The Core Emotions

What are the core human emotions?

The core human emotions are considered, in Chinese medicine, as the main cause of illness and cause of weakness, leading to diseases.

The ancient Chinese thinkers determined, that desires and passions, are the main obstacle to true accomplishment of a human life.

The core human emotions - The word “emotion” itself is not a good term to indicate the Chinese view of the “emotional” causes of disease. They are more the equivalent of desires and passion.

The word “passion” describes the idea of mental suffering better than “emotion”, because it implies the idea of something that is “suffered”, something that we are subject to. Feelings such as sadness, fear, anger become causes of disease when they take over our mind, when we no longer possess them, but they “possess” us.

The “stimulation” or “excitation” produced by the core human emotions are similar to the “swash, surge” of the ocean waves. Such waves which carry us away.

How do Emotions affect our Health?

Each emotion has an effect on the Qi flow.

"Anger makes Qi rise, joy slows down Qi, sadness dissolves Qi, fear makes Qi descend... shock scatters Qi... pensiveness knots Qi...".

"Worry and pensiveness agitate the Heart."

All emotions, besides affecting the organ directly, affect the Heart indirectly because the Heart houses the Mind.

The Heart is the home of consciousness and feeling and reacts to emotional tension.

"Worry agitates the Heart and has repercussions on the Lungs; pensiveness agitates the Heart and has repercussions on the Spleen; anger agitates the Heart and has repercussions on the Liver; fear agitates the Heart and has repercussions on the Kidneys. Therefore all the five emotions [including joy] affect the Heart".

~ Yu Chang in "Principles of Medical Practice"

When do any of the core human emotions cause disease?

Under normal circumstances, the core human emotions are not a cause of disease.

For example, the death of a relative provokes a very natural feeling of grief. The emotions become causes of disease only when they are either long-lasting, or very intense.

If a family or work situation makes us angry and frustrated in an on-going way, this will affect the Liver and cause disharmony.

Emotions can become the cause of disease in a very short time if they are intense enough: shock is the best example of such a situation.

The Su-Wen

"I know that the hundred diseases are generated by the qi.

When one is angry, then the qi rises.

When one is joyous, then the qi relaxes.

When one is sad, then the qi dissipates.

When one is in fear, then the qi moves down.

In case of cold the qi collects; in case of heat, the qi flows out.

When one is frightened, then the qi is in disorder.

When one is exhausted, then the qi is wasted.

When one is pensive, then the qi lumps together."

Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor

Chapter 39

The Yin Organ Emotions

From the 5 Elements Healing perspective, there are 5 emotions, of the core human emotions, each one affecting a specific Yin organ:

The core Human Emotions

  1. Joy affects the heart.
  2. Anger affects the liver.
  3. Grief and Sadness affects the lungs.
  4. Worry affects the spleen.
  5. Fear affects the kidneys.
  6. Shock affects the heart, then kidneys.
  7. Oppression affects the Spleen and lungs.

“Anger injures the Liver, sadness counteracts anger... joy injures the Heart, fear counteracts joy... pensiveness injures the Spleen, anger counteracts pensiveness...worry injures the Lungs, joy counteracts worry... fear injures the Kidneys, pensiveness counteracts fear.”

Emotional stress on the body affects the Qi flow and direction of Qi.

Anger makes it rise, sadness depletes it, etc.

All emotions cause some change of the Qi flow in the body meridians.

Qi stagnation may lead to Heat, and most of the emotions can, over a longer period of time, give rise to Heat or Fire.

As the proper movement of Qi is essential to transforming, transporting and excreting fluids, the disruption in the movement results in the formation of phlegm. Phlegm, in turn, obstructs the orifices and becomes a further cause of physical, emotional and mental disturbance.

Additionally to the 5 Yin organ emotions, there are two more emotions, of the 7 human emotions, considered to be: Sadness and Shock.

