Derangement by Metal: Grieving and Anxiety in Chinese Medicine

Every acupuncturist has at least one kind of illness pattern they have a hard time treating. For some, the chronic Earth deficiency, with its frequent love of sweets and ability to obsess on anything, is difficult. For others, it’s Liver Fire, with its tendency to be constantly irritable. For me, it’s severe Metal imbalances that affect the psyche. The pain this imbalance creates is hard to watch, especially since the people stuck in this pattern often have difficulty believing their perceptions are unclear.

Metal element deals with the Lung and Large Intestine, and deals with the emotions of memory and nostalgia, grieving, and letting go of anything that no longer serves you. It is also the system that deals with boundaries (a la the immune system) and as such plays a part in the metaphorical “boxes” a person uses to keep things organized and sorted in their mind. The season of autumn is a time when the Metal element has more say-so in the workings of the environment than any other time of year. Many people notice a tendency towards nostalgia in the autumn, and pull out old picture books to remember old times. Others notice more of a tendency to think of past losses, or a desire to clear out clutter and re-evaluate the things you spend your time on in life.

For someone whose Metal element, or Lung and Large Intestine energy, is severely out of balance, this process goes awry, sometimes to the point of becoming irrational. The organizational and boundary aspects of Metal can become hyper-sensitive, making a person a perfectionist, or overly detailed oriented. The boundary-setting function can falter, making a person either too lenient with those around them, or, more often in dealing with Metal, too strict. The person becomes so convinced of their own opinions on a matter that they cannot see the faults in their thinking, and become overly uptight and even paranoid. When these problems occur, a person can suffer from symptoms as mild as being too picky about how the dishwasher is loaded to a full mental disorder, such as eating disorder, debilitating phobias, panic disorders, and other forms of irrationality.

While serious, life-altering disorders will usually require greater intervention from medical sources, there are ways to help your Lung and Large Intestine energies regain balance. In the continuum of Chinese energetics, the Metal element is nourished by Earth, controlled by Wood, and feeds Water. Keeping these three systems in balance will help normalize the Metal element.

Since a tendency to over-control is considered an excess state of Metal in Chinese medicine, one way to decrease its influence is to minimize Earth element. This process is tricky, because the Earth element is responsible for digestions, and has some weakness in most people. So keeping food easy to digest is key. Rather than eating raw or processed food, eat warm, well-cooked food, such as soups, mildly sweet vegetables such as squash, sweet potatoes, and unprocessed grains. Raw food is too difficult for most people to break down easily, especially in cold weather. Warm foods relax your entire digestive system. It also helps relax the muscles in your torso, allowing qi to more easily flow from your chest to your abdomen, linking your Metal and Earth energy.

Another problem comes when the Metal Element “over-controls” Wood energy, which represents the liver and gallbladder functions in Chinese medicine.  Wood is repsonsible for enforcing the boundaries that the Metal element creates, as well as supplying active creative energy for things like art, organizing, and business. When Wood is out of balance, people either become listless and lacking ambition and ability to take action. Alternatively, a person with Wood unbalanced can become aggressive in asserting herself. Often this form of imbalance is predominate in the more irrational forms of Metal imbalance. The Metal element virtually enslaves the Wood energy and uses it to fight the encroachment of reality on the opinions of the person out-of-balance.

To soothe the Wood element, and bring it out of Metal’s abusive orbit, you use small amounts of sour foods and plenty of green foods. These foods help Wood energy to “unstick” itself. And stuck energy is a big issue in the particularly severe Metal overbalances. Getting that energy to move allows a person to release their sometimes irrational thoughts and allow other people to help them.

Finally, Water element, which is the Kidney and Bladder meridians in people and animals, is nourished by Metal. Often this energy is weak in the person with an unbalanced Metal energy because the energy gets stuck and refuses to nourish Water. Alternatively, it pushes so much energy into the Water element that its function of providing the oomph for willpower becomes overpronounced, and the poor person cannot allow anyone or anything, including objective reality, to circumvent his or her own will. Grounding the Water element and using the other tips here allow willpower to move to appropriate self-care instead of sometimes arbitrarily strict rules in diet, cleanliness, or other behaviors.

Strengthening Water element can be done by adding small amounts of sea salt or elements from the ocean. Fish, seaweeds, or adding sea or other unprocessed salt to your food can help. Giving yourself plenty of downtime to meditate, daydream, and have unstructured thought is also important. Water element has the most connection to the subconscious mind in Chinese medicine. As such, it deals with the underlying fears and emotions that stir problems in all the elements, including Metal. Nourishing it gives your body the reserves and feeling of grounding you need to improve any emotional or physical condition.

Severe unbalance in any system should be addressed by as many modalities and professionals as you need to restore harmony in your life. In the case of severe Metal element disturbance, you may need to find someone you trust to define your reality if you are having irrational thoughts. Seek emergency care if a disturbed mental process is affecting your life to a great extent, or you have thoughts of harming yourself or others.

