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Acupuncture as an Approach to Psychosomatic Disorders

By Dr. med. Jochen M. Gleditsch

From Neural Therapy, Reflex Zones and Somatotopies: A Key to the Diagnostic and Therapeutic Understanding of Man’s Ills, a seminar guide compiled by the American Academy of Biological Dentistry, June 1989

Acupuncture Teaching, as it is handed down to the West, comprises far more than a remarkable needling technique based on a rather exceptional theory of energy flows. Indeed, Acupuncture Teaching is the expression, and the translation into practice, of a general understanding of life and its phenomena as it has been inherent to the East for many thousands of years. We cannot fully comprehend, nor profit [from], the abundant possibilities of Acupuncture, both in the case of diagnosis and therapy, unless we are prepared to study its philosophical background and its system of analogies. For this, it is best to refer to the traditional teaching of the so-called Five Elements.

Traditional Acupuncture Teaching claims that the organs of the human body have to be divided into, or rather be assigned to, five distinct groups, called Elements. These groups, however, quite unexpectedly are not made up of alike organs, such as inner organs only or sense organs only. On the contrary, every one of the organ groups, or Elements, comprises one sense organ out of five; one inner organ out of five, which are classified as store-organs; one so-called hollow organ out of five; as well as one specific kind of tissue out of five, one of the five groups of teeth, et cetera. Moreover, even non-bodily factors are allotted to the respective Elements. This is because in traditional Chinese philosophy, both factors pertaining to the outer world and factors pertaining to the inner world are understood to be interlacing and to be submitted to analogous laws. Therefore, each one of the Five Elements is claimed to comprise in addition to various bodily organs, specific qualities such as a specific season, a specific climactic aspect, a specific taste, and others, and last [but] not least, one specific emotional behavior.

As far as the organism is concerned, the Five Elements, or organ groups, are to be interpreted cybernetically as five regulative functional circuits, which in turn are linked together in a system of mutual functional interplay. Many centuries before our cybernetic age, the doctors of ancient China already were aware of the interrelations and interdependencies which exist between the functions of the various organs and regions of the body. The object of this interplay is to balance and to regulate the bodily functions so that they are adjusted to one another in harmony, i.e., so that homeostasis is established.

In a deeper appreciation, however, the Five Elements are the reflection of five fundamental Life Principles which are present throughout the universe; as in the cosmos, so in man, according to the law: As Above, So Below. These five Life Principles, therefore, are bound to express themselves equally in the body as in the psyche and to be even corresponding with five fundamental aspects of consciousness. If were are prepared to accept this concept, which underlies all Asiatic philosophy, we shall find that the idea proposed in traditional Acupuncture Teaching that there are five specific emotional behavior patterns which can be assigned to the Five Elements respectively is still valid. In other words, traditional Acupuncture Teaching claims that every one of the five functional and regulative circuits of the body has a special affinity to one out of five emotions.

Indeed, this idea, in a modified way, reappears in modern psychology, for example, in the “typology” of Carl Gustav Jung when he defines the basic functions of the psyche to be “sensing,” “feeling,” “thinking,” and “intuition,” eventually merging into a fifth state of “conjunction.” In the same way, Jean Gebser, the great philosopher of our days, spoke of five “dimensions of consciousness” accessible to man. Also, Paracelsus, the great physician of the Middle Ages, defined five essences in man which, in Latin, he refers to as “Entia.” These “Entia” he found to be responsible for the make-up of man and for the occurrence of five characteristic forms of disease. When comparing the typologies and philosophies just mentioned to a number of other systems and, last [but] not least, to traditional Acupuncture Teaching, I was struck by their unquestionable conformity and analogy. Without doubt it may be stated that in what ever way these different systems and teachings of different ages and civilisations came to paraphrase their findings, they are all referring to the same truth.

In Five Elements Teaching, the five psychological patterns are defined as Fear, Anger, Worry, Sadness, and Joy. Except for Joy, all these emotions are negative ones. Obviously, the ancient Chinese doctors found the normal expressions of the psyche non-significant for their diagnosing. Only when a person became psychologically imbalanced in a way that Fear, Anger, Worry, or Sadness were developed, this was understood as a diagnostical hint that the particular Element related to the particular emotion was supposed to be in trouble in one way or another.

