confusion or hyper-sensitivity to criticism can manifest as constipation and skin outbreaks. There is an entire school of Chinese medicine devoted to psychosomatics- how the mind manifests through physical body symptoms.
The ancient Chinese observed a relationship between the blood and consciousness. By affecting blood chemistry, a person’s mind and emotions can be treated. The way in which acupuncture treatment affects the blood is via special acupuncture points called “Luo” or “connection” points. These points adjust blood pressure, but they also release the mental and emotional pressure that is causing the change in blood flow. The Luo points are some of the most relaxing, soothing and cathartic acupuncture points on the body. Working with the blood chemistry through the Luo points can have the effect of helping a person to let go of old traumas and memories causing stress and dysfunction within their physical bodies. The Luo through their effect on the blood allows us the possibility of changing our minds. They are very powerful, effective acupuncture points.
Within my own acupuncture practice, most of the patients I come in contact with are suffering from some sort of mental-emotional fixation. Even when they come to me for help with what seems a purely physical problem, the root is often associated to some dysfunction in the blood (and therefore the mind and emotions). Many of us are stuck in the past, unable to let go of disappointments and traumas. The ancient Chinese observed mental-emotional fixation creates stagnation within the blood, leading to a multitude of other physical problems throughout the body characterized by inflammation and degeneration. Wang Qing Ren, an ancient Chinese doctor observed in his patients that degeneration of the brain often occurs alongside blood stagnation of the heart. To Ren, healthy mental function is dependent on smooth, clear blood circulation.
Within the Chinese medical classics, blood stagnation begins in the chest. It can begin as the result of an unresolved infection. It can also begin due to an unresolved emotional issue. To the ancient Chinese, all emotions affect the heart. The heart and its blood circulation network are what allow the body to process the emotions, come to a state of catharsis and move on. The emotions are meant as a means to an end: towards the development of wisdom and compassion. When they are adequately metabolized, they help a person consciously evolve. However, when emotions stagnate in the body, or fail to be broken down completely, remnants of them can remain. Blood metabolism in Chinese medicine is seen as very similar to food metabolism. When food is not properly digested, it can create the accumulation of body fat. Both unresolved emotions and undigested food creates stagnation in the body – both of which lead to inflammation. Unchecked inflammatory situations in the body are one of the leading causes of degeneration. Inflammation causes the body structures to break down.
Blood stagnation in the chest follows a sequence. It is described in both a physical and emotional way, as anything affecting the blood will affect both the physical body and the mind. Blood stasis can manifest initially from a slight immune insufficiency – the inability to “sweat out” an invading pathogen like a virus or bacteria. This leads to frequent urination – the body’s attempt to detox. This is often a tell-tale sign that the body’s immune function is slightly underperforming. This is lead to tightness or a feeling of congestion in the chest.
When the chest becomes blocked, this will further weaken immune function, eventually leading also to weakness in the digestive system creating bloating and abdominal pain. Back pain will follow if the blood stasis is not resolved. Fibromyalgia or pain all over the body can be a later result of unresolved blood stasis. Problems of the joints – stiffness, weakness and degeneration are also attributed to blood stasis.
Emotionally, the progression of blood stasis is seen as originating in a person’s inability to fully let go of their thoughts and emotions. A type of vulnerability and victim mentality can give rise to blood stasis. The ability to let go of the emotions is seen as a type of immune function in Chinese medicine. It is governed by the Lungs and its ability to “diffuse.” This is the body’s chief method of detox, carried out through the mechanisms of sweating, urination, sneezing and exhaling via the breath.
When we cannot let go of our emotions – be it fear, sadness, anxiety, anger – they remain within our chest. This can create a type of congestion which will create inflammation. Mentally this can manifest as anxiousness or hyperactivity – we cannot seem to quiet our minds. It can also make us fidgety – we become unable to relax, needing always to be doing something to occupy our minds. This is considered a dysfunction of the Lung’s relationship to the blood.
Boredom is also considered a dysfunction of the Lung’s relationship to blood circulation. To Chinese medicine long-term stagnation can create functional deficiency in the body. The inability to relax and quiet the mind comes from dysfunction in the same system as does boredom.
If the blood stasis is allowed to progress, it can lead to a sense of betrayal or having been wronged. This can manifest into the inability to talk about one’s emotions. This is the major development of victim mentality, further weakening both immune function and the ability to process and release one’s emotions. Within Chinese medicine, the Heart and the Lungs are the most important organs involved in both blood circulation and surface immune function. They must be free flowing and unobstructed. When the blood becomes stuck in the Heart hardening into into a fixated state of victimization or disappointment, the heart will fail to support the Lungs. Immune function will suffer as a result. The person will also develop the habit of holding onto their emotions instead of letting them go. They will be more likely to develop inflammatory conditions.
To the ancient Chinese, seeing ourselves as victims was observed to promote greater propensity to generate experiences that support the feeling of being a victim. It weakens our immunity and ability to let go. Therefore, we become more susceptible to negativity, be it opportunistic agents like virus or bacterial infections, or conflict and abuse from people around us. We may even begin to take things too personally, becoming wounded from world events or innocent comments made around us. This state weakens us overall.
Blood stasis will progress into affecting our interpersonal relationships and the ability to interact with others. We begin to lose control of our own emotions, creating a propensity for outbursts that alienate others and make us feel even more powerless in the world. When this becomes severe, we may develop difficulty interacting with others at all. The medical classics say this stage of the blood stasis problem can be accompanied by neck pain, which is the body’s attempt to protect the brain from having a stroke. When our emotions become bottled up and we lose the ability to release them through talking and expression, they can become like a bomb waiting to go off. The heat and intensity from bottled up emotions can travel from the chest into the brain to cause a stroke. By tightening the neck, the body tries to prevent this from happening. The neck pain many people experience is actually a safeguard by the body. The real problem is usually coming from the chest.
