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Traditional Acupuncture: Embodying the Emotions

by Anna-May Silvestro and assisted by John Hesselworth(more info)

listed in acupuncture, originally published in issue 31 - August 1998

Eastern medicine has, for thousands of years, recognised the psyche/soma connection, the dynamic link between the body and the mind. Western medicine, notably since the time of Descartes ("I think, therefore I am") has made a very good attempt to disembody the emotions, often treating the person as a collection of discrete biochemical processes rather than a whole organism.

Auricular Acupuncture: Points in the ear which relate to the internal organs and induce positive mood changes.
Auricular Acupuncture: Points in the ear which relate to the internal organs and induce positive mood changes.

Chinese medicine originates in the Taoist concept of a universal cosmic energy as the determining factor in life and health. This energy is referred to as Chi or Qi and is described as the unifying force which links the body, mind and spirit as a cohesive, inseparable whole.

An imbalance of this energy may be observed or experienced primarily at one level e.g. arthritis, or repetitive strain injury as physical phenomena, anxiety as a disturbance of mental processes. Traditional acupuncture identifies these not as discrete phenomena, but as symptoms which point to underlying, unattended issues at the level of energetic imbalance.

The traditional Chinese medical model identifies two underlying principles in consideration of disharmony:
– It acknowledges an a priori weakness in an energy system before it can be injured by a pathogenic factor, unless the factor be cataclysmic – massive trauma (physical or emotional) or the plague!
– Symptomatology always involves two or more causes.

In other words the causes of disease are intrinsic to the individual and multi-factorial.

My understanding is that a priori weakness is itself caused by several factors. These include an inherited predisposition to imbalance manifesting in a particular area of the person's energy system, early childhood experiences and lifestyle. Given these underlying weak links in the chain, several other factors or a cascade of environmental triggers need to come into play, for the potential to be realised as observable symptoms.

When I, as a practitioner of holistic medicine, seek to treat 'the whole person' building up a pattern of the person's energetic state is rather like painting a pointillist picture. I spend about two and a half hours talking to the patient, noticing subtle sensory clues like facial colour, sound in the voice, creating a structure of dots and colours of information. I then stand back, as it were, and try and notice the overall pattern and gaps in the integrity of the energy system. Diagnosis is therefore a multi-layered process and treatment is planned to stimulate the person's own resources to restore balance and harmony on the appropriate physical, mental and spiritual levels.

We each come into this world with a unique energetic range of potential and possibilities. We each respond in our own way to the experiences and influences of our emotional, physical and spiritual environment. The weak links in our given chain of energy are tempered and tested by experience. Many times over, as we grow, the integrity of the individual ecosystem is thrown off balance and restores itself. At some point the stress is too great and we begin to manifest symptoms of the imbalance. When we begin to appreciate the cause of the disease as multi-factorial and intrinsic to the individual, then symptoms have meaning as the individual's unsuccessful attempt to restore balance within the whole system.

Our earlier experiences shape our lives and have an effect on the integrity of the mind, body, spirit energy system according to the potentials which we arrived with. No two children will respond in exactly the same way to shared environmental influences. Let us take an example of two children of a bullying father. Child 'A' has an inherent weakness in the liver energy. The Chinese medical model describes the liver as being vulnerable to damage by anger (and that a damaged liver can give rise to anger) so, the primary effect on the child of an angry, aggressive father is to further damage the liver energy which manifests to the adult as a great deal of stored anger, looking for opportunities to be expressed. This person seeks acupuncture treatment to ease the pain of repetitive strain injury (the liver energy is associated with tendons and ligaments). Child 'B' has an inherent weakness in the heart energy. The most damaging effect of his father's persistent anger is in the adult's inability to form close, intimate relationships. This person presents for acupuncture treatment during a prolonged period of depression.

Traditional acupuncture is holistic medicine and as I have described, diagnosis is based on recognising the many facets of individual balance and imbalance of energy. So, what can we expect from treatment? This question highlights one of the important difficulties which western medical science has with traditional acupuncture. If treatment is based on the individual's unique energy imbalance, then treatment will be of the individual and not based on a formula. So, how do we set about quantifying and verifying the results?

