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Key Learning Points
Stagnant Qi works rather like a roadblock, or a traffic jam – in fact that’s how I describe its action in my book, see sidebar, and below.
Frustration, tension, hindrance and STRESS – all examples! It’s an idea from which many acupuncturists have made a fortune!
And they deserved it!
If people understood what it was and what to do about it before it turned into a major problem, acupuncturists would lose a lot of money. (Would that be such a bad thing?)
To understand stagnant qi, you first need to understand Qi. As you’ll realise when reading the linked page there, Qi underlies the universe. It’s a fundamental building block, preceding matter. If you’re reading this, you have it. For health, you must allow it to move and change. Among the worst things you can do are waste it, or block it.
Blocking it, and the symptoms and diseases that arise from blocking it, are what this page is about.
When your Qi doesn’t flow smoothly, you feel discomfort. It could be physical, it could be emotional.
In the early stages of this ‘syndrome‘ in Chinese medicine, or if the reason for the qi stagnation is temporary, you may hardly notice your symptoms. Or you may experience them just as mild, passing irritations at the waywardness of life.
At this early, temporary level, how would you notice it in someone else? That depends on the individual.
How do people show mild, passing irritation? Some people don’t show it all. Others purse their lips, or frown, or tense their jaw, or hunch their shoulders, or stare hard. Maybe some feel depressed.
Others mutter to themselves, swear or twitch. Some people scratch themselves (eg their nose), rub their fingers or chins, pull their earlobes or fiddle with their hair.
In the past, people lit a cigarette. Or chewed gum. You’ll see why in a moment.
Also, people move with a rhythmic pattern, tapping fingers or feet.
When the cause ceases, they stop doing it.
As the symptoms become more severe, or last longer, there will be some damage. People grind their teeth, bite their fingernails, chew their lips, pick their noses, pick at spots, scratch themselves repeatedly.
Here the damage is usually temporary. The body soon repairs the fingernail, replaces skin, grows more nose!
What happens depends on the strength, self-discipline and constitution: the ability to endure adverse circumstances.
In general, the younger and/or the less healthy or resilient you are, the less well you’ll tolerate it.
Age, experience and good health usually increase the ability to resist stress or at least to show less signs of it. Self-discipline helps.
However, if you can’t tolerate it, what happens?
Signs usually intensify first in the upper parts – head and arms. You get tension headaches and sore neck muscles. Then comes swearing, shouting, gesticulating. Chewing teeth together becomes bruxism, grinding teeth down. It takes a while to grow teeth back! So this is more serious.
Next? Symptoms begin to move towards the centre. People need to smoke a cigarette or swallow, eat or drink something. Sighing counteracts an unconscious tendency to hold the breath.
Some people compress it all inwards: not good for emotional health.
So far the symptoms are at the top of the body or upper end of the arms.
Imagine standing with your arms stretched up above you: Qi stagnation symptoms tend to ascend to hands or head – the upper parts: this is also where Liver qi ascends to when you first get stressed.
There is an exception to this ‘ascending’ energy – some people tap their toes, which displays another aspect of Liver qi stagnation: ‘Wind‘, which shows up as movement.
Then Stagnant Qi attacks Lung qi, so now not only are you sighing but it’s hard to catch your breath. Your chest feels stuffy, blocked, congested. Sometimes it feels itchy, too. Qi stagnation then transforms into either Heat, or movement and Ascending Qi.
(Think what happens to a balloon as you try to compress it. It pushes out in other directions, between your fingers – assuming you don’t burst it! Compression also makes it hot.)
Stagnant qi tries to escape as rebellious qi: cough or nausea (food pushed up instead of down), with appetite loss.
Alternatively, stagnant qi starts to spread into other areas. It causes digestive disturbances such as burning, or bowel pain with constipation or diarrhoea, or the urge to urinate.
If it changes form into heat, the individual feels hot, bothered, red-eyed, irritable, and finds it hard to sleep. If there is also phlegm (see below) then you get sinus, ear and gland problems, with heat too! (That means pain and probably offensive smells too! Sorry.)
If it ascends becoming movement, there is agitation, restlessness, anxiety and even panic as stagnant qi disturbs the Shen, the spirit. (Spirit here shouldn’t be interpreted as akin to the Christian concept of Spirit. Here ‘spirit’ means the ‘spirits’ of the individual, as in ‘high-spirited’, or ‘in low spirits’.)
