The Causes Of Disease

Today I would like to talk about causes of disease from the perspective of the Traditional Chinese Medicine. And in the TCM there are three things to be aware in this context.

1) The priority of a good practitioner is to seek the root cause of a problem a patient shows up with. These are life events or behaviours, past or present, like constitutional factors, uterus or childhood events, traumatic experiences, stress, diet, physical activity, sexual behaviour, sleep and many more. If the root cause lay in the past and therefore is unchangeable, it may help the patient to understand its origin and then find a way to reconcile with it. If the cause is ongoing, a treatment only can be successful if the cause is addressed.

2) Life gateways are important. Those are periods in our life that are characterized by rapid change. (I.e. puberty, pregnancy, menopause,…) Because then behaviour patterns that can harm or help the body have a much greater impact. So these times are opportunities or challengers.

3) It’s important to uncover when disease originated. During pre-natal life, childhood or adulthood. Because the first are deeply woven into body and mind and therefore they are difficult and hard to resolve.

“The complete mind cannot stay hidden; it takes shape and appears on the outside. When the complete mind appears on the outside, it shines brighter than the sun and people recognize such a person easier than their own children.” (Guanzi, 4th century BCE)

Here in the western world a list for a healthy lifestyle would probably show a wholesome diet, exercising, less alcohol, no smoking, more sleep,… in the TCM the art of regulating the mind and emotions is considered even more important than these, because those regulations support health, help heal disease and even extend the lifespan.

Allowing ourselves to experience and appropriately express the full range of emotions and feelings will help to keep them in balance and to promote free flowing health.

“When the mind is in disorder, a disease cannot be healed.” (Huang Di Neijing)

That’s where the “harmful seven” Of the TCM come into place. The seven emotions: Anger (incl. frustration and resentment), Joy (excitement), Over-Thinking, Grief and Sadness, Worry and Anxiety, Shock.

Anger is the first we will like to highlight here.

“When anger abounds and does not end, then it will harm the mind.” (Wang Bing, 9th century)

“Anger speeds up aging, laughter makes you younger.” Chinese saying.

It is particularly challenging to deal with anger, because of all human emotions it’s the easiest to arouse and most difficult to control. Fierce anger is a damaging and dangerous emotional stress. But the repression of anger transforms it into frustration and resentment, which cause long-term damage.

TCM say that acute fury can generate problems of the heart, the head (headaches, stroke, and high blood pressure) and the sense organs (disorders of the eyes and ears). So one single attack of rage can have immediate consequences, while resentment and frustration affect the body more slowly, blocking the free flow of Qi and Blood.

People who are bad at controlling anger take longer to heal after an injury, possibly due to enhanced cortisol secretion.

Emotions are normal responses to events in life but they can become harmful when they are prolonged, indulged in, or repressed.

The TCM says that anger can feed itself, that the heat of rage adding fuel to the flames. Those people with a tendency to “overheat” this way need to control and manage their anger. On the other hand, repressing anger is the single greatest predictor of headaches.

So we should learn to recognise what we are feeling at an early stage, at a time when the emotion may be less intense and can be expressed straight and clear instead of becoming fierce and unmanageable.

“The mind of a perfect man is like a mirror. It does not move with things nor does it anticipate them. It responds to things does not retain them. Therefore the perfect man is able to deal successfully with things but is not affected by them.” (Zhuangzi, 3rd century BCE)

Joy (excitement) is the next candidate on our list. The idea that joy can be harmful seems perverse in a way, but the Huang Di Neijing tells us that joy is both harmful and beneficial.

Joy in the sense we understand it, like a rich form of contentment is of course a wonderful and healthy emotion. It relaxes us, eases our minds and promotes free and easy flow of Energy. So of course we should learn to cultivate it.

Since joy is such a health and life enhancing emotion it´s clear, that the warnings against excessive joy are discussing something different. That is intense elation or excitement, the extremity of the emotion. Especially the seeking and craving of it can be harmful.

It is natural to enjoy the intensity of excitement but the risk is that we begin to need it. This can lead to thrill-seeking, self-harming behaviour, like the use of drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, sex, dangerous behaviour and violence.

