Grief and the Lungs from a Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective

Traditional Chinese Medicine has a holistic view of the mind and the body. Everything is a part of the natural cycle of life and of nature. When the elements in nature are in balance and harmony, life flourishes and abounds. When there is an imbalance, there is upheaval and disease. We cannot dissociate our life and health from what is happening around us.  We are all part of the big picture.

The 5 Emotions in Traditional Chinese Medicine

One of the classical texts often referenced in Chinese medicine, the Huang Di Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine) identifies five emotions as major causes of disease. They are:

- Joy (Heart)

- Fear (Kidneys)

- Anger (Liver)

- Worry (Spleen)

- Sadness/Grief (lungs)

We are all subject to these emotions at one time or another in our lives. When one of them becomes excessive and isn’t properly addressed or processed, it can damage it’s pertaining organ system and can start overwhelming us.


Grief is a painful yet necessary process. All of us have experienced grief, sadness or loss at one time or another in our lives. These emotions don’t just happen with the loss of a loved one. They can happen with the loss of a job, a property, a move, a break-up or, for some, the hardships of daily life.  It is a transitional period of acceptance that one part of our life has forever changed and that things will never be the same. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that everything around us is temporary and transient. Life, like nature, consists of birth, growth, transformation, decay, and death. It is all a part of the circle of life.

In our current culture and society, we have been taught to embrace ‘positive’ emotions such as joy and to ignore or tone down ‘bad’ emotions such as anger, sadness, grief or depression. Suppressing some of these negative or ‘heavy’ emotions over time can damage its corresponding organ system and worsen the internal emotional upheaval.

While all of our emotions have the potential to negatively affect our health when excessive, grief is one of the most difficult emotions to process. If addressed in a timely manner and properly transformed, it can be a very powerful lesson and exercise in personal growth without overly affecting our bodies.

Grief and the Lungs

Lungs are responsible for us inhaling clean and oxygen-rich air while exhaling toxic carbon dioxide.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the lungs are also responsible for opening and closing the pores of the skin.  These pores allow opening for proper sweating during exertion or hot weather when balanced, and closed when external conditions, like a cold wind, surrounds us. 

Grief and sadness directly affect the lungs. If we are unable to express these emotions or are being overwhelmed by them, it will weaken the lungs and compromise their main function: respiration. Typically this will manifest in people with a hard time taking full breaths or feeling like something is sitting on their chest weighing them down. Some will have a flare-up of asthma or allergies.  A weakened lung qi can also lead to the pores opening, thereby making them susceptible to external conditions and catching colds easier.  Open pores can also lead to easy excessive sweating such as night sweats or hot flashes. 

When the lung qi or vital energy is strengthened, we are once again able to take deep breaths-- breathing in new vitality and ideas- and letting go of negative thoughts or prejudices that are toxic to our minds.

Fall is the Season of the Lungs

Our organ systems are especially vulnerable during their respective seasons.

The lungs and large intestine, both metal elements are most vulnerable during the fall while, for example, the liver and gall bladder will be more vulnerable during the spring.

Fall is a transitional period between summer and winter. The weather cools down and becomes crisper. Leaves change color, dry out and fall to the ground where they will decompose and make room for new growth in spring.  It is a time of harvest, canning and preparing ourselves for winter.

Just like the fall season, during our time of grief, it is essential to slow down, look inward and process our emotions. It will help us regain our strength, practice letting go and find our new place in the world.

Processing Grief

When we leave our emotions alone for too long and don’t take the time needed to find the answers we need, unresolved issues from our past can resurface and cause more sadness and insecurities.  They might cause our grief to become chronic and prevent us from living life to the fullest.

If we take the time to acknowledge and process everything during this difficult time, it will allow us to have a better understanding of ourselves and help us maintain and cultivate a tighter bond with our emotions, our bodies and ourselves. It might even allow us to be our most authentic selves going forward.

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Leonard Cohen, singer/songwriter


Everything that happens in our lives can affect us positively or negatively. Sometimes we can control these outside influences, and sometimes we simply can’t. They just “happen”.

It is then up to us, to decide how we are going to handle these emotions:  Are we going to use them in a positive way to gain new wisdom and insights about ourselves or are we going to ignore them and run the risk of them causing chronic pain and suffering? It is only when we allow grief to really touch us and move us to our core that we allow healing to happen.


  • Acknowledge your feelings so that you can start healing.
  • Let go of things and negative thoughts so you can move on.
  • Let go of unnecessary things in your life whether old books or clothes or unfulfilling relationships.
  • The lung is the first organ to be affected by external conditions and is also our most superficial organ. We feel cold weather through our skin, so bundle up and cover your neck, chest, and back.
  • Spending time outdoors (going for walks or hikes) and inhaling clean cool air helps our bodies and minds to relax and rejuvenate.
  • Do some deep abdominal breathing. It will help reset your nervous system and calm you down.
    • Take a deep breath and inhale good energy.
    • Release the breath and exhale all the toxicity from your body. Visualize the breath entering your lungs, clearing your head and then exhale and see the breath leaving your body through the bottoms of your feet.
  • See a licensed acupuncturist (L.Ac.) for an acupuncture treatment and/or Chinese herbal medicine to help strengthen your lung energy and process your grief.