If stagnant qi attacks Kidney qi, not only is there desire to urinate, but perhaps noises in the ear – tinnitus. (This is because, in Chinese medicine, the Kidney zang rules your ears and your hearing.) For some the pressure builds – literally – into hypertension, high blood pressure.
As your body fails to externalise qi stagnation as Heat or Movement, it presses inwards.
By the way, why might your body fail to externalise it? Perhaps because you impose targets or behaviour incompatible with release or transformation of qi:
Your Abdomen is your soft centre, where your body easily releases qi stagnation pressure onto your digestion and bowels.
So in your abdomen, you start to feel swelling or distension. This isn’t necessarily from gas, but may be. When pressed the area may be sore, and the local distension may appear to move around. Almost like bubbles of stuff deep inside.
With distension comes a feeling of stretching, distension, cramping or burning. You want to loosen clothing and release tight belts. Sometimes you feel a band round your centre.
Circulation: feeling too hot, too cold, sweating even though you aren’t exercising.
Women get the distending, stretching sensations as qi stagnation builds before their menses. They are already under mental pressure. Now it’s become physical too. And all the tension down there probably puts them off sex, a tragedy if they’re trying to become pregnant.
Until now, stagnant qi symptoms have been more transient, and haven’t really affected you deeply, though they may have been uncomfortable.
But now, the situation develops and you either can’t change or you can’t avoid what’s making it worse. Your symptoms move increasingly to the interior of the body and the mind.
Sometimes this precedes and sometimes it follows abdominal symptoms.
What would you feel as pressure of Qi stagnation is released or ‘transformed’ in your chest?
The longer the stress continues the more likely becomes chronic damage.
For example …
As the condition develops, its original sources are forgotten. Tension has now become permanent, and your body may produce other signs of its tension, like continuing or frequent headaches. Women now get premenstrual pain every month. There is some loss of spirit. Sleep and energy suffer. Either you can’t get to sleep, or around or soon after 3am you wake and worry.
Doctors diagnose clinical depression and irritable bowel syndrome and/or cystitis, and prescribe mild anti-depressants etc. Patients worry about allergies to foods or drinks. They spend fortunes on tests to find out which.
So from being merely stagnant qi that tried to escape upward, it has now ‘attacked’ the centre, and your ‘spirit’. That can lead to yang deficiency.
The longer it goes on the more Qi stagnation prevents Blood from flowing smoothly. That leads to Blood Stagnation. (You get Blood Stagnation anyway as you age, but delay its arrival for as long as possible!)
Examples of Blood Stagnation? Lots, but check Stomach Blood Stasis.
Well, first of all,
The following have the dubious advantages of making qi stagnation at first feel better, but later feel worse. (Technically, the Primary action seems beneficial so we discount or ‘overlook’ the Secondary action.)
So, certain things make us worse, but temporarily they make us feel better.
All such foods are high in calories, salt, sugar or sweeteners None are much good for us, fattening and disturbing the healthy levels of our blood and our acid/alkali levels. The long-term effects aren’t noticed until clothes get tight and we realise we are less attractive.
In the early stages, the reduction or removal of the source of stress has an immediate ameliorating effect on Qi stagnation.
In the later stages of Qi stagnation, when symptoms have moved from the temporary to the chronic, stress reduction may have little effect.
A holiday is good if it completely takes you away from the source of stress for long enough for your body and mind to have time to recover health. Holidays with mobile on, hourly messages and the possibility you must return to work early is not conducive to recovery.
The other main way to ameliorate Qi stagnation often makes you feel slightly worse at first, then better. Either that, or you may be resistant to it. What is it?
So: running, competitive sports, weight-lifting, vigorous swimming, skipping (just some examples).
But a brisk walk or a quick bicycle ride both work for qi stagnation!
However, if you’ve accepted that qi stagnation eventually attacks the centre – and the mental sphere – the less you compress the centre, the better. So if you cycle, use upright, not under-slung, handlebars.
Canoeing is good, but it doesn’t exercise the legs and is arguably not so beneficial for the abdomen: indeed any seated sport, including cycling is less beneficial. (But better some exercise than none).