Then joy harms the heart.

“Joy harms the heart.” (Huang Di Neijing)

This warning has two meanings. The first harm is the disruption of the spirit (called Shen) which is stored in the heart and encompasses the mind, emotions and consciousness as a whole. And excessive Joy and an addiction to it can disrupt emotional stability and lead on to anxiety, fear and depression. The second one is the physical heart. I.e. Excitement like during a thrilling soccer match raises blood pressure and heart rate and doubles the risk of cardiovascular events, as does having sex with prior angina or myocardial infection.

Grief is the next emotion we should take a look at.

“Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead, excessive grief the enemy of the living.” (Shakespeare)

Grief is an inevitable emotion in life it is impossible to not loose people and things that we love. To experience and suffer appropriately is not harmful but maybe necessary to develop wisdom and understanding in life.

Excessive grief however or “prolonged grief disorder” as a medical term, like an emotional trauma or as a prolonged emotion is said to sink and drain the Qi, to let drop the shoulders and the chest to collapse and therefore injuring the lungs, the respiratory system and the Qi.

Also associated are heightened risks of heart attacks, cancer, increases in drinking and smoking and changing eating habits.

Overthinking is the next harming emotion. Thinking provides some of our greatest successes and pleasures but it has to be kept in balance otherwise it can cause harm.

One possible harm is when we are lost in ceaseless thinking and this way we are unable to live in the present moment. That is a fruitless, “mindless” mental activity and a waste of time and energy. (The Buddhist teachings call this “Monkey Mind”, because the mind is jumping from one thought to another.)

Another harmful outcome is intense mental activities (studying, overthinking). It is vital to balance this activity with physical work and exercise. Otherwise it will injure the spleen.

Worry and Anxiety. Both serve a useful evolutionary purpose by enable us to anticipate danger and difficulties, so we can deal with them. As long as it remains under control, it helps us to interact more effective and safe with the world.

But when both become excessive and we are unable to free ourselves from their grip, they become harmful. So constant worry about others opinions, about being late, about our appearance, dress or body shape, or being afraid of failure, of being thought stupid, of dirt,… until it gets habitual and we may not be aware of it, this kind of chronification will drain our vitality and our ability to effectively deal with the world.

Anxiety is a more common plague and many suffer from excessive anxiety, nervousness, fearfulness and worry. Sometimes it is just a passing stage, clearly related to external pressures. But for others it is something deeper and difficult to change.

As I already mentioned, in TCM it is always important to find the root causes, to know how a problem originated. Though the further back in time the cause of anxiety lays, the harder it may be to uproot it. That’s why the TCM differentiate different stages: Before birth, during childhood, young adulthood, adulthood or shock.

Fear and Fright (where fear is prolonged, unremitting and fright is sudden and acute) usually are caused by genuine threats.

TCM says that fear can eat away the spirit, causing depression and illness. It can sink so deep in, that we hardly even know it is there. The result is chronic fear, without knowing the reason for it.

TCM recognized and described both, chronic and acute effects of fear and fright many centuries ago. And it observed also, that some people “walk through fire” unharmed, while others became crippled by insecurity and fear.

This emotional resilience comes from a strong constitution and an emotional healthy childhood. This kind of resilience can be strengthened by self-cultivation practices like Qigong.

These are the classic seven emotions. Besides there are of course others that can be harmful to our health and well-being.

One example is Stress.

“Peace is easily maintained. Trouble is easily overcome before it starts. The brittle is easily shattered… Deal with things before they happen.” (Daodejing, 5th century BCE)

But stress is used to refer to a mixture of frustration, anxiety, worry, fear and excessive thinking. So it is a mix of the classic seven.

Like all emotions can become part of the spirit, stress also can and then it can settle in so deeply that we no longer notice it.

That’s the reason why we should carefully listen to the feedback from those who know us.

Maybe in another story I will talk about how to manage our emotions and how to cultivate our mind…

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Martin Josuweit

I live and work in Germany, in the beautyful Harz-Mountains. I am a certified Health Practitioner, a Personal Trainer, Coach and a Teacher for medical Qigong.