Anxiety is a tricky thing. For some people it seems to come out of nowhere and creep up at unexpected moments. For others, anxiety is predictable and associated with certain events, fears, or situations. Things like driving on the highway, eating in restaurants, and spiders all have the potential to create anxiety.
If you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks, you’re familiar with the symptoms—a racing heart or heart palpitations, chest tightness, numbness and tingling in your hands and feet, feeling light headed, shortness of breath, and the general feeling of fear, or that you might die right now.
There are a number of causes of anxiety. Traumatic events top the list. People who have been exposed to trauma, violence, emotional duress, or threats of any kind know the source of their anxiety. This includes unrelenting stress and worry over a life event or situation that’s not easily resolved.
Unfortunately, many people experience anxiety symptoms and don’t know why, which only makes the anxiety worse. These are the people who think they’re going crazy because they seemingly have no reason to feel anxious. However, it’s important to know that anxiety can be caused by physical problems, such as hormonal imbalances, digestive issues, heart problems, and drug side effects.
Anxiety can run in families. I have found that many of my patients who suffer from anxiety have either a parent or a child who also struggles with anxiety, too. This may be due to genetic makeup or how a particular family copes with stressful life events. Whether anxiety in families is due to nature or nurture, it’s not uncommon that family members will have similar triggers for their anxiety.
When I was growing up, I remember a family friend who struggled with anxiety around water. She had always been paralyzed by the thought of swimming or being in a boat. Her children also suffered from the same fear, and while the children have ultimately learned to swim, it was a long and painful process, because they had to first deal with their anxiety (and their mom’s) of being around the water.
In Chinese medicine, there are three organ systems related to anxiety; the Heart, Spleen, and Kidneys.
The Chinese view anxiety as worry that has gotten out of control. Each organ system is associated with an emotion, and worry is the emotion associated with the Chinese Spleen. The Spleen is also your organ system of digestion. It sifts and sorts what you’ve eaten, takes what is useful, turns it into nutrients to fuel your body, and gets rid of what is not needed. While your Spleen primarily digests foods, it also plays a role in the sifting and sorting of ideas. While the emotion associated with the Spleen is worry, it is essentially the same as not being able to sort through and let go of unnecessary ideas. Worry is a kind of unhealthy rumination, and when it gets out of control, worry becomes anxiety and fear.
While your Spleen is the organ of digestion, your Heart is the Chinese organ of feelings. We intuitively know that the Heart is an emotional organ. We feel things with all our heart, have our heart broken, or thank someone from the bottom of our heart. Your Heart is home to the Shen, or your spirit, according to Chinese theory. Its function is similar to that of your brain in Western biomedicine. As such your Heart is the home to consciousness, memory, emotions, and thinking. Whenever someone suffers from any kind of emotional upset or condition, such as anxiety, the Heart is always involved.
Finally, the Chinese Kidney also plays a role in anxiety in a couple of ways. First, the emotion related to the Kidney is fear, which is the underlying component of anxiety. Secondly, the Kidney is the deepest and most nourishing of our organs. It’s responsible for how well you age, your underlying body constitution, and is the source of all the fundamental substances in your body, such as Yin, Yang, and Essence. Your Kidney is the organ system most damaged by stress and anxiety. The Western condition of adrenal fatigue (from stress, anxiety, overwork, etc.) correlates to a severe Kidney depletion in Chinese medicine.
Chinese medicine and acupuncture can offer a number of strategies to help someone suffering from anxiety. Your practitioner would work by first calming your Shen using acupuncture. This is an effective first line of defense, as research has documented the positive effects that acupuncture has on brain chemistry. It has been found that acupuncture increases the secretion of endorphins in the brain, the feel good substance associated with pain relief and runner’s high. This effect accounts for the relaxing and calming sensation patients feel both during and after their treatments.
A practitioner of Chinese medicine might also address your anxiety by nourishing your Spleen and restoring your Kidney health. Beyond acupuncture, there are a number of safe and effective herbal formulas that can help calm anxiety. Your practitioner can prescribe the combination of herbs that is most appropriate to your individual needs.
Food therapy and lifestyle changes may also be part of your treatment for anxiety. This may include at-home calming strategies, avoiding stimulants such as coffee or tea, dietary changes, and breathing techniques—all of which can be effective in relieving anxiety.