What do I, as a practitioner, need to see, how do I know that the treatment is appropriate? What do I call the signs of success? What I am looking for is many layers of change and whatever presenting symptom one very good measure of positive outcome is response and change on the level of the emotions. Many times over patients report such initial changes as "I feel better in myself", "I am getting on better with my wife", "I feel much more positive about my work".

My patient 'S' describes her emotional response to treatment as 'cathartic'. From periods varying from a few hours to a few days following treatment she has a great upsurge of emotional intensity. When this passes, she feels that something has 'come up and been healed'. She also describes the effects as 'cumulative', each treatment taking the process further and deeper, the development and change being lasting and very positive.

Sometimes when a deep seated energy block has been shifted, there are very noticeable changes in the person's whole demeanour and range of emotional response and expression. It is truly magical to see someone change significantly through the course of a treatment, to see a face become more relaxed, radiant, joyful, more ready to smile and more open to expression.

There are many ways in which acupuncture does embody the emotions and recognises that the emotions are embodied. In traditional Chinese medicine, the emotions are generated from and stored in the internal organs, so, anger is the domain of the liver energy, and treating the liver usually involves a change in issues with that emotion and its expression. Grief is the emotion associated with the lungs and fear with the kidneys. Love is the emotional expression of the heart energy.

When emotional response is embodied or somatised, acupuncture treatment in unlocking or relieving the physical symptom can release the stuck emotion. I see my role here as facilitator, acupuncture treatment does not give the person healing. It works well to remind the energy system that it already has what it needs to heal itself. As I gently place the needles in the chosen points, experience has taught me to simply observe, sometimes describe, and often just listen as something long locked away arises and presents itself to the conscious awareness of the patient. Emotions arise and pass. I am treating 'M'. Grief wells up from a very deep place, the person experiences it intensely, it is felt and passes, leaving the person feeling that it is not even important to analyse what it was. Something experienced arose, passed through and has left a feeling of healing having taken place. Grown up child 'A' lies on the couch and as I needle a particular point on the liver meridian, the tightness in his facial muscles relaxes, a soft smile drifts across his face. I ask what he is feeling. He says that he has just noticed that feeling anger towards his father does not change anything and he is experiencing a great sense of release.

There are times when a seemingly negative behaviour pattern represents the individual's unsuccessful attempts to deal with dis-ease. Possibly none more so than when that behaviour is the use of mood altering substances, drugs such as cocaine, heroin and alcohol. It is important to view this activity, not simply as asocial, self-indulgent and criminal. When the life choices available to a person are such as the abject misery of poverty or the pain of failure in a competitive educational system, then a substance which offers relief can be seen as a logical choice. When a person decides to stop using the substance, or is at a place where they want to minimise the harm done, acupuncture can be very useful by itself or in conjunction with other therapies such as psychotherapy and homoeopathy. The acupuncture does not 'cure' the addiction. What it can do is enhance the person's resources and their ability to take control and be responsible for their own health.

Most drug-using clients experience an immediate benefit from the insertion of needles in ear acupuncture points. People report feeling calmer, more relaxed and experience positive mood changes. The psychological and physical effects of withdrawal can be dramatically relieved with acupuncture treatment. We can not eradicate poverty from the world with acupuncture or change a system which wounds so many children by labelling them 'failures'. What we can do is to facilitate emotional healing, help the person to be and feel more competent to face the challenges presented, to be more fully present in the world and more able to make positive choices and changes.

The emotional level of response to acupuncture treatment is a whole spectrum of potential and possibility. Cure and healing are not synonymous, when we relive the symptoms of arthritis or the psychological and physical effects of drug withdrawal and also facilitate a profound emotional shift of inexperienced grief, anger, fear or hurt, then true and lasting healing becomes possible.


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About Anna-May Silvestro and assisted by John Hesselworth

Anna-May Silvestro is a practitioner of traditional acupuncture, living and working in Leamington Spa and can be contacted on 01926 883391
John Hesselworth has worked in several drug and alcohol agencies in London. He is experienced in person-centred/motivational counselling and auricular acupuncture.


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