In this way, Five Elements Teaching served as an approach to psychosomatic disorders. This traditional approach, however, was by no means as vague as casual as in modern psychosomatics but very well defined and following systematic laws.

From the negative emotional patterns as quoted in ancient Five Elements Teaching, it obviously can be derived what is the normal, that is the positive, emotion pertaining to the respective Elements. This occurred to me when comparing Carl Gustav Jung’s basic functions of the psyche on the one hand and the psychological aspects of the Five Elements on the other hand. If we wish to decode the Five Elements, it is best to study certain Key Functions. In each one of the Five Elements, the Key Function which may be considered representative and demonstrative of the basic Life Principle of that particular Element is found when appreciating the functions of the corresponding sense organ on the one hand and of the corresponding bodily tissue on the other hand.


The first one of the Elements is called the Kidney Element. It comprises a group of organs of which the kidneys, the urinary bladder, and the genital organs are the most important ones, also the ear as the corresponding sense organ, as well as the bones and the skeleton as the corresponding bodily tissue. Amongst further analogies we have to note: winter, chill and cold, dark and cold waters, and the north. The specific emotion allotted to this Element is fear and shock.

If we want to define fear, it is the lack of confidence and a feeling of missing security which becomes even more direct in the case of sudden shock.

Considering now the two Key Functions pertaining to this Element, we see that they are both connected with security and safeguard. The predominant purpose of the ear's perception is to warn, that is to signalize dangerous sounds and to warrant safety and survival whenever the existence of life is threatened. The function of the ear is more than the mere act of perceiving and hearing: actually, it is an act of listening, as it is accompanied by a certain degree of awareness and intelligence, discriminating between the various sounds and evaluating their degree of danger. Listening implied obedience, for if a certain noise has signalized peril, without hesitating for reflection, the individual has to react by either fight or flight. In Latin, hearing means “audire” and obeying, “oboedire;” in German, it is “horchen” and “gehorchen.” Fight and flight, by the way, are supported by the adrenaline hormone, and the adrenals also are related to the Kidney Element.

The bones and the skeleton, as well, have a Key Function that is connected with security. They provide stability, statics, and support, particularly the spine, whilst the pelvis and skull are a shelter to the organs they enclose. The bony structure of the back is a dorsal cover of protection, refuge, and defense. The objective of survival even results in the longevity of the skeleton and bones which outlive the organism.

Thus, it follows from the analogy of the physical Key Functions, that - according to the Life Principle which expresses itself in the functional circuit of the Kidney Element - security and support are also prevalent in the psychological function which is normal in this Element. As mentioned before, fear, which is the negative form of this psychological function, consists in a lack of confidence and in a feeling of missing security. The positive emotion which corresponds to the Kidney Element, therefore, is a feeling of safety, trust, and reliance. This results in a great ability to be faithful and upright, a sense of tradition, a readiness to accept and endure, and most likely in a strong belief and religiosity.

If we consider the analogy of the winter season, this is a resting time, a period of survival and regeneration when all life temporarily becomes torpid, the same as the cold waters solidify into ice.

In terms of psychosomatics, according to the rules of Acupuncture, persons of great confidence and trust are probably very healthy in all the physical organs connected with the Kidney Element, and vice versa. From this concept, conclusions for both diagnosis and for treatment may be drawn.

Referring to the “typology” of Carl Gustav Jung, there is an obvious analogy which connects the Kidney Element to the basic psychological function of sensing. By sensing, Jung does not only mean the sensations of the five sense organs but all signals the organism sends out in case of need such as hunger, cold, or fatigue. Most of these signals are registered and answered unconsciously by our instinct mechanisms to ensure the survival of the individual or, in the case of sexual desire, the survival of the species. We see there is a parallel to the function of listening which we discussed before. Sensing, according to Jung, although deeply rooted in, and inseparable from, the body, definitely pertains to the psyche because of the degree of awareness that goes along with it. Sensing is furthermore connected with the collective subconscious mind patterns which are the heritage of men.

