Anxiety can be such so insidious. You can feel fine and then you’re hijacked by these paralysing and overwhelming feelings.
You can start to feel like you’re separating from your body, detaching from reality. A veil seems to descend between you and the world. Your mind and heart no longer feel safe and grounded.
You might even feel like you’re going to have a heart attack, pass out or die.
You develop a whole system of checks and balances nuanced to your particular flavour of control, all to avoid being triggered.
You become afraid of your anxiety returning and this creates a type of cage that you comfortably inhabit, because however restrictive, you deem it better than that anxious feeling. And this can work – it does keep things manageable – but sometimes you get stuck there and think it’s a forever thing.
But how to open the door? How to step out of the cage?
Anxiety and Chinese Medicine – An Alternative Approach
Chinese medicine offers some perspectives for easing anxiety that you may not have heard or experienced before.
The Root Causes of Anxiety in Chinese Medicine
Anxiety can have a lot of different root causes.
Chinese medicine is always seeking to address pathology at its root. When an issue is rectified at the root or causative level, innate processes within you take over. These are the processes that promote vitality, growth, repair and homeostatic balance.
Symptom management of anxiety can be great and Chinese medicine can be wonderful for easing anxiety symptoms. But it’s addressing the root cause that distinguishes holistic treatment from other ways of treating anxiety.
Diagnosing Anxiety with Chinese Medicine
A Chinese medicine diagnosis for someone experiencing anxiety could be:
- Your ‘Spirit’ is disturbed
- Your ‘Blood’ is deficient
- You’ve got ‘Phlegm’ misting your Mind
- You’re ‘Damp’
- You’ve got stagnant Qi
- You’ve got too much heat in the ‘Heart’
- You have ‘Kidney’ and ‘Liver’ Yin deficiency.
The list goes on. Even though that list may sound simplistic and kind of neolithic, each of those diagnostic patterns is incredibly specific and nuanced to treat the different ways that anxiety shows up in a person.
For example, during attacks of anxiety do you get palpitations and hot flushes? Or IBS symptoms? Insomnia?
Symptoms of anxiety vary dramatically. That’s the beauty and the art of the Chinese medical model, which can be tailored to you to treat you with very specific therapeutics.
What are the Different Types of Anxiety?
Different kinds of anxiety include:
Generalised Anxiety Disorder – Constant tension and worry about everyday life activities, lasting for many months or years. Sufferers usually anticipate the worst even though there is little reason to expect this. Generalised anxiety disorder is often accompanied by physical symptoms like trembling, muscle tension, nausea, fatigue and headaches.
Panic Disorder – Intense fear that strikes repeatedly and usually without warning. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest tightness, heart palpitations, dizziness and disorientation.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – Repeated, unwanted thoughts or compulsive behaviours that seem impossible to stop or control.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – Persistent symptoms that occur after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, numbing of emotions, depression, anger, irritability and being easily startled.
Phobias – Extreme, disabling, and irrational fear of something that often poses little or no actual danger. The fear leads to avoidance of objects or situations and can cause people to limit their lives unnecessarily.
Eastern and Western Anxiety Treatment Approaches
In Chinese medicine there is no separation between the physical and mental/emotional self. When one suffers, eventually so will the other.
Because of this mental/physical interdependence, an external emotional cause of anxiety, such as a traumatic event or an abusive childhood, will eventually lead to a decline in physical health.
Conversely, anxiety may be generated internally as a result of a purely physical imbalance. Often there is a complex interplay of both.
Either way, the physical pathology needs to be addressed. This is where acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine excel.
If the anxiety originated from an external cause, whether in the past or continuing into the present, it is recommended that you, additionally, seek out psychological therapy.
Recommended Resources for Reducing Anxiety – Melbourne, Victoria
A Space – An awesome local meditation studio, running classes and workshops.
The Mind Room – An awesome local psychology practice that runs all sorts of classes and workshops.
Pete Coles – A very talented transpersonal therapist who specialises in transforming anxiety.
Psychological Treatment for Anxiety
If your anxiety does not stem from an identifiable external cause, psychological therapy is still a very useful tool in helping you manage symptoms whilst the Chinese medical treatment is working to correct the physical imbalance.
Aside from psychotherapy, the other modern medical treatments are drug therapies. Antidepressants and benzodiazepines (often referred to as sedatives) are the most common ones.
Anxiety Medication – Pros and Cons
Benzodiazepines, due to their addictive nature, are usually kept for short-term use in acute situations, or perhaps during more severe flare-ups. Some types of antidepressants can help people to manage their anxiety, and they are generally considered safer for long-term use.
There is a definite time and place for such drug therapies. They are relatively fast acting, and bring some much appreciated relief to a lot of people. However, they are not for everyone.
Some people don’t like the way they feel on medication, especially if your anxiety is arising from a physical cause. These medications can hard for the body to process and can exacerbate a physical imbalance or create new one in another meridian/organ system.
Some people are troubled by side-effects of anti-anxiety medications such as digestive disturbances, weight gain, emotional numbing.
People with lower levels of anxiety might struggle to justify constant medication. Furthermore, sometimes this type of medication treatment is symptom management rather than targeting resolution of the root cause of the anxiety.
From my clinical experience, I’ve observed that anxiety can sometimes arise from mismanaged emotional expression. Often, a pharmaceutical + cognitive approach doesn’t address or resolve anxiety arising from emotional origin.