Blood stasis in the chest was observed by the ancient Chinese as progressively deteriorating a person’s mental and emotional clarity. It also has a constricting effect on a person’s emotional openness. Blood stasis also breaks down a person’s cognitive capacity in general. This is why blood stasis is considered one of the most important elements within the degenerative process of both the physical body and the mind – something that must be addressed if a person wishes to remain healthy.
Our collective society seems to be suffering from a widespread collective blood stasis. There is a tremendous amount of fear, anxiety and anger. People are reacting very strongly to misinformation, unable to discern what is true and what is false. There is a widespread sense of betrayal, vulnerability and victimization. If I had to diagnose the greater society right now based on its behavior, I’d say we are caught in a later-stage, severe state of blood stasis. The problem has gone beyond the level of the Heart, Lungs and chest. When the effects of blood stasis progresses beyond the chest, it creates what the medical classics call “rigidity in thinking” and/or “apathy.” The person begins to see the world in a very fixated, rigid way, no longer open to discovering new ways of seeing things. This can progress into apathy – no longer caring about others. This is the development of selfishness and narrow thinking. This is when blood stasis begins to affect level of the “Triple Heater.”
After blood circulation of the Triple Heater has become stagnated, the problem will start to affect the abdomen and low back creating obsessive thinking, habituation, manic-depressiveness, paranoia and even self-destructive fetishes.
Blood stasis can originate from trauma and the suppression of our emotions. Societies that are characterized by brutal histories or suppression can create cultures of blood stasis – fixation of the mentality.
Buddhism famously says:
to treat the greater world, we must start by treating ourselves.
To help the world around us, we must come to address our own blood stasis. We must inquire into the rigidity within our own minds and commit to resolving the suppressed trauma we may be holding onto. At times like these, where the situation is so tense, it almost become our duty to promote greater sanity and healing around us through the process of working on ourselves.
There are many important acupuncture points to work with in resolving blood stasis causing mental rigidity. As with all treatment, it is necessary to deal with the present moment and its challenges first before the root of the problem can be addressed, The root of mental rigidity and blood stasis is insufficiency of Lung function. But before that can be rectified, the stagnation of blood (thoughts and experiences) in the chest must be opened and released.
Arguably the most important of all the Luo points when dealing with rigidity of thought is TH-5 Wei Guan, the “Outer Gate.” It is a point located two inches above the wrist on the forearm. The channel connected to this point travels into the center of the chest down into another very important acupuncture point called CV-15 Jiu Wei, the “Turtle Dove Tail.” CV-15 is located in the center of the body at the tip of the xiphoid bone, the tailbone of the ribs. This is an area in the body where unresolved issues internalize into a holding vessel that wraps around the chest. This vessel is called the “Great Luo.” It acts as a type of depository for blood stasis – issues that have not been able to resolve. This is the physical representation of unresolved mental-emotional material going into suppression. From the ring around the chest, through CV-15, unresolved blood stasis finds its way into the abdomen and the Belt Channel. This is what causes belly fat, as unresolved blood issues will eventually turn into phlegm which is amongst the most insidious factors in the body. Phlegm accumulation around the belt will cause degeneration in the lumber spine, problems with the Psoas muscles causing bulging of the abdomen and a weakening of the abdominal muscle. Blood and phlegm stasis can even seep into the urogenital region to cause infertility, uterine or prostate problems and all types of urinary issues.
Within the strategy for resolving blood stasis causing rigidity of the mind, TH-5 is a good choice as a first step. To treat this point, a method must be used to begin to “invigorate the blood.” Acupuncture is amongst the best therapies for this. Essential oils such as Petitgrain and Sandalwood are also helpful.
Blood stasis shows itself through signs located on the surface of the body. Small spider veins, varicose veins or varicosities may appear on the skin. These are signs there is blood stasis in the area. When blood stasis progresses, varicosity can transform into nodules, lipomas, cysts and tumors. This shows the blood stasis has transformed into phlegm stasis – a more serious manifestation of the problem. Grapefruit essential oil is helpful in breaking up lipomas. More serious swellings like tumors often need to be addressed by a deeper acupuncture channel system in the body called the Divergent Channels. The Divergent channels treat situations where problems have travelled deep into body beginning to affect the endocrine system and body structure.
Chinese medicine believes it is never too late to address a condition. We just need to find the appropriate energetic depth into which the condition has moved. Different acupuncture channel systems access various depths in the body. The treatment appears the same – acupuncture needles are still inserted shallowly on the surface of the body. However the effect of certain acupuncture points and channels can have deeper effects than others. The ultimate goal however is to resolve the initial problem in the chest. However, in order to be able to access the chest, the further progressive complications of a condition must be resolved first. This is why the treatment process of acupuncture can take time. We need to rectify each layer of the body, moving backwards in time until we reach the initial trauma. This can take time and commitment. But it is certainly worth it. People often report feeling areas of their body come back to life, as if a vice has been removed, freeing up movement once again. The low back will usually become freed first, followed by the legs and abdomen. The arms, head and chest are often the last areas to become free. It can be a tremendous relief when finally the chest is released from its blood stasis. People say they start to see the world differently as if it is new. They begin to feel younger, more curious and open to the world. It is also easier to create and maintain healthy and happy relationships.