Anxiety can be a very puzzling condition. It can creep up on you at the worst of times, seemingly unrelated to what’s going on in the moment. It defies efforts to control it, and its very existence is cause for more anxiety.
According to the National Institutes of Health, about 40 million Americans, or 18 percent of the population suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. The symptoms of anxiety are broad, and include chest tightness, feeling short of breath, numbness and tingling of your hands or feet, heart palpitations, a racing heart, a general feeling of doom, or the certain knowledge that your very life is in danger.
While it’s true that for many people anxiety can seem random, for others, there are predictable triggers. People who have been victims of or exposed to traumatic events, emotional abuse, or threats understand the source of their anxiety. Unfortunately, a large percentage of people don’t know why they’re anxious, which can make the situation worse. For them, their anxiety can produce feelings of powerlessness and the fear that they may be going crazy.
It’s important to know that there can be physiological causes of anxiety, which may include digestive problems, hormonal imbalances, heart issues, overuse of caffeine, and side effects from prescription medications. In addition, there is evidence that anxiety runs in families. Researchers have suggested that familial anxiety may be genetic in nature, but also may be due to similar brain chemistry, shared life events, and even personality similarities.
In Chinese medicine, anxiety may be related to a number of different patterns, and is generally tied to one (or more) of the following organ systems:
The Spleen. Your Chinese Spleen is responsible for the process of digestion. It takes food in, digests it, takes what it needs to nourish you, and gets rid of the rest. Essentially, your Spleen is responsible for producing your body’s energy and blood. A common sign that your Spleen isn’t working well is that your digestion is off, causing things like heartburn, bloating, gas, stomach pain, constipation, or loose stools.
Each organ system has an emotional aspect, and the emotion related to the Spleen is worry. If you think of ideas as food for thought, worry is a bit like indigestion of the mind. You take in ideas, keep the ones that serve you well, and let go of those that aren’t useful to you. Worry is rumination of the mind; you continue to chew over ideas—mostly those that are fearful or aren’t useful—and are unable to let them go. Over time and out of control, this is the stuff of anxiety.
The Heart. You know rationally that your Heart is mainly responsible for circulating your blood, but in Chinese medicine, your Heart is also the keeper of your thoughts, emotions, memories, and spirit. You know intuitively that your Heart is associated with feelings, as you can have a broken heart, know something deep in your heart, and thank someone from the bottom of your heart.
The emotion most closely tied to your Heart is joy. So, knowing that your Heart is closely tied with your emotional health in general, anxiety or any other strong emotional upsets are considered to be related to the Heart system, in that joyfulness is not thriving. In most cases, we would call anxiety malnourishment of the Heart, and this malnourishment often comes from the Spleen. Remember, the Spleen produces energy and blood from the nutrients it has digested. When your digestion is off, or if you’re not getting enough of the right foods, your Spleen can’t make the blood necessary to nourish your other organs, most notably your Heart.
The Kidney. Your Chinese Kidney system is the deepest of all the organ systems. It is home to your body’s vital substances of Yin, Yang, and Essence—the stuff of your body constitution. Passed down to you from your parents, your body constitution is responsible for how you will grow, how you will mature, your fertility, and even how you will age. Your body constitution is greatly impacted by your lifestyle and how well you take care of yourself. Essentially, you can be dealt a bad hand constitutionally, but live a long life through good diet and self-care. And on the flip side, you could have a very strong constitution, but squander it away by working too hard, partying too much, and not eating well.
Your Kidney is the organ system most profoundly damaged by stress and its partner, anxiety. From a Western perspective, long-term, chronic stress, impacts your adrenals, which sit right above your Kidneys. Stress over a long time causes the adrenals to work overtime, which fires up anxiety. A Western diagnosis of adrenal fatigue that comes from long-term stress, overwork, and anxiety is considered to be a severe Kidney depletion in terms of Chinese medicine.
The good news is that if you or someone you know struggles with anxiety, Chinese medicine can help in a number of ways. Your practitioner would begin by determining the source of your anxiety and what organ systems are involved. While it’s important to treat the source of your anxiety, it’s also vital to work to calm your symptoms. Acupuncture can be incredibly effective in calming anxiety, as it affects chemicals in your brain in a good way. Research has found that acupuncture increases the production and circulation of feel-good endorphins, which can produce a calming and relaxing sensation, both during and after your treatment.
In addition to acupuncture, your practitioner may prescribe an herbal formula to augment your treatment. They may also discuss food choices based on Chinese dietary therapy. In addition, lifestyle changes may also be a part of your treatment, and may involve stress relief, strategies for calming, and breathing techniques. I have found EFT, Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as Tapping to be an excellent method to lower anxiety. For EFT, Acupuncture points are lightly tapped with fingertips while speaking release phrases — a great technique folks can perform between acupuncture sessions.
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