Understanding and Befriending Your Anxiety
You can transform your anxiety. If you are conscious of what’s happening, with some practice, mindset training and knowledge, you can develop strong resilience to the effects of anxiety.
Use some of these suggestions for managing your anxiety:
- Know when to address your anxiety.
When you’re in a full-blown anxiety or panic attack, that is not the time to address it. When anxiety has risen to that level then you are in survival mode and you just need to get through it.
You’ll want to start addressing your anxiety when you’re in a place where you feel safe, grounded and in a relaxed state.
It’s going to be uncomfortable. Transforming anxiety often involves really getting to know what the anxiety is for you and being in the experience of it.
- Let your anxiety in.
So, most people understandably want to get rid of their anxiety. For good reason – it can be incredibly unpleasant and disabling.
Yet, this rejection of the experience can compound your fear of it and add to the narrative that is already going on. The fear breeds more fear, making the whole thing more tangled and dramatic.
What if you welcomed it in like an old friend. Oh hi, it’s you again, what are you trying to tell me today?
- Give your anxiety an outlet.
Take some time to consider what is the narrative of your anxiety. What’s the story?
Write it out. Draw it out. Record it in a voice memo. Talk to a good friend or therapist about it.
How does this anxiety affect your life?
How does this anxiety serve or protect you?
What’s the benefit of experiencing this anxiety?
- Feel the anxiety in your body.
Are you tired? Are you thirsty? Are you angry? Are you afraid?
Discerning the message of your anxiety will give you a greater ability to respond to your own needs and self-regulate your uncomfortable feelings.
Transforming Anxiety with Calming Techniques
Why is it useful to feel anxiety in your body?
Anxiety is contractive by nature. Before you feel tension arising in your mind, somewhere in your body will tighten.
Catching tension in your body and consciously making an effort to relax will help calm your mind. Can you lean into this feeling?
Once you can identify the tight or unsettled places in your body where the anxiety has settled in, try the following techniques to self-soothe and encourage calm:
- Use the breath.
The breath is the most effective way to soothe your nervous system.
Inhale, then take a longer exhale than your inhale. This will calm the fight-or-flight response that is hurtling you towards fear. It’s called the ‘Vagal brake’.
Relaxation for Anxiety
If you are starting to freak out, try this relaxation technique:
- Find somewhere comfortable to sit.
- Sit in an erect posture and bring your chest forward, allowing your shoulders to fall back.
- Relax your gaze and rest your hands on your lap.
- Breathe with your abdomen, allowing your belly to expand on inhalation and contract on expiration.
- Inhale through your nose for a count of four.
- Exhale through your nose for a count of six.
- Repeat this process six times.
You have just slowed your respiratory rate to six breaths per minute and emphasised your exhalations.
Adults breathe at an average of 15 breaths per minute so this exercise asks you to reduce your basal rate by a little more than half.
- Address your core fears.
What are you afraid of?
The cave that you are afraid to enter holds the treasure that you seek.
Address your core fears. They may be existential or they may be very real. Fear can be the root of anxiety and identifying it can set you on your way to do some great work with a psychologist, counsellor, acupuncturist or loved one.
Mismanaged emotions can be a cause of anxiety in Chinese medicine – indeed, of many pathologies.
Chinese medicine doesn’t view emotions as either positive or negative. Rather, they consider all emotions (anger, fear, sadness, joy) as necessary and natural. Each has a specific pattern as to how it alters our physiology.
It’s not the experience of feeling emotions that is pathogenic. It is the avoidance, suppression, repression and denial of them that is the issue.\
Once you accept that you are feeling an emotion by letting it in and experiencing it, it changes, it integrates. If your mind becomes involved, telling you shouldn’t be feeling something or it denies you permission to feel it, this discord between body and mind happens.
- Move your body.
Your body is designed to move.
There is so much that we absorb that is non-verbal. Vibes, body language, our internal dialogue, our sub-conscious mind. This can all be reflected in our posture and how we feel in our body.
Some studies have shown that people who experience anxiety have a higher degree of muscle tension and pain. Long term, this leads to muscles becoming fatigued or inefficient.
Get out of your head, connect to sensation that is occurring in your body, and shake it out, shake it off, sweat, stretch, breathe, dance, strengthen. Movement is a path to feel centered, move stuck and constrictive feelings and get those endorphin levels up.
You want to reduce your anxiety? Relaxation is the only technology that will get you there.
To overcome anxiety, you need to relax. Anxiety is the antithesis of relaxation.
The nervous system is binary. It can only be in either fight of flight (sympathetic) mode or rest and digest / growth and repair (autonomic/parasympathetic) mode. When your nervous system is in ‘rest and digest’ mode, you’re not going to feel anxious.
The more often and deeply you relax and enter rest and digest mode, the harder it will be to elicit an anxious state.
If you suffer from anxiety, you need to start taking your relaxation seriously. Relaxation is different from rest, and is different from sleep. There is an art to it.
Consider acupuncture and Chinese medicine for anxiety. This holistic approach will help your body enter into the state it needs to heal and recover from anxiety.
If you want to learn more about coping with difficult emotions then please read the Experiencing Difficult Emotions blog.
Understand the nature of mind. We are not our thoughts, we are not our emotions. They are transient and changeable. You are not your anxiety. There are some great philosophies that reframe our mental and emotional experience. If you’d like to know more about this, please check out the Cultivating Spirit blog.