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The Secret Behind Happiness or Sadness

Written by Yoann Birling


Western psychology has made huge progress in the understanding of mood and emotions in recent years. However, “Western-style” linear thinking is limited when understanding the relationship between mind and body or between the people and their environment. Chinese philosophy and Chinese medicine have a lot of knowledge and wisdom to provide about mood and mood regulation. In this article, we will discuss the understanding of mood and mood regulation from a Chinese perspective.


1. Wood and Mood

In Chinese medicine, mood-regulation is related to the wood element. Try to think about a tree, its natural instinct is to rise and extend. The same process happens with our mood. When we are frustrated or focus excessively on one problem (or ourselves), we tend to bring the qi inward and downward, therefore impairing the natural extension of our thoughts and emotions. However, an excessive extension is also pathological, just as a tree that is growing too quickly and too big might lack space and suffocate, or its branch might get to heavy and break. In Chinese medicine, an excessive extension of mood leads to fire rising in the body and exhaustion of resources (which we call blood and essence).

The idea of qi movement is essential to the Chinese medicine theory of emotions. When people experience yang-type emotions such as joy, pride, or anger, qi movements are exacerbated and the qi tends to move upward and outward. That is why joy can make our body feel warm or why we become “red with anger”. When people experience yin-type emotions such as worry, sadness, or guilt, qi movements are inhibited and the qi tends to move downward and inward. That is why when depressed or anxious we may experience chest stuffiness, blocked throat, stomach nodes, or muscle tightness, which are signs of stagnation.

The basic key to mood regulation is to keep a good qi flow. Here “qi movements” do not necessarily refer to some kind of blue energy flowing around the body (which is really a Western understanding of “qi”) but may include various physiological reactions such as blood pressure or cardiac and pulmonary functions regulation. In order to keep a good flow of qi, we need to let our thoughts and emotions go naturally and stop to “grab” them or try to control them. One of my patients who suffered from depression was constantly fighting against her low mood, trying hard to control “bad” thoughts and “bad” emotions. Through our treatment, she learned to let go and stop “grabbing” them, her mood improved significantly and she felt relieved.



2. Balance is the key

The relativity of yin and yang in Chinese philosophy also applies to mood regulation. In one of the studies I conducted during my Masters in Beijing, I found that emotions tend to shift from one pole to another, i.e. yang emotions (joy, anger) shifting into yin emotions (sadness, fear) and vice versa. Let’s take a few examples. Lifang (name changed), one of my patients in Beijing, was very depressed and feeling worthless. These strong emotions blocked her qi, which would from time to time explode into bursts of anger directed toward her partner. Anger, which is the emotion of the wood, is a natural way to drain the channels blocked by yin emotions. However, this physiological reaction can backfire. In the case of Lifang, she would afterwards feel guilty for the tantrum and less “lovable” which aggravated the yin emotions.

This transformation of yin emotions into anger is quite commonly known. The shift from joy to yin emotions is less known. Jeremy (name changed), a patient from France, received an offer from his dream university. The intense joy of this news soon transformed into unbearable anxiety. In this case, the intense dispersion of qi due to the surprise lead to a protective mechanism of qi collection from the body, resulting in stagnation. Fortunately for Jeremy, one week of herbal treatment was able to make his qi “move” again. Another patient was flooded with happiness, having the perfect job and perfect family. When her husband moved away from her, she fell directly into a deep depression. The risk of an excessively yang mood is to shift directly to an intense yin mood, such as a pendulum that could not stop in the middle.

We can see in these examples that positive emotions are not necessarily beneficial. An excess of negative emotions combined with a lack of positive emotions is commonly seen in clinical practice, especially for mental health patients. However, excessively (strong or long) yang mood can lead to a shift into yin mood (anxiety and depression). This is often experienced by people with bipolar disorder or borderline personality, who have trouble finding the balance. Our tireless quest for pleasure, joy and happiness is a result of bias from the media and advertisement. In Beijing, a lady wanted to join our clinical trial on depression because she was not feeling happy 100% of the time. I explained to her that nobody feels happy 100% of the time and that she was not depressed. Chinese philosophy teaches us that no side is right or wrong, only balance is the key.



3. Auto-Regulation of the Five Elements

In Chinese medicine, we try to emphasise the relationship between different functions in order to “get the big picture”. The five elements of Chinese medicine are the wood, the fire, the soil, the metal and the water. Try to imagine mood regulation as a tree. The soil helps the tree to be stable; the water nurtures the tree; when the tree is impaired, it can burn and produce fire; the tree can be cut by the metal (an axe).

