How Emotions Are Connected to the Organs and What This Means for Your Health
Ayurveda teaches us that there are deep correlations between our emotional health and our physical health. Our breath can be seen as the bridge that connects and communicates between these two aspects of well-being—our inhale is related to how we feel and carries with it the emotion we are experiencing in the moment, while our exhale offers the choice to release the emotion or to send it down to our physical body as a healing message of truth.
How we feel and experience life—and how we respond—directly affects our cells, organs, and physical bodily functions. By extension, it also affects the make-up of our genetic code, either making it stronger and wiser over time or weakened and more vulnerable to a state of dis-ease.
Evolution of Emotional Patterns
Emotions result from chemicals released in our body, stemming from our deeply held evolutionary patterns or learned reactions from our life experiences. Often, our emotions enlist the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems to carry messages throughout the body.
These two systems make up our autonomic nervous system, which directly connects our emotional experiences to the health of our organs. If we experience an emotion repeatedly, our cells begin to hold the memory of that emotion and form a physical pattern of behavior.
As humans, we spent so many thousands of years in the hunter-gatherer state that our cells still hold reactions trained by this fragile lifestyle of extremes. The ancient part of our brain hasn’t caught up to our modern life and constantly watches for those toothy predators and harsh conditions under which we originally evolved.
We see this played out in the overwhelming amount of stress and adrenal overload that is so prevalent in our modern lives. Even though most of us don’t experience the extremes lived by our ancient ancestors, our bodies still interpret minor stressors in a very similar way. A missed deadline, a plumbing issue, or an overscheduled day can feel like a mammoth hunt—a matter of life or death.
The range of emotions that we experience in a day can be much more significant than the actual physical events we go through. Since we’re not used to thinking of our emotions as connected to our physical health, it’s little wonder that we’re sometimes blindsided by imbalance and dis-ease.
But emotions don’t just suddenly become physical dysfunction, so what happens? Emotions and memory are controlled by the limbic system of the brain—the part of the brain that stores those ancient memories of daily danger and risk. This system, in turn, affects our hormones and our internal organs.
In the drive to survive, our bodies will dutifully respond with the chemicals designed to preserve and protect the body. That means shutting down non-essential functions in times of fear, flooding the body with pleasurable feelings of connection to reinforce a beloved relationship, or ramping up physical strength and response time in states of anger.
Building Awareness and Choosing Our Reactions
The body works hard for us, day in and day out, always doing its best to steer us toward optimal health. Our part of the agreement is to take care of it through the emotional extremes of life.
Pleasurable, bonding chemical responses support our health and feel great too—more of those, please! On the other hand, negative emotional responses take a toll on the physical health and function of the body.
The first and most important step is awareness. This is a lifetime-long practice, whether you look at it as a spiritual pursuit or otherwise, so start where you are and be patient with yourself as you proceed. Bringing attention to the breath is a direct access point into awareness, one that is available in every moment, no matter our physical or emotional state.
Taking a moment to breathe a single deep breath gives us the space to reflect on what we’re feeling. Likewise, noticing the rise of an emotion can immediately prompt us to breathe and steady ourselves.
For the negative patterns that have already become habitual, we must consciously cultivate a positive opposite reaction in order to change the cellular trajectory and create a new groove. This requires effort and commitment, but don’t worry! Ayurveda gives us a map.
Caring for the Emotions and Organs with Ayurveda
Depending on which negative emotions are occurring most often, we can understand which organ is the most affected.
This provides information regarding what may be out of balance and gives us a course of action for our personal care that pertains to both the emotional and physical self.
Here are some of the most common negative emotions, the organs associated with them, and how you can work with them to cultivate greater physical and emotional health.
Grief and the Lungs
Grief is a kapha emotion, wet and heavy. It is connected with the lungs, which is a place that kapha tends to reside and accumulate.
Therefore, self-care for grief can be approached by bringing in cleansing and motivating practices and foods.
- Think fresh juices, raw, or spicy foods.
- Add black pepper, fenugreek, ginger, cinnamon, asafoetida, or oregano to your meals.
- The sour taste also helps liquify built-up kapha, so add vinegar or citrus to your salad.
- Throw in some greens and onions to help heat and expel any stagnancy.
- Then, after you’ve revved up your digestion, move your body!
Fear and the Stomach
“I felt it in the pit of my stomach”—we know this phrase as a description of fear. And fear is a cold, vata imbalance that affects the stomach. Warming up your body, especially your belly, will help to balance vata dosha and soothe the feelings of fear.
- Load up on warm, comforting soups and stews.
- Add ginger, curry blends, and cardamom to your meals, along with high-quality salt.