If we study the teachings of Paracelsus, we find that the analogous Ens Naturale is clearly connected with the stability and solidity of the body and its inherited qualities. The first Dimension of Consciousness, according to Gebser, is related to the archaic and magic state of mind of our preancestors who were creatures of great security, guided by their instincts and safely imbedded into nature which surrounded them.

From all these parallels and comparisons we begin to have a notion of the general Life Principle which is hidden in the analogies of the first one of the Five Elements. Symbolically, it is the Manifestation of the Physical Being and all the safeguarding measures which ensure its upkeep and survival.


The second one of the Elements is called the Liver Element. It comprises a group of organs of which the liver and the gallbladder are the most important ones, also the eye as the corresponding sense organ, as well as muscles and tendons as the corresponding bodily tissue. Amongst further analogies we have to note: spring time, wind and storm, wood and young shoots, and the east. The specific emotion allotted to this element is anger and wrath.

If we want to define anger and wrath, it is an overdynamic and improportional release of aggression when a person feels attacked or insulted. It is a feeling of instantly having to expand one’s range of action and of authority after having been confined by some other person or by some situation. In its spontaneity and lack of moderation, anger often results in an infringement of other persons’ living space.

Considering now the two Key Functions pertaining to this Element, we see that they are both connected with dynamic motion, instant action, and expansion. Unlike the ear, the eye is not primarily a passive sense organ, but it has the ability of literally moving towards the objects it wishes to perceive by means of focusing, accommodation, and adaptation. The function of the eye is more than the mere act of seeing; it is actually a very active and dynamic way of looking, of viewing, and of beholding. The range of the field of vision symbolizes a person’s range of territory. Also, from the way we look at things or at other persons, our eyes will reveal whether we look with sympathy or with hate.

Also, the muscles and tendons have a function which is connected with dynamics, motion, instant action, and expansion. These are the bodily tissues which allow us to walk and to move on, to extend our boundaries and to conquer large territories. Motion is always connected with elasticity and spontaneity, ever ready to meet the demands of the actual moment. However, no movement can take place without a continuous act of balancing between right and left, between swing and spring, contraction and expansion, between action and counteraction. These two keep alternating and controlling one another and, moreover, they are taking place simultaneously. Normal action is always controlled by moderation, as the force applied always suits, and never exceeds, the demands of the intended action. This, therefore, is a facet of adaptation.

Thus, it follows from the analogy of the physical Key Functions, that - according to the Life Principle which expresses itself in the functional circuit of the Liver Element - dynamic motion, instant action, and expansion, controlled by adaptation and adequacy, are also prevalent in the psychological function which is normal in this Element. The positive emotion which corresponds to the Liver Element, therefore, is happiness, a feeling of freedom and independence, of being respected and adequately esteemed, a feeling of vigour and vitality. All this is combined with the ability to respect other person’ freedom and independence. This positive emotion makes the person lively, agile, versatile, active, courageous, and gives him a strong self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-content.

If we consider the analogy of the spring season, this is a time of dynamic evolution and progress, a period of vitality and expansion, accompanied by the turbulence of wind and storms. The green wooden stems when putting forth their buds are a symbol of strength and life force, and they have an outstanding elasticity, withstanding storm and rain.

Referring to the “typology” of Carl Gustav Jung, it is easy to understand that the quality of motion which governs the Liver Element physically, in its psychological analogy corresponds to Emotion. The wide range of emotions and affects is the expression of the dynamics of the psyche. The emotional affects, moreover, serve as a means of instant relief in the case of momentary emotional stress and strain. These affects well up and then they ebb off again, in this way dissolving inner tensions. This is like the surface of a lake after a stone has been dropped into it, when we see the small circular waves proceeding more and more to the periphery until they have disappeared. Anger obviously is a form of emotional affect which wells up in a way out of control and out of proportion, and which disregards other people’s integrity.

If we study the teachings of Paracelsus, we find that the analogous Ens Astrale is clearly connected with the moods and tempers of a person. The second Dimension of Consciousness, according to Gebser, is related to the mythological state of mind when our ancestors referred to myths and sagas which were very much the reflection of their own emotional make-up.

