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  • Ellen Brown L.Ac. DACM

How worry and rumination damage our spleen

In Chinese medicine, there is no division between the mind and body. Rather, they represent two parts of an inseparable, energetic whole that cannot be divorced. What happens to the body affects the mind, and what troubles the mind impacts the body. Our emotions, thoughts and feelings all influence – for better or worse – our physical health and well-being. Chinese medicine recognizes several emotions that have the ability to trigger pain and physical illness: grief, fear and fright, anger, joy (mania), and worry. Each of these, when excessive, fixated or repressed, can become pathological, harming their partnered, internal organ and disturbing our Qi (energy). Worry – or rumination – damages the Spleen. Rumination can be thought of as excessive, persistent contemplation or pensiveness that leads to chronic worrying. Over-thinking, dwelling too heavily or too long on a particular topic, and even excessive mental concentration, are all dimensions of rumination that deplete Spleen energy.

According to Chinese medicine, the Spleen occupies a central place in the production of Qi in our overall energetic make-up. The Spleen controls digestion and is responsible for providing nourishment which supports all aspects of our health. On a physical level, the Spleen is responsible for transforming the food we eat into Qi – the fundamental energy of our body. Signs of imbalance in the organ due to worry and rumination include: fatigue, loss of appetite, poor digestion, abdominal distention, loose stools or diarrhea, weak muscles, bruising easily, pale complexion and excessive menstrual blood flow.

Just as the Spleen helps us to physically process nutrition, a healthy Spleen also allows us to process thoughts, analyze new information, transform it into knowledge, and allow it to nourish us intellectually. The mental aspect of the Spleen is called the Yi, which is responsible for analytical thought, memory, cognition, intelligence and ideas. The Spleen is directly linked to our capacity to think, study, concentrate and memorize. How well we manage our thoughts and form our intentions depends on the strength of our Spleen energy. When balanced, the Yi guides us through life and helps us absorb nourishing insight and information from the world around us. A healthy Yi manifests as spirit-infused intelligence and understanding. Alternately, a weak Yi can manifest as dull or foggy thinking, lack of focus, poor memory or “pensiveness” that damages the Spleen. When unbalanced, the Yi creates internal chatter that can be distracting and cause us to overthink, worry and ruminate.

[Note: the Spleen is capitalized here to denote its Chinese medical interpretation – not just the physical organ that western medicine recognizes, but the energetic function that the Spleen represents, which operates on many levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.]

When we think about a problem or issue for too long, or focus on it without finding a solution and taking action, our Spleen suffers. Spleen Qi becomes knotted and stuck when we have an obsessive preoccupation with a concept or subject. Likewise, deficient Spleen energy can cause a disturbance in our thought process as well. In this sense, over-thinking, just like over-eating, damages the Spleen.

Both physically and intellectually, the Spleen allows our body to welcome and process the nourishment we need to thrive. When the Spleen is energetically imbalanced, we will be undernourished in body, mind, and spirit, no matter how much food we eat or how much we surround ourselves by nourishing places and activities.

When we let a problem replay over and over again in our mind, we are engaging in “rumination.” Rumination refers to the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, factors and consequences of a negative emotional experience. It leads us to relentlessly review, dissect and over-analyze the various aspects of a situation that upsets us. Research has shown that excessive rumination is associated with a variety of negative consequences, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, binge drinking and binge-eating.

Rumination prevents our brain from shutting off at the end of a long day, despite feeling exhausted. And the more we try to quiet our thoughts, the more the mind revolts. It’s like a record that’s stuck and keeps repeating the same lyrics. When people ruminate, they obsess about certain events, such as the repeated replaying of an argument with a friend or retracing of past mistakes. Rumination becomes destructive when we spend hours (or days or years) over-analyzing a situation without developing a plan to deal with it and move past it. If a situation has you in a bad mood, rumination keeps that bad mood alive.

As rumination continues to dredge up negative thoughts, it becomes a vicious cycle. Multiple studies have identified that people experiencing depression are also more prone to rumination and repetitive thoughts of shame, anger, regret and sorrow. They also tend to focus on negative events from the past, interpret situations in their current lives more negatively, and feel more hopeless about the future. Rumination can paralyze your problem-solving skills as you become so preoccupied with a problem, that you’re unable to push past the cycle of negative thoughts to find a solution.

Interestingly, "rumination" is linked to the word “ruminant” because the act of repetitive thinking is similar to the regurgitation of cud by ruminant animals such as goats, sheep, and cows. Ruminants chew their food, swallow it, and then repeatedly regurgitate it into another stomach before fully digesting it. There are also several English idioms connecting food and digestion to thinking and worrying. It is not uncommon to hear people say that an idea is “hard to digest” or that it gives them “food for thought.” Likewise, we sometimes need time to “chew on” a new concept when we need more time to think about an issue. Perhaps without realizing it, we already have a frame of reference for understanding the connection between digestion and mental clarity. These phrases all illustrate the process of assimilating raw material – information, life experiences or knowledge – and turning them into wisdom.

