Treating patients with anxiety, depression, and other conditions related to shen disturbance has become increasingly important for acupuncturists to work with. While our approaches with acupuncture and herbs have many profound benefits, it can be challenging to treat these conditions. When treating shen disturbance, it is essential to have good communication skills and other tools that combine well with acupuncture.
While our traditional methods identify patterns such as liver qi stagnation, yang rising, heart fire, deficiency, or depressive damp accumulation, these patterns describe the physical and energetic levels of our being. Other things that contribute to shen disturbance include psychological, emotional, and social factors, negative self-talk, and trauma. While a pattern like liver fire gives us perspective on using acupuncture and herbs, these treatments do not necessarily address many of the other factors that contribute to shen disturbance.
Shen Disturbance, Feelings, and Thoughts
With any shen disturbance pattern, emotions are present and these express themselves in two ways. For instance, emotions are experienced as feelings in the body as well as thoughts in the mind. This is important to recognize because either the feelings or the thoughts can serve as gateways to understanding and treatment outcomes. Talking therapies such as counseling typically focus on the thoughts and behaviors that are a part of the pattern. However, in somatic-based approaches, the feelings in the body become a focal point for getting therapeutic results.
Why Patients Release Emotions with Acupuncture
It is fairly common for patients to have emotional releases during acupuncture, especially when their primary concern involves shen disturbance. When this occurs we may notice that the needle provides the stimulus for the emotions to be released. As emotions are felt, stored, and processed through the body, acupuncture can be a profound way to release pent-up emotions.
In conjunction with acupuncture, there are other methods we can use to help release emotions held in the body. These include touch, massage, breathwork, movement therapies, mindfulness, and sensory-orientated questions that bring greater awareness to how we feel and experience our emotions. While many of us may be familiar with the way acupuncture and massage can release emotions, fewer of us are using breathwork, movement, and sensory processes to help our clients. These other methods work great with acupuncture and ensure that we have a complete toolkit for treating shen disturbance.
One simple but powerful somatic therapy is to use sensory-orientated processes that aim at feeling deeper into the emotions. With this method, we can begin by having the patient identify their predominant emotion and locate where they feel it in their body. They may do this after the needles are in, or sometimes I will do this as a separate treatment apart from acupuncture. By having the patient locate the feeling of the emotion in their body they are able to bridge mind-body gaps that may be present. This practice teaches people to cultivate greater mindfulness and body awareness, and this can be very useful for helping people to regulate their emotions. When patients are properly guided into these kinds of somatic processes it helps them to have greater interoceptive awareness.
What are interoceptors and why are they important for treating shen disturbance?
Interoceptors are a special type of sensory nerve that allows us to feel our inner body and organs. I especially like this definition of interoception from Cynthia Price, Ph.D. in her article, Interoceptive Awareness Skills for Emotion Regulation: Theory and Approach of Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy (MABT).
“Interoception is the perception of sensations from inside the body and includes the perception of physical sensations related to internal organ function such as heartbeat, respiration, satiety, as well as the autonomic nervous system activity related to emotions.”
Emotions and the Organs
In TCM we have a theory of how different emotions relate to the organs. The liver is related to anger, the heart to joy, worry to the spleen, grief to the lungs, and fear to the kidneys. This is a useful concept and our methods of pattern identification allow us to understand the relationship between emotions and physical symptoms. Similar to interoception, 5-element emotion and organ theory, demonstrates how we can feel emotions within our body. Much of the inner emotional feelings we have in our body are connected to the interoceptors and the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
By having clients locate the feeling of emotions in their body when treating shen disturbance, it not only allows them to have greater body awareness but it also helps them to regulate their ANS and emotions. This is powerful because the ANS plays such a fundamental role in so many functions of the body, and is also a part of the limbic system which is related to our emotional processing and experiences. By learning to feel and locate our emotions in our bodies we can regulate both our physiology and emotions.
Some Common Emotional Feelings
Through years of asking thousands of clients to locate emotions in their bodies, I have noticed some general descriptions of where and how people experience emotional feelings somatically. For example, clients with grief or depression will often feel a heaviness in their chest or heart. This somewhat corresponds with the TCM notion of grief being related to the lungs. Feelings of anxiety may also be felt in the chest, but clients tend to describe anxiety in different terms such as feeling jittery or fluttery, rather than heavy as is often the case with depression and grief. Worry is frequently located in the abdomen and stomach.
Once a patient locates where they feel their emotions in their body, a series of sensory-related questions can be asked that will take them deeper into the somatic experience of their emotions. When this is done, patients often have greater emotional openings and releases. Additionally, they may have important memories resurface, recollect traumas, or receive insights and solutions about core factors related to their problem.
It can be especially powerful to use somatic methods and questioning with acupuncture, because the needles will often initiate the process of releasing emotions held in the body. However, other skills are required to help the patient go further with the process and reach a deeper level. Additionally, it is crucial to have a framework and treatment protocol for assisting clients with developing greater body awareness, and in a way that leads to increasing their ability to regulate their emotions. When patients have the tools to locate and regulate their emotions and feelings, it can lead to powerful transformations with lasting results.
If this is a topic that interests you, and you want to learn to use effective techniques with acupuncture, check out my video and class on somatic therapies. At the link below there is a video that explains more, and you can now save 25% on the course and get a free class of your choosing.
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Price, Cynthia, 2018, Interoceptive Awareness Skills for Emotion Regulation: Theory and Approach of Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy (MABT). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5985305/