From all these parallels and comparisons, we begin to have a notion of the general Life Principle which is hidden in the analogies of the second one of the Five Elements. Symbolically, it is the Manifestation of the Personal Self within the physical body which expresses and grows in its individuality by movement, adaptation, and balance.

This is a field of great importance in psychosomatics because obviously the physical body serves as the instrument for the actions of the Personal Self, and the emotions and affects provide both stimulation and reinforcement, but also balance. If a person is unable to deal with his or her emotions, this may result in all kinds of psychosomatic disorders ranging from weakness because of over-adaptivity to the building-up or armour-like muscle indurations. This, Wilhelm Reich refers to as “frozen-in emotions.”

Therefore, it is evident that traditional Acupuncture Teaching is a key to psychosomatics. According to the rules of Acupuncture, persons of great happiness and self-control are probably very healthy in all the organs connected with the Liver Element, and vice versa. However, if they are not, this concept implies that there can never be a physical treatment nor a psychological treatment only but that all therapeutic measures have to cover both aspects.


The third one of the Elements is called the Spleen Element. It comprises a group of organs of which the spleen, the pancreas, and the stomach are the most important ones; also the lips together with the mouth, which is considered as a sense organ, as well as the connective tissue and the interstitium as the corresponding bodily tissue. Amongst further analogies we have to note: the season of the late summer, humidity and sultriness, earth and soil, and the southwest. The specific emotion allotted to this Element is worry.

If we want to define worry, it is a habit of repeated ruminating of problems in the mind, of being overchallenged and therefore building up anxieties and scruples, an inner nervousness. Worry is not the same as fear, because the fear which corresponds with the Kidney Element is rooted in experiences of the past, whilst worry is a mental projection into the future and many of the worries will never come to pass.

Considering now the two Key Functions pertaining to this Element, we see that they are both connected with contact, challenge, intake, and integration. The lips represent the sensation of touch, but actually, Acupuncture Teaching includes the mouth and throat as well into the definition of that sense organ; that is, the oropharynx as a whole. This is the place of contact and of intake, of chewing and breaking up, to be followed by further disintegration and digestion after the food has been swallowed. Food, symbolically, represents everything a person is confronted and gets into touch with. Such are all kinds of information, of problems, of objects, and particularly all kinds of other persons.

It is interesting to note that Paracelsus defines digestion as an intelligent process of discrimination between beneficial (that is, positive) substances and poisonous (that is, negative) substances. Therefore, Paracelsus characterizes the analogous essence of man as the Ens Veneni, that is, the essence pertaining to poison. In this view, all objects opposite the Personal Self, including other persons, are primarily poisonous, depending on the dose.

We also see the clear analogy with the third basic psychological function according to Carl Gustav Jung, which is Thinking, or the activity of the mind. This also is connected with breaking down the incoming information before it can be built up again for integration into the memory store. We have to remember Jung's discovery that our mind is as much part of the psyche as our emotions, and that it is not a separate quality existing outside the psyche. It differs from our emotions in its ability of reasoning, of drawing conclusions, of planning, and most of all in its degree of consciousness. The consciousness of the mind corresponds with the third Dimension of Consciousness according to Jean Gebser, which he calls the Mental Dimension. This exceeds by far the potentials of the foregoing first and second Dimensions of Consciousness.

The connective tissue, which is the bodily tissue of the Spleen Element, equally serves the purpose of the Life Principle encoded in this Element. However, here we see a dual purpose divided into two aspects which we may well call a yang and a yin aspect. After the intake and breaking-down which is the yang aspect, there follows a reconstruction into substances that suit the body, and finally the storage of those substances. This second phase of the process is the yin aspect, and this is mainly the function of the connective tissue. What has been integrated in this way, however, is not supposed to be deposited (because in that case it becomes waste and toxifying), but rather, it is to be stored on call to be available whenever needed.

The two Key Functions give us a hint of what is to be regarded as the positive psychological activity connected with the Spleen Element. This literally is positive thinking, free from worry and negative anticipation. It is a way of planning and of projecting into the future based on common sense, practicability, productivity, purposefulness, and intelligence. This also includes a good deal of discipline, tolerance, responsibility, and concern for the needs of others. It is the ability to serve without being overchallenged. In a deeper sense, this is the ability of maintaining good and productive relationships of mutual integration and care, and of living a positive partnership and social life.

