Feeling stuck? Cultivate flow and breakthrough stagnation
Updated: Jul 30
In Chinese philosophy, Qi is the life force that flows through all things and animates all life. Everything in the universe is derived from Qi – it is the “vital energy” that makes up all existence and binds all things together. When Qi flows freely, all things are in harmony. There is vibrant health, well-being and contentment. An imbalance or interruption in the flow of Qi – due to excess, deficiency or stagnation – leads to pain and suffering. When Qi becomes “stuck” or blocked, dis-ease and disharmony eventually take root.
Qi embraces all manifestations and aspects of energy: everything from the material energies of the earth and our flesh and blood, to the immaterial energies associated with movement, light, thought and emotion. The former can be thought of as those things we take in and make a part of us – the physical or nourishing portion of Qi that makes up the air, water and food. The latter represents energy that is already within us – the insubstantial aspect of Qi that flows through our bodies and the universe, driving the continual cycle of life. Importantly, Qi is never constant. Rather, it is in a state of continuous flux – transforming endlessly from one aspect of its material or immaterial form into the other. It can neither be created nor destroyed. It simply changes its manifestation.
Qi and the importance of flow
Within each of us, Qi flows through our body-mind-spirit to maintain health and harmony. It provides the energy our body needs to function, supporting homeostasis and metabolism, maintaining the structure and strength of our organs, and keeping our immunity strong. In order to do all of these things properly, Qi must flow freely – where there are blockages, the mind-body-spirit suffers.
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), there’s an understanding that Qi stagnation – involving a lack of “flow” and a feeling of being “stuck” – plays a role in most, if not all, mind-body-spirit imbalances. Indeed, it is a fundament truth in TCM: When there is free flow, there is no pain; when there is no free flow, there is pain. While this most obviously applies to pain that is physical, it is equally true of emotional, intellectual and spiritual pain. The clinical presentation and etiology of stagnation was uniquely documented in the earliest and most important Chinese medical text, The Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di Nei Jing) dating from 200 BCE.
The origins of stagnation
Stagnation exists on a continuum. While minor stagnation may leave us feeling stuck or frustrated, a deeper, more entrenched pattern of stasis may be the underlying cause of serious depression or illness. According to TCM, Qi stagnation is both the cause and result of emotional constraint, reflecting the subtle and shifting ways we stifle our authentic expression.
Modern life, with its intense stress, is tailor-made to disrupt the free flow of Qi
Specific emotions that cause Qi to stagnate include anger, frustration, resentment and irritation. More than that, we may feel indecisive and unmotivated, unable to make decisions or move forward with our plans. We may become indifferent or disinterested in things and people we once cared about. When creatively stifled, we may become unable to express our authentic selves or vision.
The Liver, and its command over the flow of Qi, is particularly susceptible to strong emotions, especially when they are repressed, over-expressed or inappropriately channeled. Suppressed emotions include refusing to acknowledge our feelings or being in denial, while inappropriately expressing them can lead to directing rage and abuse at others. While any emotion that is strongly felt and/or expressed has the potential to imbalance the flow of energy within our body, Qi stagnation is particularly sensitive to anger and frustration.
Investigating the underlying cause of emotions that lead to patterns of constraint means exploring the should’s and dont’s which regulate our lives – assessing which of them provide useful and necessary guard rails, and which stifle the true expression of our vibrant aliveness. Such limitations often arise from the complex inter-play of who we want to become, versus the apparent “rules” imposed by family, authority, and culture that keep us from evolving. Whenever the healthy assertion of our authenticity is chronically suppressed – and then internalized – patterns of constraint and stagnation will develop.
Often, we feel trapped when our lives are out of alignment with our aspirations and values
In truth, it is easy to become stuck. Self-judgment and self-doubt cause us to limit ourselves and lower our expectations. Fear and worry lead to indecision. Past resentments and betrayals harden like cement, making it difficult to move forward. Our goals become remote or forgotten. Destructive, repetitive patterns with family or friends leave us feeling hopeless. Any and all of these emotions can lead to stagnation that damages our health and drains our vital life force.