Basketball, football, rugby and racket sports that require you to run, jump, bend, stretch are excellent. (Unless they lead to physical damage – but many argue this possibility increases the enjoyment.)
Also excellent are Tai Qi and Yoga, the former being preferable: Qigong is splendid. Why do I prefer Tai Qi to Yoga for qi stagnation? Only because it involves movement, where much of Yoga is static. (However, I confess that I do Yoga, not Tai Qi. But I often cycle, and walk a lot.)
The more you move your whole body and get out of breath, preferably from using your whole body, the better you’ll feel.
For those less flexible, gardening is good, except it doesn’t always get you out of breath, and it can impose heavy lifting or one-sided strains. Gardening is also good in another way, because it makes you concentrate on something other than the source of your stress.
Getting out of breath is good. Anything that flexes your spine in all directions and makes you stretch, bend and reach is great.
Sex is good, unless your energy is low: the more movement the better so solitary masturbation may be not so good. If your energy is low or you find it exhausting, sex is not recommended. Read sexual impotence.
Well, of course, you need to change the situation that’s causing your problem, but that’s often easier said than done.
Sometimes you can just walk away from it, take the loss – the ‘hit’, but begin to ‘live’ again.
Sometimes that’s impossible because of people who depend on you. In that case you need to talk to someone who can help you understand your situation, your reaction to it, and how to disentangle yourself from it. That can take time and money, though don’t overlook your acupuncturist. He or she may understand more than you think and be able to talk you through it.
In the end, you’ll still have to deal with the problem either by asserting your rights or walking away from it.
Social activity? We don’t mean activity using electronics (computer, cell-phone, telephone …Skype, Facebook, email …)!
We do mean meeting people you like, in person, walking and talking, eating and drinking (- but enjoyably, of course. Don’t talk to people you don’t like because we told you to: that might only make you cross.) In short, to undo Qi stagnation, relax with other people.
We mean socialising, preferably with laughter – unforced. Wine and dine, visit the cinema together, go dancing or hiking or cycling or swimming together (just some examples!). (Yes I know, not so easy during Lockdown!)
Do it away from work if you can.
You can talk about whatever bothers you or just enjoy the company.
Yes, we did say ‘wine’ (and dine) up there, although it doesn’t have to be wine. If you can relax without alcohol or other drugs, even better.
As most of us know, the second glass of alcohol always seems a good idea after the first, and then the third? Well, it seems to come right after the second.
Maybe better not to start. But a little alcohol does often temporarily help the symptoms of qi stagnation.
Suppose you have the symptoms of Qi stagnation and tension stops you sleeping?
What might help, in addition to the above (… did we mention exercise? I think we did …)
So what about …
Of course! They all help. But you do need to practise meditation, for example, before you start getting Qi Stagnation. No point sitting down to meditate only after you feel tense. Learn to meditate first, then you can use it when you need to.
What if your problem is different: that whether you are tense or not you cannot sleep? Click on difficulty falling asleep.
When I started it, I expected to write no more than about 80 pages – even so, rather more than just this page that you’re looking at!
But then I realised that the many forms of Qi Stagnation, (for example affecting the Lungs, the Heart, the Bladder, the Stomach, the Spleen etc) each needed a chapter to do them justice. And the unifying concept behind the whole idea, obvious to me but apparently not to others, even to other acupuncturists, also needed explanation. So that went into the Introduction and first seven chapters.
So the book grew. People tell me, however, that it is very easy to read. Some say that my various enthusiasms, which found their way into it, help to make it a lot more interesting than you’d expect from the title.
And that title? Why call it such an obscure name, which most people don’t even know how to pronounce?! That’s because I am pretty sure that as Chinese medicine becomes more well known in the West, some of its terms – like Yin and Yang, for instance – will come to be part of our language.
If I’m right, ‘Qi Stagnation‘ will become one of those terms and people will want to know what it is. Well, here’s the book!
To get better from a chronic condition needs treatment from outside oneself. For example, I recommend acupuncture. (Remember, Qi Stagnation is the Jewel in the Crown!)
However, be aware that when a condition has become chronic, other syndromes will also have appeared and will need to be treated.
If you are interested in understanding how Traditional Chinese Medicine can improve your life sign up to my newsletter for the latest updates.