Balance is key to all of Chinese medicine. For more information on dealing with your health imbalances, please call or email today.

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Living Now


My parents and I

This month two dear friends died. One suddenly of a heart attack, the other after a long battle with several different cancers. The world seems a little darker this morning.

I guess I am like most people. I live my life consumed by minutiae. Small dramas between friends or co-workers, passing moods, traffic, a slow computer–too often I allow small things to determine my life, my actions, and my thoughts. When faced with mortality, these small, petty issues fall aside.

The loss of my friends, while painful, is nothing compared to to the empty feelings their families are facing today. I have lost my mother and father, and sat beside my husband in ICU when he was terribly ill and I knew any second his labored breathing could stop. Time stops in that level of loss. You feel separated from time and space, and the people around you can try to comfort or help, but you are too numb to respond. 

Thankfully, my husband recovered, and is now healthier than he has been in years. But I try to never quite forget how clearly I saw life sitting by that hospital bed. When the daily grind drops away in the face of life-and-death issues, you make promises to yourself. You promise you will never take important people for granted. You promise you will never let the trivial keep you from the crucial. You promise that you will say things that need to be said, even if it leaves you vulnerable or temporarily hurts someone in hopes of helping them live a fuller life.

I have kept these promises imperfectly. Today I realize I have not stayed as connected with my friends, especially the two who are newly gone. I could have been more encouraging, more available, more attentive. No one stays in the moment of what’s truly important perfectly. But each time real life overtakes the silly play of irrelevant details, let’s renew our commitment to those promises. Hug the people you love today. Forgive them. Remove anything that stands between you and being able to stay connected to the important people and values in your life. No one is guaranteed the next minute. Please make this minute–this one, right now–count. 

"I Don’t Like To Complain"

Photo credit: nzks

I read a lot about positivity, and training your mind to see the brighter aspect of any situation. But when I get down, I do not have a lot of experience with realistic evaluation of experiences. I tend to see any experience as either good or bad, as my fault if it is negative, and in spite of me if it is positive. I absorbed a futilistic mind set from childhood, without my family’s or my realization it was happening. So when I do finally give up and embrace the depressing side of a problem, I go overboard. I throw out any good things as I focus on the bad–no one called me today, I lost income, I made a mistake, something bad is happening to someone I love and I can’t help it, there are good things I want to do, but x, y, or z stands in the way. It’s all hopeless, and I should just eat worms and die.


When I keep my pain locked away in myself, a stray negative thought can blossom into a full depression hurricane, where I denigrate my accomplishments, ignore happy things around me, and sacrifice my energy and health in bouts of crying, anger, and blaming those around me for perceived slights. Why don’t I reach out to someone else in these bad times? “I don’t like to complain.” “I don’t want to be negative.” “If other people knew I had this problem, I would be lessened in their eyes.”


Recently I tried to encourage a friend who was down. In a feat of tremendous hyprocrisy, I urged him to confide his problems in others, to “get the pain out.” And he used my line. “I don’t like to complain.” As often happens, being of the receiving end of my words opened my eyes to a new viewpoint.


Why is it helpful to share our burdens with each other? If I am sad, and I tell you I am sad and why, won’t I just make you sad, too? Sometimes, yes. I have heard conversations where two people get together and focus on all the bad in themselves and in the world. The conversation often becomes cruel, cyncial, and cutting. I get depressed hearing it second-hand, and the people involved do not seem uplifted at all while they are together. But I don’t usually have such conversations. When I share a problem with a friend, my friends react differently. I have been blessed with proactive friends who help me turn problems around.


How do these wonderful people help me? They are first caring, then try to help me see the problem realistically, and then we try to solve it together.

  • Caring. Letting someone know your dark places or failures is scary stuff. In a society built on projecting a positive, successful, happy persona, admitting that you ate a box of cookies and spent the day hiding from people because conversation was too taxing is an exercise in vulnerability–and is not something you find recommended in a Tony Robbins seminar. But everyone has down times. Grief and sadness are natural stages in life. They can come on from events big or small, from events such as death or illness bringing loss into our lives, or when our current situation is not where we want to be, or we hit one too many red lights on the way to work on a rainy day. The brooding nature of sadness can, when expressed and used correctly, give us time to look at problems, see what we want or need to change, and move toward a happier future. But most of us need someone to accept us at our saddest in order to properly process our emotions and reach that proactive stage. Being a friend who can say “I am so sorry you are dealing with this problem! Tell me about it,” gives the troubled person room to feel their emotions and begin the job of working through to a better state.

