This is a three-part series highlighting various lifestyle, foods and self-care tips, and TCM patterns that can be utilized to to heal from the inside out
Part one – The Basics: Daily Practices and Lifestyle tips
TCM is very holistic in its approach – everything from how we feel and think, to what we eat and how we live, and even our genetics is taken into the equation. So in order to heal, we need to look at all those aspects as well.
Anxiety is a normal human condition that most people will experience in their life, and is often to some degree, a normal response to stress (butterflies in your stomach before a big meeting or having a difficult talk with someone…or before a first date or job interview and can often help people to prepare for uncertain events). But when it repeatedly interferes with daily life, becomes irrational, excessive or prolonged or out of proportion with the cause, that it’s a problem. Recent studies show that up to 1 in 5 people suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. That’s a lot of us!
Anxiety can include depression, racing thoughts, excessive worry, insomnia and panic, just to name a few symptoms. All of these are a sign of an Imbalance in the body.
The body is like an ecosystem in TCM – everything from diet, lifestyle, genetics, relationships and even our external environment has an impact on our health and wellbeing. So when we work on healing anxiety, we want to approach it from all angles – emotional, environmental, diet and lifestyle. Making changes in all areas, even small ones, can have a big impact over time
Often signs of adrenal fatigue or burnout can be part of the anxiety pattern that we see. We’d call the systems Yin or Yang in TCM, and although they encompass so much more, we can look to understand them a bit more by linking them with our Nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system (which is our fight or flight response) is linked with the more active or yang side. Or Parasympathetic nervous system is linked with the yin side. This is where we rest, digest, recover, heal and restore our bodies.
Our body can only be in the sympathetic or the parasympathetic state at any given time – it can’t be in both. That means you’re either in survival mode, or you are healing mode. You cannot deal with an emergency and repair tissue and recover from a busy day at the same time!
We engage our parasympathetic (or build our yin) in calm relaxing times: down time, time in nature, calming activities like gentle yoga, a bath, and good quality deep sleep.
In general there are some tips that can help one recover from a deep and holistic place. Practiced regularly, these can actually make a big difference. In part 2 and 3 of this series, we’ll dive in deeper to the Chinese Medicine Patterns and look at some acupressure and mindfulness tips that can help target anxiety patterns.
General tips for all types:
Schedule in downtime – so often in our modern culture we get in go go go mode and don’t stop. There’s always somewhere to be or something to do and we rarely take the time to stop, drop into our body and breath. OR, if we do take time off, it’s often plunked in front of the tv watching a movie. Downtime with no external stimulation is essential (fast paced movies, loud music, news etc., can actually stimulate us more and make us more anxious!). Being discerning with your time and choose calming, gentle and relaxing activities: think bath, gentle yoga, reflective reading or, just sitting staring at the wall for a few minutes to allow yourself to arrive back into this moment, letting the day settle and allowing yourself to process and just BE.
Meditation/breath work –Breath can either stimulate us or make us calmer. Short shallow inhales are common when someone is anxious. By simply making your breath deeper (think breathing into your low belly) and making your breaths longer, you can help calm your nervous system down. Sometimes it’s not possible to breath deeper so another great trick I recommend a lot is to make your exhale longer than inhale (i.e. breath in for 3 counts and out for 6). We tend to only breath like this when we’re relaxed so it’s a sneaky way to tell your body it’s relaxed.
Slow down exercise – Engage in slower movement exercises (yin yoga, gentle walking, swimming) instead of hardcore, overly vigorous ones that can engage that stressed state. Again this helps to calm our nervous system down and engage that healing restorative state.
Get adequate sleep – it is essential. Sleep is when we recharge and restore our system. Try to get to bed early, particularly if you’re one of those people who gets a ‘second wind’ after 10pm and then doesn’t end up going to bed until 12 or 1 or later. That second wind is a sign our adrenal glans have kicked in and given us an extra hit of energy… but it’s our reserved energy. Just think of it as going into your reserved emergency fund to buy a really cheap sweater. It’s really not worth it. If you keep doing that, you’ll be in overdraft before you know it, and not have any reserves for when you really need it!
Unplug and disconnect -try to get off all electronic devices by 8pm. This includes email checking, news, TV, surfing the web etc.. It might seem like just a harmless check of the work emails, or a cruise through Facebook, but often what that does is engage our busy active mind, often stirring up unpleasant feelings – fear, inadequacy, stress around building a ‘to do’ list for the next day, or just a simple stimulation. We should be disengaging with all activities that potentially elicit these responses when preparing for bed.
Laugh – seriously. Laughter can help switch up our stress hormones and sends a flood of those feel good hormones through our body. I will often give people a prescription to laugh. Find a funny movie, go to a comedy show, spend time with people that make you laugh. It can feel like the last thing that you want to do (almost like getting yourself to the gym when you don’t feel like it), but if you seek it out it can really help to shift things over time.