- Fruits, honey, and root vegetables support and ground vata, while electrolyte vegetables like seaweed, celery, and cabbage help to keep you hydrated.
- This would be a great time to unwind and relax with a warm, soothing bath.
Anxiousness and the Small Intestine
Very closely related to fear, this is a dry imbalance of vata which targets the small intestine. Indeed, anxiousness can often manifest in digestive issues that rumble in the intestines between meals, or in a shrinking appetite!
- Soups and broths with a dash of salt added offer excellent hydration, particularly bone broth with naturally occurring fats.
- Favor watery, electrolyte-rich vegetables to make sure you’re hydrated, and incorporate moist, nourishing foods like fruits and root vegetables.
- Give yourself a grounding abhyanga, or self-massage, with Ashwagandha Bala Oil while regulating your nervous system with slow, deep breaths.
Trust and the Gallbladder
Anyone who’s experienced broken trust knows how devastating it can be. The emotion of trust is related to the gallbladder and the bladder, where pitta dosha can overheat and become imbalanced.
- Release the fiery heat of pitta with cooling herbs and spices—mint, cilantro, dill, fennel, coriander, and turmeric. Add these to raw or lightly cooked vegetables.
- When it feels like a challenge to trust what is out of your control, give your attention to what you do have control over—your own self-care.
Indecision and the Colon
The frenetic flutter of indecision is a drying vata imbalance that affects the colon. To bring balance, seek out an abundance of hydration in the foods and drinks you consume to keep the colon moist, healthy, and functioning well.
- Replenish the delicate balance of electrolytes in your cells by adding a touch of unprocessed grey salt to your water and eating wet, white vegetables such as bok choy, cucumbers, and celery.
- Focus on deepening your breath, and take a step back from your decision to practice abhyanga.
- Avoid caffeine and soda—you don’t need false energy to make this decision.
Anger and the Liver
Anger is a big emotion and connects with one of the most important organs of the body, the liver. As you can imagine, this is a HOT emotion, most often connected to a pitta imbalance. There’s a reason we respond to anger by saying “chill out” or “stay cool.” That’s exactly what needs to happen to find balance in the face of anger.
- Take a step back and go for a meditative walk outside.
- Calm down your system with cooling herbs like cilantro, dill, and mint.
- Make sure you eat regular, consistent meals.
- Take very good care of yourself and avoid the tempting distraction of false play or expansion in the forms of alcohol or smoking.
Resentment and the Spleen
Ever heard someone mention “venting spleen”? It’s an idiom that means to air one’s grievances, which could reduce resentment if done in a healthy way. Resentment is connected to the spleen and brings on hot, pitta related imbalances. Resentment is known as unresolved anger, relating it to the liver, which the spleen is dependent on.
- Bring in those cooling herbs and veggies and try a cooling breath like Sheetali Pranayama—curl your tongue while inhaling through your mouth.
- Be mindful of critical thoughts and let go of the desire to over-analyze.
Guilt or Shame and the Kidneys
This is such a common emotion and it’s connected to the often-affected kidneys. Watch out for situations that have a history of bringing up feelings of guilt or shame—these are often found related to family relations or old stories about one’s personal value and can be quite difficult to remove.
Just as the kidneys benefit from daily care and attention, awareness of shame and guilt require vigilance and work.
- As you do this work, take care to balance the cold quality of vata by being kind and warm towards yourself.
- On a physical level, incorporate warming soups and stews, root vegetables, ginger tea, cardamom, and curries.
Attachment and the Heart
Love, when it is far out of balance, can become unhealthy attachment. This emotion is therefore tied to the heart and represents excessive kapha. Western medicine warns of overly heavy and processed foods leading to heart disease, which confirms this dosha imbalance.
- If you are struggling with attachment, cultivate your self-reliance and independence.
- Energize and stimulate the heaviness of kapha with sour flavors, raw vegetables, and fermented foods.
- Scour away the stickiness with an invigorating salt scrub.
- And remember, YOU are enough.
Daily Practices that Are Good for All
No matter what emotions may arise, even if they don’t fit into the categories listed above, you can create a positive inner shift with the following basic daily practices:
- Breathe consciously throughout the day to bring calm and grounding.
- Consider reducing the quantity and increasing the quality of your meals.
- Between meals, drink room temperature water with a pinch of grey ocean salt.
- Strive to get high quality rest and sleep.
If you decide what is being collected in your inhale is not an experience you want to send to your body, release it with your exhale out the top of your head. And if the experience of the moment feels helpful and good, send it down to the physical self where it can become healthy energy to be recycled once again into the next breath of life.
With this awareness of our emotions and organs—and by using the power of our breath—we can keep healthy energy flowing within us and prevent negative energies from becoming a part of us.
Photos by Jana Cruder.