How TCM can help balance difficult emotions

In the second of this 2-part series, Wenlin explains how the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine can help us to balance complex emotions such as anger, sadness and fear.

TCM and difficult emotions

Understanding the interplay between the Five Elements, Meridian Channels, and Organ Systems provides valuable insights for practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and individuals seeking to cultivate balance and well-being. One such powerful application of TCM & Five Element theory is in balancing emotions.

Due to unexpected situations and challenges in life, we are often confronted with difficult or overwhelming emotions like guilt, depression or anxiety. Depression, guilt and frustration are all complex intellectual concepts, and it is these emotions I’ll be focusing on in this article.

An important insight from the Five Element framework from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Daoist philosophy is that there are only five primary emotions. These are called the 五志 in The TCM Classic, the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon 黄帝内经 Huangdi Neijing, which are: Fear, Anger, Excitation / Anxiety, Worry and Grief  

人有五脏化五气,以生喜怒悲忧恐。 《素问·阴阳应象大论篇》

Man has the five organs (and meridian channels); they transform the five qi, thereby generating Excitation/Joy, Anger, Grief/Sadness, Worry, and Fear.  — Discourse on the Correspondences of Yin-Yang, Chapter 5, Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon

Reduce emotional overwhelm by simplifying it to a base emotion

Whenever you experience emotional overwhelm, remind yourself that any complex emotion can be simplified to a primary emotion associated with one of these Five Elements. For example:

  • Underneath depression is Grief / Sadness, which could come from regret, loss or not feeling valued or worthy.
  • Behind frustration lies Anger, from a mismatch between your expectations and reality.
  • The root of guilt, insecurity and /or nervousness is Fear, fear of retribution, death, or loss of something or someone.

Below you can see how each Element is associated with a cluster of different complex emotions and how this may manifest through our behaviours and actions. 

Out of BalanceAnger, frustration, Impatience Stress, OverwhelmFluctuating / low self-confidence, self-love Anxiety, Jealousy, HateWorry, Guilt Feeling drained, not appreciatedGrief, Regretinability to move on / find closureFear / Indecisiveness / avoidancedistrust of intuition
In balanceCompasion, Playfulness, CreativityJoy, Love, PowerContentment, Appreciation, thoughtfulnessCourage, Clarity, DeterminationInsight, Intuition, adaptability

The next time you experience emotional overwhelm, simplify what you’re feeling to a primary emotion. This will make it feel much more manageable. Everyone experiences sadness, anger and fear, and these are much easier to manage than complex intellectual notions like depression, frustration and guilt. 

Balance a base emotion through its mothering emotion and controlling emotion

The most crucial key to overcoming emotional overwhelm and emotional mastery lies in the two relationships that connect the five primary emotions with each other. The first is the Sheng 生, Generation Cycle or Creative Cycle, where one emotion births or gives rise to another.

Creative Cycle: 

From the creative cycle above we can see that:

  • Fear births Anger
  • Anger births Excitation / Joy
  • Excitation / Joy births Worry
  • Worry births Grief / Sadness
  • Sadness births Fear

Second is the Ke 克 or Regulating Cycle. This is sometimes known as the Control Cycle, where one emotion regulates, controls or manages another. 

Control Cycle: 

In the control cycle it can be observed that: 

  • Anger is controlled by Grief,
  • Grief is controlled by Excitation
  • Excitation is controlled by Fear
  • Fear is controlled by Worry, and
  • Worry is controlled by Anger.

Each primary emotion births an emotion, and is regulated by another emotion. The antidote to the emotion you are prone to being overwhelmed by lies in the emotion that generated it, and the emotion it is controlled by. 

The antidote to the emotion you are prone to being overwhelmed by lies in the emotion that generated it, and the emotion it is controlled by. 

Overcoming anger, sadness and fear

Let’s look at 3 examples: Anger, Sadness/Grief and Fear and how to overcome emotional overwhelm in these situations. 

Anger (Wood Element) 

Anger is mothered by fear and controlled by grief (see image below), and often manifests as feelings of annoyance, irritability, impatience, rage or resentment. Anger is also associated with the Wood Element, Spring season and the liver and gallbladder organs and meridian channels. When balanced, the Wood Element manifests in the form of motivation, decisiveness, agency and action. 