Express yourself - feel what you feel. No one enjoys an uncomfortable emotion, and so often we have an underlying belief that certain emotions are “good” or “bad”, so naturally we want to run or suppress undesirable or unpleasant feelings.
As a wise counselor told me years ago, "feelings aren’t good or bad, they just ARE". ALL emotions have a place – anger is a boundary, grief needs to come to heal the wounds of the heart, fear keeps us in check before leaping into something dangerous – but it is the over expression or under expression of emotions where imbalance lies. By honoring our feelings, and letting them arise instead of diminishing them, we allow things to move through us and give our whole self, our whole being ‘warts and all’ permission to be here. We are all complex beings with hopes, fears, irritations and wounds. Learning to acknowledge feelings, or recognize old wounds or traumas can be incredibly challenging, but it is by allowing that we are able to experience the full spectrum of emotion, and feeling to be present in life. This recognition also helps disperse overwhelming feelings and balance us out. Anxiety and depression are ways our body will manifest unexpressed or acknowledged feelings.
Seek help – if you’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious on a regular basis. If your depression and/or anxiety are interfering with your everyday life and with your relationships, seek out support from a qualified practitioner. A mindfulness based therapist or counselor, a Chinese Medicine practitioner or acupuncturist, etc., can help you to identify areas that need attention.
Things built up over time from unresolved feelings, past traumas, continual pressure without break, challenging relationships and unrealistic demands put on one self can lead to an imbalance resulting in anxiety and depression over time. Finding a qualified psychotherapist, counselor or group to help work on the mental-emotional side can be key to helping find balance and equanimity again. I find that it is the combination of emotional work, lifestyle shifts and diet changes that can be the magical combination leading to healing.
The following are things that should be avoided on a regular basis as they tend to make anxiety worse and contribute to the imbalance:
Stimulants such as coffee, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, loud music (think turning off music in car) or intense, stressful, scary or upsetting movies or TV all engage our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system, and can send our body into survival mode which can make anxiety much worse.
Sugar causes blood sugar imbalances can greatly affect mood and also depletes the body of essential vitamins (B’s) and nutrients which affect the nervous system and also suppresses the immune system for hours after eaten
Caffeine greatly affects anxiety. It stimulates our sympathetic nervous system (our fight of flight system) to release cortisol and adrenaline which is what gives us the boost in energy. However it’s not from the coffee, it’s from us, from our reserved energy (the stuff we need if a real emergency was to really come up). And as much as Monday morning (or Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday morning) might seem like an emergency, it really isn’t. I look at is as dipping into your savings account for take out food every day– it’s not really worth it and if if it’s done again and again over time we get into debt aka: burned out. In TCM we say it depletes the Yin system and adds heat to the body. Over time this can lead to things like insomnia, hot flashes or night sweats, palpitations and irritability. Not a lot of fun!
Processed foods lack essential nutrients that we need to heal, rebuild our tissues and nourish our brain. They are often full of sugar, excessive salt and unhealthy fats – all of which can contribute to sugar imbalances which directly affect our mood and anxiety levels.
Over stimulation, aka that go go go without rest quality of modern western life as discussed above can greatly contribute to an anxious state and being in overdrive constantly. Busyness, loud music, stressful or upsetting news coverage or television, busy noisy environments all stress our system and require energy from us.
For most people life doesn’t allow them the opportunity to fully step away and live in a completely calm and zen environment all the time, but simple things like turning off the radio in the car, avoiding watching the news or reading stimulating, upsetting or even very exciting things before bed or when you’re already in an anxious state can be really helpful in calming our nerves.
Even things like facebook or social media where there is a propensity to go into compare mode can be a trigger, and upsetting for many. Anything where, we ‘compare our insides to someone else’s outsides’ (as social media has us do), it can cause upset and contribute to anxiety and depression. I’ve prescribed a media fast (both social and regular news and media) to patients quite often. Just so they can step away and notice how these seemingly benign or insignificant things (checking facebook while standing in line for coffee), can actually have a significant impact on one’s mental state. Try changing patterns for a week or two and notice how you feel. Many of my patients notice a big shift.
Limit screen time, especially when it comes to violent aggressive or upsetting movies or shows (things that engage the sympathetic NS - heart racing/pounding/scared response) or spending too much time in front of the computer or any kind of flickering screen can be depleting and not allow our body to slip into that calm, healing, restorative state. Try to stick to the old fashioned book leading up to bed time. If you often have trouble sleeping, avoid checking emails or anything work related when you don’t have to. Making specific times to check email throughout the day and avoiding the constant checking (as is so easy to do with smart phones and technology) can avoid that constant hit of overwhelm or never ending list things to be done.