What if your anxiety is not in your head, but in your body? What if there was a completely different way to understand anxiety, not as a psychological problem but a physical and energetic one? What if there was a completely different way to treat anxiety, besides pharmaceutical medications and talk therapy? Well, there is…and it’s been used for this purpose for thousands of years.
Chinese medicine, which includes but is not limited to acupuncture, herbal medicine, bodywork, dietary counseling, and qigong, has long known the importance of emotional health and worked to support it. In the Yellow Emperor’s Classic, one of the ancient Chinese medical texts, it is written, “When the essence and spirit are secure inside, there will be no disease.” The ancient physicians of this medicine saw that when the emotions were disturbed, it was much more challenging to maintain physical health. They also saw that emotional wellbeing depended significantly on a sound physical state. So they developed modalities, like acupuncture, that support physical and emotional health simultaneously. Thousands of years later, Chinese medicine still offers an effective approach to understanding and treating anxiety that is non-suppressive, body-based, and truly holistic.
What is Anxiety?
The American Psychological Association (APA) characterizes anxiety as “feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” The APA goes on to list the following symptoms of anxiety:
• Recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns
• Rapid heartbeat
These are all symptoms of what is called parasympathetic excess, when the nervous system enters its inherent danger response state….but in the absence of any threat.
At its very root, anxiety represents a disconnection between the internal environment (the body), and the external environment. The nervous system is reacting as if there were imminent danger, when in fact there is not. The body prepares to run or face this phantom threat by pumping extra blood to the extremities, increasing the heart rate, widening the bronchial passages, and stimulating sweating. In people with chronic anxiety, this physical experience is often accompanied by racing or circular thoughts, worry, fear, and/or hopelessness.
Suppressing Anxiety: The Conventional Approach
Anti-anxiety medications offer a strategy of suppression. Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium, slow down the central nervous system by increasing GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter. SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors), another type of medication prescribed for anxiety, hinder the body’s natural function of processing serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with mood. Although certain people benefit from these medications, their long-term use can lead to side effects, dependence, and tolerance (so that larger and larger doses are needed to produce the same result). The danger of overdose is also a consideration; not only have prescriptions for benzodiazepines more than tripled in the past 20 years, but over the same time span fatal overdoses have more than quadrupled.
Sometimes temporary relief is lifesaving, as in a case where someone’s anxiety is so bad that they’re considering suicide. But suppression through pharmaceutical medications does not resolve the root cause of anxiety, and therefore should be used with caution and in concert with other, holistic approaches such as counseling, Chinese medicine, and naturopathic medicine. In many cases, natural approaches alone can manage chronic anxiety, as in a recent study which showed that acupuncture increases the body’s endogenous opioid production, curbing the subjective experience of stress.
The Chinese Medicine Approach to Treating Anxiety
The Chinese medicine practitioners of Heart Spring Health specialize in treating anxiety and mental/emotional disorders with acupuncture and herbal medicine. We use a Chinese medicine approach that is holistic and comprehensive:
- It works with the entire person, including the energetic, emotional, and spiritual aspects;
- It works with the all the body systems, including digestion, circulation, respiration, and elimination, not just the nervous system;
- It uses a body-based approach and emphasizes practical anxiety-management tools over heady analysis of past traumas, childhood memories, etc.
Working with the Entire Person
Chinese medicine differs from allopathic medicine in that treatments are individually developed for specific people as opposed to diseases. Whereas the same anxiety disorder in different people will often be treated with the same pharmaceutical prescription, Chinese medicine treatments for anxiety can vary considerably from person to person. Objective diagnostic findings guide treatment, but so do constitution, lifestyle, and the person’s subjective experience of their condition. Energetic and spiritual dimensions also play a part in assessing and treating. Alexandra and the other Portland acupuncture practitioners at Heart Spring Health work collaboratively with other providers to focus on the whole person, not just the symptoms.
Working with all the Body Systems
If you visit a Chinese medicine practitioner for your anxiety, you will be asked about your sleep, digestion, elimination, temperature, thirst, and many other aspects of your health. Anxiety and all other disease patterns are never just isolated to one system of the body. They can manifest in many systems at once, and are best treated by improving function across many systems.
Chinese medicine is a directional medicine, meaning that it classifies diseases and treatment according to direction. Anxiety has an upward and outward movement in the body, and is therefore treated with acupuncture and herbal formulas that encourage downward, inward movement. The sedative medications that mainstream medicine has developed for anxiety also move energy down and in, but in a forceful way. Chinese medicine works to support the body’s own healing response by enhancing the downward, inward physical functions that are inherent to the body, such as digestion and sleep. Acupuncturists help their clients by using acupuncture, herbal formulas, lifestyle counseling, and qigong exercises to increase the restorative efficacy of sleep and digestion, as well as respiration, elimination, and circulation. This counters the upward, outward directionality of anxiety, thereby grounding and securing the body’s life force.
Using a Body-based Approach
Anxiety represents a fundamental disconnection between the internal environment (the body), and the external environment. The body behaves as if reacting to danger, but there is no actual threat. Re-establishing this connection is a necessary step to resolving anxiety. The most effective way to do this is through the body itself. In Chinese medicine, qigong, breathing exercises, and visualizations are used to re-awaken the senses and establish a felt sense of physicality. When the senses are receptive and clear, they can better process incoming information and keep the internal environment of the body in sync with the external environment.
Anxiety, in addition to having an upward and outward direction, is also mobile, light, and active. The body by nature is dense, heavy, and less prone to movement. The more we are aware of our bodies, the more we can get out of our heads and disengage the worry, rumination, and fear that accompany anxiety and often worsen symptoms. Acupuncture offers a doorway to embodied experience, which can then be further cultivated with movement and breath exercises, and appropriate lifestyle choices.
Relief is Within Arm’s Reach with Chinese Medicine
Both ancient wisdom and modern research support the use of acupuncture for managing anxiety. When used in concert with other Chinese medicine modalities, the change can be profound. If you suffer from anxiety or are frequently stressed, consider making an appointment with a Chinese medicine practitioner.
Alexandra Ricketts, LAc, is a Chinese medicine practitioner.