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Dr. Aimée Derbes, LAC

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119 8th Street, Suite 205
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Fear in Chinese Medicine

Align Acupuncture Blog. Musings about healing, acupuncture, herbal medicine, breathwork, and more.

At my offices in Brooklyn (serving Gowanus, Park Slope) and Manhattan (Flatiron), I see patients who are dealing with chronic pain (back pain, neck and shoulder pain, knee pain, hip pain, and ankle pain), headaches + migraines, digestive issues (IBS, colitis), infertility, stress, insomnia, PMS, women's health, and autoimmune conditions (Lyme, Hashimoto's, thyroid conditions, and many more).

Fear in Chinese Medicine

Aimée Derbes

Last week I was chatting with a primary care MD, getting to know more about him and the people he serves. We discovered a shared love of high-quality dark chocolate and got onto the topic of the high levels of cadmium in cacao powder / chocolate (totally unrelated to the rest of this post, but yikes!). I asked if he used heavy metal testing as part of his process with his patients.

“No, not anymore,” he said. “By the time they’re at the point where heavy metal testing is the logical next step in the hunt for “what’s wrong,” they’ve probably already gotten a million tests that have shown they either have nothing or everything. They probably feel some combination of exhausted, alone and unsupported, and afraid they’re never going to feel better. While they may have everything under the sun -- cancer, Lyme, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, SIBO, generalized anxiety, and so on -- they are totally freaked out and their main health issue is now fear. So that’s what I treat.”

After I got over the shock (and excitement!) of hearing a traditionally-trained Western MD say that fear is a (the) health issue, I started turning it over. How does fear show up for my patients, in their bodies, health, and experience? What do I know, for sure, about fear, if anything? How does it show up for me? What do we do with it?

Fear in the health world

Our culture encourages us to be perfect all the time, and tends to treat illness as a personal moral failing. You know, eat this perfect “clean” diet and exercise constantly or it will be “your fault” if you develop type II diabetes or cancer or hypertension and so on. Ugh.

If you have a health issue, especially one that Western medicine doesn’t conceptualize or know how to treat effectively, of course, of course, it’s natural to wonder “WTF you guys. Why me? What is this? What if I never figure out what’s wrong? It should be better by now and it still isn’t. I did everything they said to do and it hasn’t helped. What if it never gets better? Is this just my life now?” And also, “what did I do to deserve this? Is it because I grew up in XYZ where there’s more lead in the groundwater there? Is it because I grew up in the 80s eating all that Wonderbread and Blue Bonnet margarine and Coke and Oreos?”

(That last one’s my script, btw. I feel bonkers healthy and vibrant, the best I’ve ever felt, and there’s still a teeny tiny soft little voice that pops into my mind from time to time, wondering if “real” damage (whatever that means) was done by the scary processed foods of my childhood.)

Underneath all those questions, however, are the real questions: “Am I safe? Am I acceptable, even with this health issue? Am I allowed to be here and live my life, anyway? Am I going to be loved and supported?”

The MD said he believes medicine, as currently practiced, runs on and exploits fear, and that’s no less true of “wellness.” Think of the energy you bring to the choices you make. Are those choices rooted in love, or in fear? Are we purchasing organic groceries in a state of joy and appreciation for how delicious and vibrant they are, or more in fear of the endocrine-disrupting toxic pesticides potentially lurking in conventional foods?

I’ve followed plenty of “healthy” diets out of fear of “unhealthy” foods that “make us sick.” (And this is not to say that, like, a lot of the things our culture accepts as “food” aren’t actually toxic and making us sick, because, you know, they are.) But if I'm making those choices from a place of defensiveness, and fear, and there's no pleasure or joy in them, then what of it? How healthy is it if fear is the driver of our health and wellness routines? 

Chinese medicine on fear

The Huang Di Nei Jing, one of the foundational texts of East Asian medicine traditions, describes the ways that emotions cause our qi to move through our bodies. A couple examples you might recognize: anger causes qi to rise (the flushed face and upward surge of heat so common in anger), and worry knots the qi (stagnated and circular thinking patterns). These patterns were so 2,000+ years ago when the Nei Jing was written, and continue to be so today. Plus ça change...

The Nei Jing says that “fear results in descending qi.” As in, the energy in our bodies sinks when we feel afraid. This lines up with the energetics of our chakras: when we feel fear, something primal is awakened. Our bodies go into survival mode, as we curl inward, protecting our vital organs, and our energy sinks down into our lower chakras, which are all about fundamental safety. (And sometimes, we are so afraid that a super strong descending action takes over, causing us to...wait for it….pee our pants. True story.)