  • See the Problem Realistically. For me, this is the stage I need a trusted friend to accomplish. When I face a problem, it is all I can see. Only the bad sides of the equation. I don’t see opportunities, I don’t see my skills I bring to solving it, I don’t see any of my past successes or the support networks I have all around me. I see a problem–big and scary and proof, in my eyes, of my utter incompetence and lack of worth. My husband and my friends are lifesavers in these moments. I trust them to honestly assess a problem with me, and help me put it in perspective in the larger mosaic of my life. They are the ones to remind me of past successes, of the power of faith, of the good things that can come from the current challenge, and that even if I do fail to solve this problem, I am still loved and worthwhile. This help is the hardest to be without, and the step I close off the most severely when I refuse to share my burden with someone I can trust.

  • Solving the Problem. This step, which seems so crucial when I am bewailing my predicament, is actually the least important. Most problems get solved. Mostly by doing things I already know how to do. For the rare times I need help–either in the form of practical help or simply expert advice, my support group of friends, family, and experts I trust will usually get me on track quickly. I am still surprised at how simple solutions can be, especially after I’ve spent weeks obsessing over a situation. Often one conversation, or mentioning one need that is overwhelming to me, will result in just the right advice, or someone having a spare whatsit that they want to be rid of that is exactly what I need. Problem solving, while crucial to life, is much less difficult than letting someone care and help you put your problem into perspective.

So why do we constantly hoard our problems when sharing them helps us and allows our friends to see into our lives in ways that strengthen our relationships? Why must pride and a desire to appear invincible rather than vulnerable make us suffer alone? Think about how good it feels to help someone else, and especially how good it feels to be trusted with someone’s tender, scary places. Why not give that gift to the friend you value the most? Chances are good he or she will help you solve your problem, you’ll feel better, and your friend will feel valued and useful. Share a problem today!

Autumn: Grieving, Sorting, Letting Go

Autumn is my favorite season. I love the color in the leaves, the chill in the air, and the natural instinct to burrow in and nest. But I always find myself going broody and a little melancholy just as the summer heat gets that tiny tinge of coolness. For years, I chalked it up to the memories of school starting, year after year, in my childhood–the end of the freedom of summer, and for me the anxiety and discomfort of being an introvert thrown into a more social climate. 

While those memories may be a part of my “autumn blues,” I now know there is a much more powerful reason I have these feelings, and why so many share them. In Chinese medicine, each season is associated with an element, which also relates to different parts of physical and emotional health. Autumn deals with the Metal Element, which is represented in the body by the Lung and Large Intestine systems. These systems deal with your immune system and breathing. But they also have an emotional component. They deal with the process of grief, of knowing what to keep and let go, and have a place in affecting how we organize our lives and set our boundaries.

Just as the leaves shed their leaves and begin to hunker down for the winter, drawing their nutrients inward, so we humans feel an urge to turn inward as the weather cools. Autumn is commonly a time for introspection and review. We look over our year, our relationships, and our homes, deciding what works well, and what does not, and letting go of those things that no longer serve us. We pack away our summer clothes, pull out the comforting shield of our sweaters and blankets, and review our yearly plans. And many of us, for reasons we cannot quite understand, feel the need to pull out old hurts, old problems, or old memories, figuratively running our fingers over our life scars.

This behavior is perfectly natural, and can be beneficial. When we suffer a loss–whether it’s a loved one, an injury, a financial setback, or just a vision of ourselves we fail to live up to–we need time to process the change in our circumstances. We grieve a death, or a breakup, or a new reality after illness, and move one. But as a year or two or ten goes by, sometimes we find there are still issues to process. We reach the age of a parent when they died, we find a new romance, or find our health deteriorates further–or, sometimes more frighteningly, improves, bringing new opportunities but also new responsibility. We have grown and changed, and now we need to revisit that old hurt. Is there something new to learn from our old experience? Is there some new way to let go of a limiting belief or behavior? If we do not revisit our story, we may never know.

Of course, everyone has a friend who is stuck in time. They pick a moment of their life, either for its joy or pain, and refuse to leave it. They dress too young, or continue to make teenage choices into adulthood, because growing up threatens the safety they feel in their perceived youth. Or they keep a room or wall or life revolving around a loved one who has left, or died, unable to accept a new opportunity because they cannot let go of the past. For these people, the natural need to grieve and release has gotten bogged down. Sometimes they obsess on the grieving process; other times they avoid it, distracting themselves with work or vacations or play. If they let their mind go blank they risk the pain of memories welling up, so they choose distraction after distraction to avoid discomfort. For either approach, getting help to grieve properly is important. A mature friend or counselor can help stuck grievers go through the process of sorting memories or circumstances and deciding how life has changed around them, and also how to make changes so they can move on to the next stage of life.

Autumn is still my favorite season, even tinged with grief as it can sometimes be. The other side of grief is nostalgia–a happy memory of earlier times that can be a firm foundation from which to launch an amazing life.