Are you a chronic worrier? I treat a lot of people with emotional conditions, so I tend to see a lot of patients in my acupuncture clinic who describe themselves as worriers. They are anxious and worry about almost anything. Often patients will describe their worry as a constant loop of concern that keeps replaying over and over in their mind. Interestingly, these hyper worriers also seem to struggle with digestive problems, too. Most commonly, they will have symptoms such as a low appetite, stomach aches, gas, bloating, loose stools or constipation, and some will complain about gaining a bunch of weight right around their middle.
In Chinese medicine, this pattern of worry is actually very much like indigestion. Let me explain: The universe is made up of a series of patterns that repeat over and over again. For example, the protons, neutrons, and electrons that spin around the nucleus of an atom are similar to the planets in our solar system that spin around the sun.
Along this line, one of the fundamental principals of Chinese medicine is that patterns in our bodies are mirrored by patterns in nature. For example, when you get sick, often your symptoms are like bad weather. You might be hot with a fever, depleted and cold, phlegmmy and damp, dizzy with internal wind, or you may actually retain water. All of these health woes are also descriptions of weather patterns that are found right outside your door.
What does all this have to do with worrying? Well, your mind is a little bit like your digestion. Think about it–when you eat something, your body breaks down and sorts out what is useful, converts those substances into nutrients, and gets rid of the rest. Similarly, your mind takes in ideas, sorts through those thoughts which are useful, beneficial, and even nourishing, and lets the rest go. However, worrying is pretty much like indigestion, in that ideas that you should have either digested or dropped keep repeating over and over, like that tuna sandwich you ate for lunch but are still tasting at dinnertime.
Furthermore, if you’re a champion worrier, chances are your digestion is a little funky, too. It has been said that your gut is your second brain, and if you’re stressed, fretting, upset, or angry, it also upsets your digestion. Essentially, the fight or flight response associated with strong emotions or stress shuts down your digestion so you can take care of that which is seemingly more important–what feels threatening to you. When you calm down; if you calm down, your digestion will kick back in.
So, what if you’re a chronic worrier? Is there anything you can do to improve the digestive aspect of your mind? Possibly. Here are a few ideas:
-Understand that the future has the ability to unfold in an infinite number of ways, grasshopper. Those things that you constantly worry about are only one or two outcomes in an endless number of possibilities. Okay–I know that worry isn’t necessarily rational, but try to remember that what you’re worrying about is rarely what actually happens.
-Meditate when your mind is running out of control. Get quiet, close your eyes, and concentrate on each breath, the number one, or a calming word like…uh calm. It may take some time to be able to turn your mind away from those worrying thoughts, but even a few minutes of meditation can help soothe an upset mind.
-Visualize yourself in a calm and nourishing place. Relax, close your eyes, and fill in the details of where you are. Try to tap into not only the visual details, but also the sounds, smells, and sensations of the place. I know, we all make fun of “going to our happy place”, but understand, if you visualize yourself in a setting, your mind and body reap the same benefits as if you were actually in that setting.
-Try thought stopping. This is a technique in which you slowly replace bits of that worry loop that’s running in your brain with calming thoughts. Here’s how: before you start, decide on a positive word or phrase that you will use to replace worrying thoughts when they occur. For example, let’s use “calm”. When you find your mind spinning out of control and worrying, you will need to do three things: 1) say Stop! either out loud or in your mind; 2) engage one or more senses in that stopping process (for example, snapping your fingers, snapping a rubber band on your wrist, or tapping your knee); and 3) either say or think the word “calm” as a substitute for your worrying thoughts.
With a little bit of time and a little practice, you can slowly regain the digestive health of your mind. The first step is to understand that your worry isn’t feeding your mind or soul in any way.