Personal transformation takes an immense amount of energy, effort and intention. It can be especially difficult to break through the stagnation associated with certain emotions, thoughts and behaviors that define our lives. Getting “unstuck” from the inertia of destructive habitual patterns requires us to break free from the “emotional gravity” that binds so many of us in place and keeps us from moving forward.
Western medicine’s interpretation of the idea of “flow”
For those who study Eastern thought and philosophy, flow sounds akin to the mental state one reaches during meditation or yoga practice. Likewise, many similar ideas are featured in early Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu texts. It was during the 1960s that positive psychology researchers in the west developed the idea of “flow theory” while they were investigating the dynamics of the creative process. In positive psychology, a state of flow reflects a person’s mental state that is characterized by complete absorption and effortless attention. Watching artists at work, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi became intrigued by their single-minded focus and persistence – getting so lost in their work that they would disregard their need for food, water and even sleep. When one is in a state of flow, a person becomes completely engrossed with the task at hand, losing awareness of time, people and distractions. If you’ve ever been completely immersed in an activity, oblivious to the outside world and focused only on the present moment, then it’s likely you’ve been experiencing a state of “flow.” Your whole being feels involved and engaged, completely focused and absorbed.
Additionally, a number of western medical researchers have found that habitual repression of emotions may impair immune function and cause various physical as well as mental issues. Based on a series of experimental studies, Pennebaker proposed that the inhibition of thoughts and feelings intensifies our body’s internal stress responses, delivering elevated levels of the hormone cortisol. Prolonged emotional inhibition was linked to the risk of immunological dysfunction, mood disorders, migraines, hypertension, and other general health problems.
Qi stagnation - signs you may be stuck
Qi and Blood are inseparable according to Chinese medicine. Blood can be thought of as a “denser” form of Qi. Its movement through the vessels and meridians is powered by Qi, while at the same time, Blood gives Qi a home. A truism of Chinese medicine states: where Qi goes, Blood flows. Blood, and the nourishment it provides, cannot flow when our vital energy is blocked. When Blood starts to coagulate, it can manifest in a wide array of health issues, and can even prevent the body from being able to heal itself. Endometriosis, congestive heart failure and even some cancers are all characterized by patterns of congealed Blood / Qi stagnation according to traditional Chinese medicine. While there are a wide variety of ways that Qi stagnation can manifest, some of the most common include:
- depression / mood swings
- frustration / irritability
- inappropriate or easily triggered anger
- chest / hypochondriac (rib side) pain
- nausea / vomiting / poor appetite
- diarrhea / constipation (may alternate)
- masses in the neck, breasts or groin (path along the LV/GB meridian)
- sensation of a lump in the throat or difficulty swallowing (“plum pit Qi”)
- bitter taste in the mouth
- PMS / irregular or painful periods
Breaking free of stagnation
As you might expect, treating Qi stagnation involves movement. TCM relies on several methods to move Qi and restore its flow, including acupuncture, massage (tui na) and cupping, as well as herbal formulas designed to vitalize Qi and Blood. In addition, lifestyle modifications including diet, meditation, movement and mindset are also crucial.
Acupuncture is an ancient treatment method that uses needles to stimulate the flow of Qi throughout the body – a well-placed needle is a miraculous thing in regards to moving Qi. Therapeutic benefits of acupuncture include pain relief, increased energy, enhanced mood, and improved body function. Importantly, acupuncture is a holistic treatment for Qi stagnation that addresses the entire person – mind, body and spirit. While there are potentially many acupuncture points that will effectively break through stagnation and move Qi, the most famous, empirical points that will surely be used in any treatment are called the “Four Gates.” Needling these four points (two in the hands at the webbing of the thumb, two on the feet at the webbing of the giant toe) will open the flood gates to let Qi flow freely and break through stagnation.
Cupping is an ancient Chinese therapy that places heated glass cups directly on the skin to create a vacuum (via suction). The cups are left on the skin for several minutes to help promote the circulation of Qi and Blood, as well as relieve pain, musculoskeletal inflammation, certain lung conditions involving congestion, and stress.