Fear is the emotion associated with the water element, the kidneys and the bladder (which both regulate the water in our bodies, I might add), and winter, the seasonal bridge between autumn’s death and spring’s rebirth. Just like the movement of fear in our bodies (a paralyzing shrinking and sinking), a similar contraction is naturally happening in winter in the world around us. Cold causes things to slow down and contract into stillness, as in the flow of a river slowing and shrinking until it freezes entirely. Once frozen, it becomes pure potential, waiting in reserve until needed again.

Because winter hangs out so close to the realm of death, it’s the natural season for fear. Death is the great unknown, and I’d argue that fear comes up when we’re faced with anything that we can’t control and is therefore unknowable.

What’s out of our direct control is, actually, most of life, but we are really good at pretending that it’s the other way around, that almost everything can be controlled, right now, by us personally, and it’s only one or two things that manage to slip past our “defenses.” Thinking we’re in control is totally normal; in fact, we were programmed exactly for this through the messages and actions of our families and cultures!

It’s not the Kidneys; it’s the Pericardium

While fear is directly associated with the kidney and bladder organs and channels, my favorite way to work with it in acupuncture sessions is through the pericardium channel, which I’ve talked about before.

The pericardium absorbs all the pain from physical and emotional stress, so that none of it reaches the heart, and in the process, forms our own highly personalized patterns of shielding and armoring. The pericardium holds all of our conditioning, our learned beliefs about safety, so our heart, untouched by fear, can continue to be perfect, whole, and free. Our pericardium does everything it can to protect us from feeling our pain. Absorbing all the fears, anxiety, and emotional contractions, the pericardium is what modulates what and who is safe, or not, and sets the tone of contraction and tension in our bodies. 

The pericardium is also in charge of the diaphragm. Ever notice how when you feel afraid, your shoulders roll and shrink in as your energy moves down, and your breathing becomes shallow? That’s because your pericardium puts the freeze on the full movement of your diaphragm. The tension and holding patterns are activated, as things slow down, pull in, and shrink. It’s really smart, actually, for an animal to become small and curl up around their vital organs.

But how’s that working for you, dear human? 

For most of us, it’s not necessary (we’re relatively safe) and it keeps us from being our full brilliant selves. I work with the pericardium channel in acupuncture treatments to support the unwinding of fear and anxiety in the body. It’s the most effective place to input some programming upgrades.

Releasing fear

Around any health issue tends to attract and magnify feelings about having the health issue, what it means about us, fears around our bodies, and so on. The MD I mentioned trains his patients in seated meditation as a way to become familiar with how fear shows up in thought patterns and beliefs. I’m more into how all of that lives in and shows up in the body, and here are a few ways I work with the body.

  • Acupuncture: Working with the pericardium channel, like I mentioned earlier, and others, acupuncture regulates the way qi moves in the body. It smooths out the rough edges, makes sure nothing gets stuck, and keeps our energy moving to the next point in the cycle. Acupuncture also induces a body-wide relaxation response, calms the nervous system, lowers blood pressure, and supports healing from the root and constitution.
  • Breathwork: Breathwork is my go-to for self-healing. It’s a way to allow emotions and fear patterns to come up and work their way out of our bodies. The breathing pattern I facilitate in individual sessions and groups gives the brain something to do while the body takes over and does its own self-healing work. The best part about breathwork is that, once you learn how to do it and get comfortable with the process, you can do it yourself, for free, at home.
  • Acupressure: Try pressing lightly on PC6, which is located on your inner arm, about 1.5-2" up from the crease of your wrist, in the middle of the most prominent tendons. This point opens the chest through its embryologic fascial connections to the pericardium, diaphragm, and liver; PC6 makes space for easier, deeper breathing, and relaxes the diaphragm/liver fascial connection, which is why it also alleviates nausea and stomach pain. 
  • EFT / Tapping: I've talked about tapping before, but this is a powerful tool for getting in touch with the beliefs and fears that have been programmed into your cells (and pericardium) by past traumas. A few scripts you can try as you go tap through the points:
    • Even though I have these diagnoses, I deeply and completely accept myself.
    • Even though my body isn’t behaving the way I want it to, I deeply and completely accept myself.
    • Even though I feel afraid to give and receive love, I deeply and completely accept myself.
    • Even though I'm still learning to trust love, I deeply and completely accept myself.
    • It's safe for me to feel fear. I can handle it. It's safe to let it go. My heart is whole and perfect. It's safe to trust love.

How does fear show up in your health, and in your stories around your health? Have you tried any of these methods for getting in touch with your patterns and beliefs? Let me know how it goes in the comments below!