Qi Stagnation, what happens when your system backs up and what to do about it.

How to reduce stress, pain, inflammation and all the symptoms of stagnating Qi. Get your life moving again!
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Qi Stagnation book cover
You can learn more about Qi Stagnation and stress in our book on stress.
Man holding an upside down broken mirror with his own reflection on it
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Key Learning Points

  • Qi Stagnation? Everyone gets stressed from time to time. You experience it as a stagnant qi ‘blockage’, emotional or physical. 
  • Gradually it penetrates further into your system, with more serious symptoms.
  • Starting from discomfort it gets painful, leading to many health problems, including infertility.
  • The symptoms represent a huge resource of trapped energy, your energy. Learn to manage and release it!

Qi Stagnation is The Jewel in the Crown of Chinese medicine.

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!

 

A Traffic Jam is like Qi Stagnation
Photo by 7 SeTh on Unsplash

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.

 

What is Qi Stagnation?

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 Qi stagnation continues, what happens as Conditions Worsen?

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! 

But suppose the trigger or cause of the Qi stagnation continues or worsens?

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.

 What’s going on here?

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.

 

Stagnant Qi tries to burst out

Burst of Energy:  how energy feels as it tries to burst out!
Photo by Frame Harirak on Unsplash

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.

Whatever! Stagnant Qi tries to burst out, almost like a firework.

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.

Abdominal Effects of Qi Stagnation

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:

  • You have to hold your tongue, or
  • work late to meet a deadline, or
  • stop yourself screaming because it would set the wrong example?
  • Or are you just trying to achieve too many things at once?

 

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.

 

What’s going on here?

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.

Chest Damage from Qi Stagnation

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?

  • Chest feels tight – you can’t get your breath – you start worrying about asthma, which it isn’t: yet!
  • Throat feels blocked – the Chinese called this ‘plum-stone’ throat blockage
  • Heart beat does funny things – too fast, too slow, misses a beat.
  • Chest gets itchy
  • You start getting colds more often and breathing gets blocked by phlegm
  • Some people get hot flashes/flushes, disconcerting and embarrassing as Qi transforms into Heat and the body responds with perspiration
  • … I’m sure you’ll think of more examples!

 

Chronic Damage

The longer the stress continues the more likely becomes chronic damage.

For example …

  • Stomach or intestines lose their elasticity or become permanently inflamed
  • Lungs become congested with phlegm (if you’re a smoker, you now can’t stop smoking because smoking temporarily helps shift the mucus)
  • Why that cigarette? Because smoking in effect makes you sigh, a downward-acting movement that relaxes, and like swallowing – see next below – takes Qi downwards
  • Cravings develop for – probably – sweet, spicy or salty food and/or alcohol. That’s because when you swallow something, it takes qi downwards, counteracting the ascending tendency mentioned earlier. Unfortunately most such foods and alcohol have secondary effects that tend to be heating. So you need another sweet or – just one more – drop.

 

The Next stage as Qi Stagnation penetrates within

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.

If you keep working, long-hours in deadening conditions, you’ll get symptoms of yin deficiency too. Maybe, if not already, headaches or even migraines as well?

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.

Eventually qi stagnation can lead to Heart Qi Stagnation. You certainly don’t want that! That can lead on to Heat Blood stagnation.

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What makes Qi Stagnation Worse?

Well, first of all,

  • Increased or prolonged stress makes it worse. Then …
  • There are environmental conditions that worsen whatever form your Qi stagnation is turning into.
  • For example, if your Qi stagnation makes you hot, then you won’t enjoy the heat of summer. Sunstroke and heatwave would be worse still.
  • If stagnant qi makes you restless, twitchy, cross, then high wind, windows banging from drafts, and – especially – other twitchy demanding people (think small children) will make it worse. So although usually fresh air is better for breathing and keeping cool, if your Qi stagnation means your mind can’t settle into sleep, close the window if there’s wind around! 
  • Likewise, haste is bad. Make speed, not haste!

 

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.

Briefly, they are either drugs or stimulants:

  • Coffee and other stimulants containing, for example, caffeine.
  • Alcohol: in small quantities alcohol allows stagnant qi to circulate more smoothly, which is exactly what you want. Unfortunately the short term benefit is usually soon followed by its opposite. Why? Because it relaxes us and weakens our resolve! So we have a drop more, which has the same initial effect, but with the additional problem of detoxification the next day, and in the meantime, Heat.
  • Refined, Sweet and Junk food. Actually these just stimulate the descending function of the Stomach. Eating almost anything would have this effect! However, alert manufacturers market refined, sweet, salty or spicy food to keep us eating their highly profitable products.

 

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.

Drugs

  • Recreational drugs: these are powerful stimulants which wipe the mental board clear and introduce new levels of disturbance as your liver detoxifies them. Temporarily they send energy downwards being calming and anaesthetising, so they feel good at the time. Alternatively they circulate Qi faster, temporarily making us feel more confident and relaxed, even excited and powerful. But their secondary action is usually detrimental: often the opposite of their Primary action.
  • Tobacco smoking is also calming. It stimulates your Lungs to send energy down. But one cigarette is never enough, is it? And it’s hard to stop. And it kills you.

 

What REALLY helps Qi Stagnation?

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.

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?

 

Exercise!

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!

 

Running in the woods: a great way to dissipate qi stagnation.
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

 

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.)

 

By exercise we mean something that moves your body.

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.

 

What Else can I add?

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 Activities and Qi Stagnation

People eating and having fun together: helps to release qi stagnation.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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.

Did we really say ‘wine’ up there?

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.

 

What about trying to get to sleep?

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.

What else can you do to help yourself for stagnant Qi?

  • The Five Elements acupuncture system explains how you can live with qi stagnation in one department of life if you’re able to keep things – qi – flowing in other areas. Read that linked page for an explanation.
  • If you would like to learn more (much more!) about Qi Stagnation and how to use it to your benefit, I invite you to read my book on the subject, see below.

 

 

 

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.

 

Easy to read!

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!

  • If these options fail, or don’t work fully, then your condition is chronic and your Qi Stagnation will benefit from treatment. (When your condition is chronic, your body has given up trying to get better, and has entered a steady-state where, with luck, it prevents your symptoms from getting worse.)

 

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.

Other pages you may like, if you haven’t already clicked on them above:

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