Anxiety and Chinese Medicine – by Elissa Lee
In today’s fast-paced world, anxiety has become a common concern affecting millions of people. In fact one in four Australians report suffering from an anxiety disorder at some stage in their lives, and it is the most common mental health disorder we see in the clinic today.
While sometimes a certain level of anxiety can be useful to give us that kick-start to create change, more often than not it can stop us in our tracks. It’s worth taking a moment to listen to our anxieties. Are they telling us that something (a relationship, job, course of study, amount of work etc) is not right? Or are they unfounded and not serving us well?
When anxiety is unfounded and / or overwhelming it is wise to look for some support. While modern medicine offers effective treatments it sometimes comes with undesirable side effects.This is where more and more people are turning to Chinese Medicine for a natural, holistic approach to alleviate anxiety and promote emotional well-being.
There are several types of anxiety disorders, all with slightly different presentations. These include:
- Generalised anxiety disorder: a constant and often overwhelming worry about everything and anything. There is often no clear cause and can span from low grade constant worry to overwhelming fear.
- Panic disorder: regular panic attacks which are sudden, intense episodes of debilitating fear and worry.
- Social anxiety disorder: a heightened sense of anxiety in social situations.
- Phobias: fears that only apply to one particular situation, such as a fear of animals, insects, places, situations or people.
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): unwanted thoughts and impulses (obsessions), causing repetitive, routine behaviours as a way of coping with anxiety.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): when feelings of fear do not fade after experiencing a traumatic life event. It involves upsetting memories, flashbacks, nightmares and difficulties sleeping.
What does anxiety feel like?
It is important to recognise the early symptoms of anxiety and address things before they lead to a full-blown panic attack. Anxiety is not a disease in and of itself, but more a collection of symptoms which alert us to disharmony in the body.
Here are some common signs and symptoms
- Heart racing or a ‘rushy’ sensation in the body
- ‘Butterflies’ in the stomach
- Shortness of breath or heavy pressure on the chest
- Tightness in the throat, neck and/or shoulders
- Spontaneous sweating
- Feelings of fear, dread and/or panic
- Overthinking, negative thoughts, excessive worry
- Disturbed sleep
Triggers for anxiety range widely as well. Know your triggers and seek help in addressing them.Common triggers we hear about are:
- Social situations (social anxiety)
- Worrying about health
- Work stress
- Financial stress
- Relationship stresses
The list could go on forever and sometimes anxiety can hit us out of the blue for no apparent reason!
How Chinese Medicine sees anxiety
In Chinese Medicine, the mind, body, and spirit are seen as a unified whole. Physical and emotional experiences are connected and impact one another.
When an experience is not processed adequately by the body or there is an energetic imbalance it can lead to a disturbance of Shen. Shen roughly translates as ‘spirit’ and encompases conscious thought, insight, emotions and memory. It resides in the Heart energetic and receives influences from all other aspects of our system. When imbalances arise in the body, particularly in the Liver, Spleen, and Kidney energetics, they can affect the Heart Shen and manifest as anxiety. By addressing these imbalances, Chinese medicine aims to restore harmony and reduce anxiety symptoms.
One common example of this we see frequently in clinic is when someone is frequently rushing from job to job and does not prioritise the time to eat adequately. This weakens the Spleen Qi (digestive energy) causing digestive disorders and leaves your Heart Shen weak and unsettled. It also means we rely on our Kidney Qi (adrenal energy) to get through the day causing further depletion and disruption to the Heart Shen.
This can manifest as palpitations, shortness of breath, overwhelm and a desire to hold your hands over your heart. In this case, we would recommend eating regular, protein rich foods with lots of cinnamon, dates and ginger and use grounding, calming acupoints in treatment. Our Spirit Nourishing Healing Herbs is a lovely blend for this type of imbalance.
Another way anxiety can also arise is when the Liver Qi becomes stuck. If our energy is not flowing freely, perhaps due to lack of proper exercise or from being in a situation where you feel controlled or held back, it can build up, leading to tension and heat being generated (a bit like an engine running with its wheels stuck in the tracks). This heat can rise up and agitate the heart manifesting as oppression in the chest and irritability intermingled with anxiety. In this case we would recommend regular movement and soothing herbs such as peppermint, chrysanthemum or bupleurum and use gentle moving acupoints to calm the nervous system. Our Harmonising Tea is an excellent choice for this type of imbalance.
Treatment – We are here to help!
As you can see there are many different causes of energetic imbalance which can lead to anxiety. They are often multifaceted and it can take time to unpick, which is why we ask so many questions! It helps us to get a clear picture of the nature of your anxiety. We look at how your system works and the patterns of disharmony that need to be addressed with acupuncture, herbal medicine and /or lifestyle and dietary changes. In Chinese medicine we always treat the individual and not the disease. We will work to tailor a treatment plan to your needs. There are no set point formulas, the treatment really is based on the individual.
Our goal is to use all the wisdom and tools we have available to us to empower you and allow your body to heal itself.
Manuel therapies such as acupuncture, cupping, moxa and massage can all be used to bring the body back into balance. Acupuncture is excellent for moving stuck energy and can very quickly settle and calm. Certain special points can affect our constitutional energy and act as conduits for connecting us to our deep source energy and can help with finding our place in the world. In Chinese medicine there is always the potential for healing and change no matter how protracted a condition may seem.
Herbal medicines are often prescribed and are very useful in treating anxiety. Interestingly, some herbs that are used for wound healing are also used for treating the spirit. The idea here is that the spirit can be wounded just like the physical body. A couple famous formulas used to treat anxiety are Ban Xia Hou Po Tang (Pinellia and Magnolia Bark Decoction) and An Shen Ding Zhi Wan (Pill to Calm the Spirit and Settle the Will-Power). Both have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine.
Chinese medicine has been practised for thousands of years and can be an effective natural treatment for anxiety.
Lifestyle tips to help you and your loved ones manage anxiety
• Cut out the coffee! Caffeine is not our friend when it comes to anxiety. It causes the blood pressure to rise, constricts blood vessels and increases the excitability of our nervous system.
• Avoid the urge to self-medicate with alcohol. Alcohol is a nervous system depressant so we can feel like it is slowing down our high-speed systems, but this is a temporary band-aid that comes with rebound effects.
• Don’t skip meals and avoid too much refined sugar. A steady blood sugar level is a great way to avoid those highs and lows which can trigger anxiety.
• Get enough sleep! Sometimes this can be hard, but it is important to address as lack of sleep can trigger stress hormones which can exacerbate anxiety.
• Meditate. 10 minutes of meditation a day can be useful in preventing anxiety attacks and is a skill which only gets easier with practice. Here is one I find useful: Calm for Meditation and Sleep.
• Find a breathing technique that can calm you down fast in emergencies. One common goodie is the 4x4x4x4 technique. Breath in for a count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 4, breath out for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4. Repeat until breathing has settled.
• Ground yourself in nature. Even a few minutes spent in the fresh air pulling a few weeds or gazing at a tree can slow your thoughts and calm your spirit.
• Keep calm and get acupuncture!
Here are a couple of articles with research into the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating anxiety.
Chinese medicine has a history of treating anxiety disorders dating back to ancient times. The causes and symptoms of anxiety are different for everyone and we have an arsenal of beautiful herbs as well as some gentle acupuncture techniques to help bring your body back into balance!