❓ If you feel angry, irritable or annoyed about something and/or someone, pause and ask yourself,

  • What am I afraid of?
  • What am I sad about?

The root of anger is often associated with loss of time, control, resources, unfairness or an outcome going differently from expected due to external or internal factors. For example, I might be angry at my dog for peeing on my Yoga mat despite telling him multiple times that it is not the right behaviour and that he should pee outdoors on the grass. In this case, I am afraid he doesn’t understand me, and sad that if this happens again the Yoga mat will get ruined.

Another example – if someone cut my queue after I waited 30 minutes in line, I might be incredibly angry. And beneath that anger might be a feeling of sadness of having my ‘rights’ violated and wasting thirty minutes waiting in the queue, or the fear of possibly being reprimanded for arriving late at work later by my boss. As you find the cause of the anger, the emotion will dissipate.

Grief / Sadness (Metal Element) 

Sadness, or Grief is feeling often accompanied by loss of something and/or someone precious. It is mothered by Worry, and controlled by Excitation (see image below). Sadness is also associated with the Metal element, Autumn season and the lungs and large intestine organs and meridian channels. The Metal element is associated with the corporeal soul and your ability to take in and to let go. When in balance, one is optimistic and fully present in every moment.

❓If you feel sad, If ask yourself:

  • What was I excited, joyful about that is no longer here?
  • What am I worried about? What have I lost / am worried about losing?

For example, you might feel sad because you missed the joyful feeling of being with your family member, but can no longer feel that because he/she/they have passed away. You might also feel worried that it might happen to someone else you love. Aside from bereavement, there are other types of loss such as the end of a relationship e.g. divorce or breakup, or losing a job, deterioration in health, a miscarriage or losing your home.

Sadness / grief can sometimes manifest in various forms, including shock and/or numbness, overwhelming sadness, with lots of crying and tiredness or exhaustion. It could even surface as guilt out of regret of not being able to undo what has happened.

Fear (Water Element) 

Fear is mothered by Sadness, and controlled by Worry (see image below). Fear is also associated with the Water element, Winter season and the kidney and urinary bladder organs and meridian channels. The Water Element is the source of life-force and will. When in balance, it manifests in the form of strong willpower and endurance. When imbalanced it manifests as fear, which may inhibit growth e.g. fear of making decisions, moving forward. 

❓If you feel fearful or afraid, ask yourself:

  • What do I feel sad about? What have I lost?
  • What is worrying me?’ What could happen that worries me? 

For example, I might be fearful because as a child I lost a loved one to cancer, and I am fearful that the same disease might rob me of my life. Or, I might be afraid that next week I can’t pay the rent and will lose my home because I struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic.

The key to overcoming fear is to build trust. But trust can only be built upon the foundation of safety – creating a feeling, an environment and belief that you are safe and nothing bad is happening to you, at least in this exact moment. 

How the Five Elements & Five Pillars of TCM can help 

By identifying imbalances or weaknesses within specific elements or organs, you can use acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary therapy, or lifestyle modifications to restore harmony and emotional balance. 

For instance, for someone with anger management issues which are often due to underlying liver Qi stagnation, a TCM practitioner may focus on supporting the Wood element by using acupuncture points along the Liver meridian and prescribing herbs, massage, Qigong and Yin Yoga poses that nourish liver function. One may also note if there are imbalances in the  mothering and controlling element, e.g. for the Wood element, these are the Water and Metal element, and use the five pillars to restore balance for these elements and corresponding organ systems. 

Now that we’ve explored what TCM is and how we can use it in our yoga practice, you can incorporate the principles of Five Element theory to balance and harmonise your emotions. By integrating the wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine into your yoga practice, you can deepen your self-awareness, and cultivate lasting balance and joy in your life.


  • Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine – Learn about the origins of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the practices it informs, its key principles, and the five elements and its associated organs.
  • Yin Yoga and the 5 Elements – A 5 week program of Yin yoga practices based on the 5 Elements and Meridian theory, designed to support and nourish your whole body and mind.

    Main image courtesy of Marcus Paulo Prado via Unsplash
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Wenlin TanWenlin teaches Qigong. Her heartfelt intention is to empower you to welcome flow, ease and alignment in your body, mind and spirit.