In the Spleen Element, we see the close analogy and interplay between the physical and the psychological aspects. This, also, is a field of great importance in psychosomatics. According to the ability of the mind to project into the future, and because the Metnal Consciousness is dimensionally superior, thought patterns and worries, if constantly ruminated in the mind, have a moulding effect not only on the physical body but also on the general emotional make-up of a person.

According to the rules of Acupuncture Teaching, persons free from worry and overcare are probably very healthy in all the physical organs connected with the Spleen Element, and vice versa, whilst worrying persons have a well-known tendency to develop stomach troubles.

From all these parallels and comparisons we begin to have a notion of the general Life Principle which is hidden in the analogies of the third one of the Five Elements. Symbolically, it is the Manifestation of Relationship in which the Personal Self is involved, and all Relationship is built up by contact and integration.


The fourth one of the Elements is called the Lung Element. It comprises a group of organs of which the lung and the large intestine are the most important ones; also the nose as the corresponding sense organ, as well as skin and hair as the corresponding bodily tissue. Amongst further analogies we have to note: autumn, which is the harvest season; dryness and desiccation; the purified metal; and the west. The specific emotion allotted to this Element is sorrow and sadness.

If we want to define sorrow and sadness in terms of Acupuncture Teaching, it is a state of despair, hopelessness, and resignation, a “no future” feeling where there seems to be no way out. This may well be connected with self-pity in the face of the deploring situation the person finds himself in, going along with an utter disability of making any effort to get out of that situation, as if their person were hypnotised, paralysed, and completely exhausted.

Considering now the two Key Functions pertaining to this Element, we see that they are both connected with what is beyond and out of reach. This is an intangible field which nevertheless sustains a subtle mode of exchange and symbiosis. This is difficult to explain, as there are various aspects to it. As far as the sense organ of the nose is concerned, here we find the ability of scenting, even if the concentration of the aromatic substance is extremely low. The perception of smell, rather, is a way of tracing and suspecting. At the same time, the mucous membrane of the nose, as well as of the sinuses that are connected with it, is an area of osmotic exchange. This is a perfect example of permeability.

Considering the function of the bodily tissue pertaining to the Lung Element, we can state again that the purpose of the Life Principle encoded in this Element obviously is divided into a yang and a yin aspect. The yin aspect which is dealt with by the tissues of skin and hair is very much connected with letting go and with an osmotic and biophysical way of exchange with the outer world, so that through the skin, the body is able to get rid of many subtle substances which are no more needed.

The dual aspect of the yin and yang functions of the Lung Element of course becomes very clear when we consider the two phases of breathing. Inspiration is intake of air; that is, of subtle matter, from the outside; that is, the realm beyond the living being; and expiration is letting go. If we remember that the oxygen we breathe in actually is the waste of the plants and that, in turn, the plants are eager to take in our waste, which is the carbohydrate, we see that there is an exchange taking place and that we live on a large scale symbiosis.

The key word “symbiosis” gives an explanation why the large intestine, or colon, is linked to the Lung Element. This is because of the microflora which is a microcosmos of its own by which we are inhabited and which sustains a very important exchange with us. All kinds of symbiosis comprise the most remarkable and ecological recycling of waste, and by this, the members who are included in these cycles merge together into one all-embracing living organism.

The psychological aspect of the Lung Element in its normal, or positive, function enables man to live on this large scale symbiotic exchange which surrounds him. This makes a person very open and sensitive, but because he is aware that he belongs to that large and intangible community of life, he avoids small bonds and ties, and he ignores many of the social restrictions. He lives in close exchange with the source of creativity and has the potential to transcend himself by producing outstanding works of art or inventions. According to Carl Gustav Jung, there is a fourth basic function of the psyche which is called Intuition, which is another word for inspiration. Jung defines Intuition as the “faculty to have a look under the surface of things” or “to suspect deeper significance beneath the surface of things.” We see the clear analogy to the subtle sense of scenting and tracing. In the analogy of the fourth Dimension of Consciousness according to Jean Gebser, here we have the awareness for the “diaphane qualities” of the transcendental world. Although this is a realm which exists beyond the bodily existence of man, the potentials of this realm are not out of reach for man’s creative mind. This creative mind is connected with the qualities of the right side hemisphere of the brain which has been discussed very much lately.