The soil element, the spleen, which is related to metabolism, digestion and the immune system in Chinese medicine, helps the mood to get balanced. In normal times the liver-wood controls the spleen-soil. When the spleen is too weak, the liver (which controls mood) gets excessive and unregulated. In our metaphor, the soil is too thin to root the tree. In reality, when we are overtired or have an excessive diet, we impair our spleen, which in turns makes us stressed and moody. The best way to keep a healthy spleen is to have a good work-life balance and control our diet.

The tree is nurtured by water. In our case, water is the blood and the essence of our body. These are the two essential (and “solid”) matters that are stored in our bodies. Consumed through life, our stock of blood and essence can be partially replenished through diet. When blood and essence run low, the liver is not nurtured and the mood gets unregulated (either expanding too much or not enough). This is commonly seen before menstruation (when the blood suddenly flows out of the body), after childbirth (which is an intense loss of blood and essence), and during menopause (when the blood and essence are “used up”).

The consequence of wood deregulation is fire. When the flow of qi is excessively strong, this can lead to fire rising up. The signs of rising fire are irritability, red complexion, tinnitus, headaches, and all kind of inflammations in the upper body. This excessive qi flow can be the result of either a weak spleen or a lack of blood and essence (as we have seen above). The inhibition of qi flow can also lead to fire rising. In this case, the stagnation of qi (due to yin emotions such as worry or sadness) produces fire through over-pressure, which then flares in the upper part of the body. In psychotherapy, it is important to address the yin emotions underlying the anger and not the anger itself.

The metal has an inhibitory function on wood-mood. Try to view the metal as our conception of rules and moral. From our childhood, we receive an education from parents, school, religion, and society in general. These rules tend to inhibit the extension of our mood-tree. If well balanced, they help us to control the burst of joy and anger (excessive qi flow). If excessively strong, these rules create yin-type emotions. In the clinic, many depressive, anxious, and especially OCD patients exhibit an enhanced sense of rules. Instead of thinking “I want” or “I like”, they believe excessively strongly they “should” or “have to”, which gives them pressure and stress.


4. Between Heaven and Earth

In Chinese medicine, we tend to consider the person as a whole not only within the mind and body but also with the natural and social environment, or, as Ancient Chinese might put it, the trinity Heaven-Human-Earth.

The weather has a significant influence on our mood. This association was actually one of the first findings of emotion psychology many years ago. At that time, researchers found that people experience a significantly lower mood during cloudy and rainy days compared to sunny days. This is because external humidity enhances the internal humidity (the metabolic garbage) of our body, blocking the natural movements of qi.

The natural cycles such as the yearly cycle also have some influence on our mood. In summer, following the movements of the Earth, our qi tends to move outward and upward. We feel more active, cheerful and social. In winter, our qi tends to move inward and downward. This is a time of rest and introspection. This is also a time when depression is easily triggered because our qi tends to stagnate. There is even a mood disorder happening specifically in winter, which is called “seasonal affective disorder”.

Earth gives us the food and drinks we need to survive. These food and drinks have also an impact on our mood. Sweet, greasy and heavy food tend to create phlegm and dampness in our bodies, which can lead to a stagnation of qi (and therefore more yin mood). On the opposite, spices promote qi circulation and therefore “spice up” our mood. The chocolate itself excites the yang and promotes qi movements, however, the sugar in the chocolate creates dampness which blocks qi movement. So, if you try to “cheer up” your mood, go for chocolate with high degrees of cocoa (at least 75%). Alcohol and tobacco have the same qi-moving effects and can in the short run enhance our mood. However, in the long run, they dry up the blood and essence, making our mood more unstable.


In conclusion, mood regulation is a complex phenomenon that involves different functional systems of the body and the influence of the environment. The mood is directly associated with qi movements, with yin emotions linked to a stagnation of qi. Neither a strongly positive nor a strongly negative mood are appropriate and one should try to keep the middle ground. Important points in emotion regulation are to keep a strong spleen-soil by keeping a good work-life balance and a healthy diet; keeping blood and essence strong by avoiding “burning the candle” (too much stress, sex, intense sport, not enough sleep); and having a reasonable sense of rules (“I want” rather than “I should”). Once we understand the relationship between mood and qi movements, it gets easier to regulate our mood. For example, physical exercise, talking (especially emotional talking), having a large environment, eating spices or light food, keeping an “open” posture, etc. can enhance qi movement and lead to a more yang mood. Having a cold shower (especially on the head) can “cool” us down when experiencing excessively yang emotions. Abdominal breathing or squat down can bring the qi downward and regulate yang mood.

This text was written by Yoann Birling, a clinician and researcher in the field of Chinese medicine. Yoann studied 10 years in China, following some of the best clinicians in Beijing. He is practicing in Sydney and completing a Ph.D. at Western Sydney University.

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