Excess empathy (bei) and compassion also harm the Spleen. This is particularly true when we “feel” the pain of another person and try to relieve it for them. This feeling is especially strong when we come in contact with individuals who are facing hardships we ourselves have endured. While empathy is, of course, a positive attribute, it is considered excessive and damaging to the Spleen when we lose a clear recognition of boundaries, or when we feel distraught and upset by someone else’s problems. Such empathy can weaken the Spleen, and conversely, a weak Spleen can create boundary issues. Rumination and excess empathy, the two qualities that harm the Spleen, are related. We are pensive when we are preoccupied with ourselves. We are overly empathic when we are preoccupied with others. In both cases, it is the intellectual or emotional preoccupation that leads to physical damage and illness.

According to Chinese medicine, the Spleen controls the dual function of transforming food into Qi energy, and turning our life experiences into wisdom. The Spleen’s great strength is its ability to transform things. It enables us to keep what we need and get nourishment from it, while letting go of what no longer serves us. When our Spleen energy is strong, a problem we’re worrying about will go through a process of transformation – and our thoughts and perceptions about that problem will be altered on the other side of that transformation. This action of the Spleen is, of course, true on a physical level as well. Instead of having undigested food in our stool (as can happen when Spleen energy is weak or deficient), a well-balanced Spleen allows us to fully digest and assimilate nourishment from the food we eat.

Spleen deficiencies, by contrast, tend to involve “chewing” on the same ideas over and over with no resolution – instead of taking a stand, making a decision, moving on to something new, or translating our worries into action. When worry and rumination plague us, one of the best ways to break free of this cycle is to make a decision and put it into practice in the real world. There may be a sense of loss over the path not taken, but making decisions can actually be relieving and liberating – and it’s those decisions that enable us to move forward.

We live in a Spleen-deficient culture, so protecting our Spleen takes conscious work. We are constantly bombarded with stimuli and information which all need to be processed and “digested.” We eat in front of the TV (taking in food and mental stimulation at the same time), we remain connected to our mobile devices as we move through the day, and we often multi-task in the hope of greater efficiency. Rarely, do we just do one thing at a time. All of this overloads the Spleen.

According to Chinese medicine, Spleen Qi embodies “earth energy”. Qi Gong masters support the health of their Spleen and promote their earth energy by spending time in nature and “grounding” themselves. This is because when we are in nature, we can move beyond the boundaries of our (thinking) mind and truly come to our (feeling) senses. Nature is also a wonderful model for health and balance, as the earth supports all life impartially, without attachment. When we let the mind become quiet and open our senses to the environment, the Spleen can revive itself. Because the Spleen is connected to the earth element, try to remind yourself daily that you are grounded and connected to the planet. Lie on the ground or meditate while sitting on the floor.

Just as the Spleen craves grounded-ness to the earth, it also craves grounded-ness in our daily lives. If you feel overwhelmed by a crazy or unpredictable calendar, develop a schedule that allows you to proactively plan your day. Daily structure is good for the Spleen since (positive) habits, routines and rituals can often act as dependable ways to ground us when life gets crazy. This can be as simple as setting aside time each day to drink a cup of tea, meditate, sit with a book, write in a journal, or anything else which nourishes us. It may also include eating regular meals or keeping regular sleeping and waking times.

Diet and nutrition are important ways to fortify our Spleen. According to Chinese medicine, the Spleen is said to be nourished by sweet food – not necessarily sugar (and certainly not candy or ice cream), but the deep sweet taste of grains or root vegetables found in rice pudding or pumpkin soup, for instance. Squash, lentils and carrots are particularly nourishing for the Spleen. The Spleen is damaged by cold or raw food and prefers well-cooked, warm food such as thick soups or stews that are easy to digest. Because the Spleen is responsible for breaking down our food through the process of digestion (which is powered by heat), eating and drinking cold foods over-taxes our Spleen’s energy and can lead to imbalance.

In addition to nourishing the Spleen through food, we can nourish the Spleen through our lifestyle choices and habits. The Spleen is easily damaged by overworking, expending too much mental energy (studying, for instance), or staying up too late and not getting enough sleep. Focus on your food and chew it thoroughly. The Spleen also loves touch. Get a massage, hug your partner or a good friend. The Spleen also loves to stretch, as this nourishes our tissues. Take a yoga class, or perform some simple stretches when you get out of bed each morning.

The physical and psychological aspects of the Spleen are linked. Many schools of Chinese medicine have developed around the idea that the treatment of illness must begin with the Spleen (and its paired organ, the Stomach). When our Spleen is functioning well, we feel energetic, our digestion is smooth, our bowel movements are regular and firm (not too soft), and our thinking is clear and focused. An energetically strong and balanced Spleen allows us to digest and absorb the nourishment we need form both our food and the world around us.

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