Whilst the negative psychological behaviour of the Lung Element is sadness and sorrow, resignation and hopelessness, the positive behaviour is the readiness to be purified and to let go all that is impeding the transgression into transmutation. In the view of this Element, so many items reveal themselves to be vain and waste which, as regards to the physical body, to the personal self, or even to the various relationships, used to be of great importance. Paracelsus refers to the analogous essence of man as to the Ens Spirituale, and he quotes, whenever disease stems from this essence, it is the Soul that is sore and not the body. Here, we come to the true field of psychosomatic illnesses where there is an inner urge of the Soul, because the Soul wants to take a further step of development and of detachment, and forces the body to assist in this transformation. This does not necessarily mean that the person will have to die. Situations where there seems to be no hope in this way can be turned into periods of expectation and of longing anticipation.

The analogy of the autumn and harvest season very well fits into this picture as well as the symbol of the metal which is being processed and purified.

As we are speaking of Life Principles and not of Death Principles, we may state that the fourth one of the Five Elements does not lead us towards a final frontier but to a Threshold where the individual merges into greater units of Community and of symbiosis.


The fifth one of the Five Elements is called the Heart Element. It comprises a group of organs of which the heart and the small intestine are the most important ones; also the tongue as the corresponding sense organ, as well as the blood and blood vessels as the corresponding bodily tissue. Furthermore, we have the analogies of summer as the climax of the year, of heat and fire, and the south. The specific emotion allotted to this Element is joy. This is, as noted before, a positive emotion.

There is a special aspect to the Heart Element because traditional Acupuncture Teaching states that the “heart” is not really a physical organ, but it represents a psychological, or rather a spiritual, quality in man. It is interesting to note, by the way, that cancer never occurs in the heart, and that also the small intestine, although some 5 metres long, relatively seldom shows cancerous growth. This may be due to the special spiritual quality which is connected with the Heart Element.

Referring to Carl Gustav Jung, the fifth quality among the basic functions of the psyche is called “conjunctic,” and this means a perfection when a person has been able to develop all four psychological functions simultaneously and equally in their positive aspects. The fifth essence of man as described by Paracelsus is the Ens Dei. This is the Divine Spark in man, an Paracelsus quotes that this quality governs and outshines all other essences in man. Jean Gebser does not mention a fifth Dimension of Consciousness explicitly, but from his philosophy, it is easy to suspect that the Zero Dimension is exceeding the fourth one.

If the Heart Element is an outstanding one and if it corresponds to summer and the cardinal point of the south and of noon, it connotates a climax of perfection and fulfillment in its deeper symbolic meaning.

Therefore, its psychological behaviour is bound to be a positive one. Joy then is the expression of bliss and beatitude, the rejoicing and jubilation of salvation.

Even the two Key Functions correspond to this connotation. The tongue, according to traditional Acupuncture Teaching, is not engaged in tasting but in language and speech. It is an instrument of communication; it does not perceive, but it expresses itself according to the words that well up from the overflowing heart. The tongue and voice, in this way, even are the organ of rejoicing.

The corresponding bodily tissue which is the blood and blood vessels of course share the heart’s pulsation and communicate and radiate this into every cell of the body. thus, they are the uniting link, spreading the heartbeat so that it becomes present even in the far periphery.

The heart, symbolically, stands for Radiation and Perfection.

This quality, as will easily be understood, reaches far beyond what generally is being referred to as psychosomatic causation, although there definitely is a somatic side to it which manifests in the physical organs that belong to the Heart Element.


After having studied the Five Elements of traditional Chinese Acupuncture Teaching and correlated them with a number of analogies and related philosophies, this gives us a broader approach to the general understanding of the functional interplay between body, mind, and psyche, and enables us to assign different factors and qualities to the respective Elements in order to perform a better diagnosis and therapy.

Originally published in German

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