Ancient Wisdom for Modern Anxiety: Using TCM to Find Calm
“Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.”
—Arthur Somers Roche
Over 30% of adult Americans are diagnosed with some type of anxiety disorder each year in the United States. The rest of us experience anxiety on some level because we are human. You might not call the feeling you have anxiety, but if you worry, are nervous, or are feeling uneasy, these feelings are classified as anxious.
It’s completely normal to have mild feelings of insecurity or to feel tense and unsettled. However, if you are experiencing these feelings daily they can be disruptive to your best living. If these feelings become extreme, they may prevent you from being productive and interacting with others.
The good news? There is help available without taking prescription drugs which simply mask the symptoms. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) recognizes that it’s normal to experience all emotions, whether positive or negative. It’s simply a part of life. The mind-body is meant to handle small amounts of fear, worry, grief, stress, anger, and even joy. However, if any emotion is felt too often or at disproportionate levels, it can throw the body’s systems off balance and lead to disease manifestation. This is also why Chinese medicine excels at alleviating anxiety because not all anxiety presents the same, so the therapeutic approaches are modified according to your unique physiology and symptoms.
The most common treatment for moderate to severe anxiety in Western medicine is the use of antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication. The downside is that the side effects can be just as disruptive as the anxiety itself– and in some cases can actually cause anxiety. Traditional Chinese medicine doesn’t believe that every person can be handed the same pill and feel relief. Its therapeutic approaches are myriad and rely on in-depth differential diagnosis to understand how the body is functioning, why the anxiety is occurring, which systems of the body are affected, and which of the many available treatment options will be most beneficial.
In this blog post, we will explain anxiety from a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, and how therapies such as acupuncture and Chinese herbs can be used to quell that current of anxiety.
Anxiety from a Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective
Traditional Chinese medicine looks at the body as one system with many parts, working harmoniously together. If one system gets clogged, breaks, or needs greasing, the whole system will function poorly or not at all.
In TCM, anxiety is mainly correlated with the Heart organ, which also “houses” the mind. A healthy heart equals a healthy mind and spirit. High levels of anxiety over prolonged periods can weaken or burden the Heart and mind. Since every system is connected, if the Heart begins to weaken it will pull from other individual systems in order to keep the whole system running. On the other hand, a weakness in one of the other systems can also pull from, or burden, the Heart system causing anxiety. In order to find the root cause and identify which system is causing the main disruption, we look at different patterns of symptoms along with tongue and pulse diagnosis. Anxiety can present in many different forms depending on the root cause. Here are some of the more common patterns with anxiety in traditional Chinese medicine.
Heart Yin or Blood Deficiency Pattern
This pattern directly comes from the Heart and commonly includes heart palpitations, irritability, frustration, insomnia, hot flushes, dizziness, and a dry tongue and often occurs after long periods of intense anxiety or stress.
Heart Fire Pattern
This is a pattern where the Heart is directly imbalanced from short and extreme episodes of anxiety. It often shows as heart palpitations, irritability, frustrations, disrupted sleep, bitter taste in the mouth, thirst and dry mouth, mouth ulcers, overthinking and worries.
Liver Qi Stagnation
The Liver controls circulation of Qi through the entire body so when its Qi is stuck or stagnated, it cannot properly nourish the heart. This pattern is characterized by a sense of frustration, irritability, and restlessness. The patient may feel a sense of tightness in the chest, ribs, or throat, frequent sighing, and may experience digestive issues such as bloating or constipation.
Heart-Spleen Disharmony/ Spleen Qi Deficiency
This pattern is associated with worry and overthinking. It is common with people who don’t follow regular eating patterns, excessively worry, eat too many cold, raw foods, have a poor diet, or have had major blood loss. The patient may experience palpitations or a racing heart, and may have trouble sleeping due to racing thoughts. There may also be fatigue, indigestion, bloating, loss of appetite, pale complexion, breathlessness, and fatigue.
Kidney Yin Deficiency
The Kidney and Heart have a special connection where the Kidney grounds and holds the Heart energy down and keeps the Heart cool. This pattern is characterized by a sense of exhaustion, both physical and mental (think burning the candle at both ends for too long and adrenal fatigue). The person may feel a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose, and may experience dizziness or tinnitus. There may also be insomnia, low back or knee pain or weakness, hot flashes, and night sweats.
How does acupuncture work for anxiety?
As you can see, anxiety can present in many different ways with a variety of accompanying symptoms. Acupuncture is one tool we can use to help correct imbalances by regulating the flow of energy and restoring harmony between the organ systems. The needles used in acupuncture stimulate the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, which can help to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. Acupuncture may also stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's "rest and digest" response, and reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the "fight or flight" response.
Acupuncture Points for Anxiety
Here are a few examples of the many acupuncture points that can be used to treat anxiety. Acupressure can be done on these points by pressing with medium/firm pressure for 30-60 seconds. Acupressure can be done to relieve anxiety and also on a daily basis to help prevent anxiety.