The Core Emotions


The character for anger is a symbol for the emotion of a female slave under the hand of the master. This is more a symbol for repressed anger – the Chinese say anger can either be bursting out or repressed. The effort of a bird first launching off the ground is a symbol for the energy behind anger. It can be useful for initiating action and overcoming fear. However, if it is not mastered the mind becomes scattered and it may lead to violence and impetuosity. Anger moves qi upwards with physiological consequences such as headaches, brain confusion, sudden deafness and loss of vision, short breath, but also symptoms relating to wood attacking earth such as vomiting blood, diarrhoea with undigested food in the stool, blood in the eyes, poor digestion. Other symptoms include pain under the ribs, and anger leading to poor memory where constant irritation damages the will.

The character for fear symbolises the knocking/beating that fear gives to the heart and another common related symbol relates to a little bird which needs to be vigilant to look out for danger and preserve life. Fear comes from weakness of the kidneys. Fear breaks the heart kidney axis. The essences withdraw and the liquids and essences inside the body are not sustained by qi. There is a separation of qi and essences, and liquids descend leading to dry throats and heart palpitations. Essences are lost through defecation and urination. Fear can also make you timid, panic, watchful and lack courage. Fear makes qi move downwards, resulting in loss of fluid, swollen legs and feet, and articulations, bones and joints may lack liquid and essence.

The character for elation has a hand, small drum and open mouth – a symbol for music at a popular feast. When we are elated qi is regulated from the centre of our heart and we feel alive. This ‘alive’ feeling is a type of excitation that can scatter our spirits like shaking a tree scatters the birds that were resting on the branches. In other words, excessive elation can lead to us losing ourselves, we become tired and over-emotional. The symbol for joy is of the large drums that are used to make royal music. Royal music is a symbol for rhythm that has a positive effect on the harmony of the heart. When in harmony we feel at unity with ourselves and the world. Joy is the natural result of being alive and living in accordance with our heart. Either excessive elation (hard partying!) or a lack of joy can lead to disease such as psychological disturbance, madness, heat, heart pain or dysrhythmia. Elation results in qi becoming loose.

The character for sadness is a symbol for negation or refusal of something. When we grieve it is natural to find it hard to accept the loss – at the extreme we can refuse to acknowledge what has occurred. To some extent sadness is about contending with loss and finding a way to accept and move on. The pathology from sadness relates to saying no to what is, ie. Refusing to accept the change in circumstances. By refusing to acknowledge reality we contradict our spirits – driving a wedge between our perception and acceptance of reality. When we are sad we close off ourselves to life and everything around us. Qi disappears and dries up. You are affected at the centre of vitality – life is lost. Sadness affects not just vitality (qi disappears), immune function (yang qi moves to centre), and the lungs (we breath in but not so easily out) but also the whole upper burner including the heart. It can also affect the liver (through an overactive control cycle) producing agitation, muscle cramps, brittle hair and forgetfulness.

The character for over-thinking has a heart with the brain inside the skull. Thinking relates to the earth element because it is the earth that receives information from everywhere and then can put it together extracting the good things and transforming it like earth does with digestion. Over-thinking is thought that is unable to continue itself into a project or plan and end in an act. If you are unable to act you always come back to the same idea – hence the ‘obsessive’ thought. Thinking and reflection can lead to worries and concerns. Thinking is only good if it leads to action. If we over-think we tend to dwell on one thing and this focus detracts from the ability of the heart to rule all things. Thinking and reflection that leads nowhere just uses up heart blood, injuring the heart and inner peace, and producing heart palpitations. Over-thinking also directly affects the spleen.

The different parts of the character for fright relates to restraining oneself, remaining frozen/ motionless, being easily startled and sensitive to noise and light. Fright leaves us startled and the spirits are not sure how to react. Physically this can produce convulsions or seizures. The effect is the opposite of thought where spirits dwell on only one thing and remain in only one place. When frightened, the spirits have no place to settle and there is disorder, disassociation and no thinking. Fright affects the heart, kidneys, liver and spleen.

The character for oppression is symbolic of a person moving with troubles in their head and heart. Oppression relates to all the elements, not just metal - grief and sadness. It oppresses the free circulation of qi and yang. Qi closes down and is blocked. Oppression and sorrow are closely linked, and oppression can lead to melancholy. Sadness is a denial of what has happened, oppression is a complete immobilisation contrary to the movement of life. The Spleen, lungs and liver are particularly affected by oppression.