While many herbal formulas address Qi stagnation depending on the particulars of the diagnosis, the most commonly prescribed remedy is called Xiao Yao San. In English, the name translates to “rambling powder” or “free and easy wanderer” – referring to the unfettered wandering of the Taoists who prided themselves in being in tune with the movements of nature. Indeed, it is likely that the modern-day expression of "going with the flow" reflects this ancient Taoist freedom of mind. Designed to spread Liver stagnation, Xiao Yao San improves the flow of Qi throughout the body (as it tonifies the Spleen and nourishes Blood). Given the emotional component that defines Qi stagnation, Xiao Yao San has broad applications and is commonly used to treat depression, stress and other mood disorders. Indeed, recent data from TCM teaching clinics reveals that 27% of all herbal formula prescriptions include variations on the classic “rambling powder.”
When prescribing herbal therapy to address Qi Stagnation, it is important to remember that tonics should not be given until after stagnation is cleared. Otherwise, tonics can worsen the condition – akin to adding more cars to a bad traffic jam. A general rule of herbal strategy insists that moving herbs from the Regulate Qi and Move Blood categories (along with Heat-clearing herbs) always be prescribed first, and only after stagnation is cleared should tonics be given to fortify and strengthen.
Movement is one of the keys to jump-starting the circulation of Qi. Qi Gong and yoga are both great ways to mindfully move and use your breath to direct the flow of Qi throughout the mind-body-spirit. While almost any exercise will be beneficial, choosing something you love will further soothe your emotions and nourish you, reinforcing the easy flow of Qi.
Given Qi stagnation’s strong emotional component, it is not surprising that perpetually negative thoughts / emotions create a vicious loop that perpetuates and cements blockage. Meditation, along with mindful, regulated breathing, can help to create a space outside of our emotions to release negative feelings and break through feelings of stuck-ness.
According to Chinese medicine, foods with sour flavor help to break through Liver Qi stagnation. Including sour foods like lemons, sauerkraut and vinegar into your diet can help keep your Qi flowing freely. In addition, mint cools and soothes to release stagnation, while lavender promotes a sense of ease that can gently help move Qi.
When we feel stuck in a rut, it’s often an indication that something needs to change. Sometimes we don’t even know what that change is. When you don’t have insight into what needs to change, it can be helpful to try something new. Anything out of the ordinary that shakes up your current routine may provide helpful insight toward your next step. Often, trying something new can be the catalyst for other changes in your life. Consider:
1. Let go of the past
Do you find that you can’t let go of things that happened in the past? Are you unable to forgive yourself for the mistakes you made? Do you blame yourself or others for things that did not turn out the way you hoped? Ask yourself why you’re stuck on these memories, and what you can do to live with them, accept them, and move forward. You can't undo the past, but you can choose to find peace. Forgiving yourself or others is a way to let go and move on. Once you release the grip of the past, you will see your reality in new ways and feel freer to change your attitude and life.
2. Start with small changes
Change stimulates different parts of the brain that improve creativity and clarity. You can start small by changing aspects of your daily routine, moving things around inside your house, taking a new route to work, or making new friends. Every choice matters. You might be tempted to skip the little things because they don't seem important in the moment. But after a while, an accumulation of small changes will help you accomplish your goals, and you will start feeling unstuck.
3. Explore your purpose
Your life’s purpose is not just your job, your responsibilities, or your goals—it's what makes you feel alive. These are the things you are passionate about and willing fight for. You may need to change your life purpose if it no longer inspires you or makes you happy. Or, if you feel like you don't have a purpose, this is a great time to define it. Ask yourself what / who inspires you the most and why.
4. Believe in yourself
The first step to believing in yourself is to recognize your self-doubt. Trust that you can reach your expectations and get out of your comfort zone. Make a list of your strengths and positive traits, and remember that you are very capable. Many people sabotage their own progress—consciously or unconsciously—as a result of deep-seated fears and limiting beliefs.
5. Practice being hopeful
You may have had a lot of disappointments that led to this moment in your life when you feel helpless and trapped. Maybe you are experiencing a naturally protective feeling of pessimism. This is something you must work to change. Find a practice, such as meditation, prayer or reading inspirational books, and do it regularly. Hope is not a permanent state. It is something you need to choose and work at it every day.