Stress Relief and the Smooth Flow of Energy

My first conscious brush with stagnant energy occurred during my first semester in school to study Acupuncture. I was returning back to school for a master’s in Oriental medicine after having been away from the academic world for years (okay, maybe decades). I can remember thinking at the time, “How hard could this be?” Much to my surprise, it was incredibly hard. I had classes during the day and studied every night and weekends. I was working part time and my husband traveled for his business. My kids were still in grade school and junior high, and they weren’t happy with my return to school.

About two months into the semester, I began to get this funny feeling in my throat. It felt like a lump stuck somewhere below my Adam’s apple and above my sternum that made it hard for me to swallow and very uncomfortable to eat. After lots of antacids and a trip to my doctor, I ended up in the Chinese medicine teaching clinic at my school. Within the framework of Chinese medicine, my symptoms were easily diagnosed. I had something called Plum Pit Qi, which sounded exactly like what I was feeling–a plum pit was caught I my throat. I learned that Plum Pit Qi is a kind of stagnation of Qi (pronounced chee), or energy, and occurs as the result of a situation that is figuratively too difficult to swallow.

While the acupuncture and herbal treatments at the clinic were very effective, I also had to acknowledge that I had taken on too much. I had to either quit school or find a way to balance all the commitments I had taken on. After retooling my life somewhat, quitting my job, and studying when my kids were occupied or in bed, I managed to get through that first semester and ultimately, three years later, complete my master’s degree.

Perhaps what was most startling to me from this whole episode was how powerful the physical symptoms were from stress that was purely emotional. In Chinese medicine this phenomenon is related to the smooth flow of Qi, or energy, throughout the body. Qi can be described as life energy or the energy necessary for transformation to occur.

Every cell in our bodies make energy. One of the foundations of Chinese medicine is that the energy in our bodies move along pathways, and good health is dependent on the unobstructed flow of that energy throughout the pathways of the body. The smooth flow of Qi in our body is most closely related to the Liver, the symbolic organ system (not the actual Liver) associated with the element of wood. This may relate the hard wood found in trees, but the color associated with the Liver is green or blue/green, suggesting younger plants and their slow, steady growth upward toward the sun. If some obstacle (or stressor) inhibits that growth, then the plant will grow crooked and become deformed.

While the Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of Qi, it also has a strong relationship to the smooth flow of emotions. When our emotional state is even, Qi will flow evenly throughout our body. However, during emotional upheaval or unrelenting stress, our Qi tends to stagnate. This stagnation is much like turning on the water to your garden hose and then bending it until the flow is cut off. This blockage of Qi can cause numerous physical symptoms, from my Plum Pit Qi, to insomnia, headaches, gynecological problems, and pain.

Ultimately, smooth emotions equal smooth Qi. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. We have all, at one time or another, become caught up in the way we think things should be and have trouble accepting what really is. For many of us this feeling is constant, and when the feeling becomes overwhelming, our Qi becomes bound up and begins to stagnate. This feeling can take the form of too many things to do and not enough time, a job we don’t like, people who annoy us, or anything that makes us unhappy, uncomfortable, frustrated, or angry. The end result may be overwhelming stress, anxiety, depression, or panic attacks.

On a daily basis, we see people attempting to move Qi, some more successfully than others. On any given weekend morning during the summer, we see thousands of people outside running, biking, and walking. They usually feel better after having exercised, because physical activity moves Qi. However, practitioners of Chinese medicine would caution that excessive exercise can be depleting.

Drinking a cup of coffee speeds things up and also moves Qi, too. However, coffee is a diuretic, and excess can also be depleting. Like coffee, chemical use/abuse is an attempt to move stagnant Qi and feel better, but the depleting effects of such practices are obvious.

Perhaps the most successful ways of dealing with stagnant Qi, and ultimately the emotions, are some of the Eastern practices, such as taiqi, qigong, or yoga. These combine gentle exercise with breathing techniques that allow us to even out emotions, nourish our bodies, and smooth Qi. Through proper breathing and quieting the mind, meditation is also an excellent way to calm the emotions and allow the Qi to move freely.

When these practices aren’t enough, or when stagnant Qi begins to manifest as illness, acupuncture can help bring relief. Many people believe that acupuncture is best used for relieving pain. However, it’s also very effective in treating stress-related disorders such as irritable bowel, headaches, PMS, depression, and insomnia.

Like the “Plum Pit” caught in my throat, many physical symptoms that make us uncomfortable are actually a barometer to our emotional health. Often, when we have ignored the obvious signs that we are doing too much or need to make an emotional change, this discomfort finally gets us to stop and take our lifestyle into account.