Anxiety is described in many different ways.
It can feel exhausting, baffling, frightening, and frustrating—all at the same time. For many people, symptoms sneak up suddenly and out of the blue. For others, it can be a predictable reaction to specific situations or events, such as insects, tight spaces, or social situations. That said, anyone who struggles with anxiety would agree that it’s unwelcome, uncomfortable, and they would do whatever it takes to make it go away.
While the symptoms of anxiety vary from person to person, anxiety can produce heart palpitations, numbness or tingling in the extremities, a racing heart, chest tightness, light-headedness, shortness of breath, a general feeling of fear, and the sensation of immediate danger. Many people both with and without anxiety have ended up in the emergency room convinced that they were having a heart attack, only to be diagnosed with acute anxiety or a panic attack.
There are many underlying causes of anxiety.
Topping the list is trauma of almost any kind. People who have experienced traumatic events, such as an accident, physical or emotional abuse, violence, or threats to their safety clearly understand the source of their anxiety. Chronic stress and worry over an unsettling event or an uncontrollable situation that’s not easily resolved can also lead to anxiety.
Anxiety also tends to run in families. I have found that many people who have sought out acupuncture for their symptoms have a parent or other family member who also struggles with anxiety.
Perhaps one of the worst aspects of anxiety is the unpredictable nature of the symptoms. Being exposed to a trigger may bring on a full-blown panic attack one day and no symptoms the next. Some patients describe the fear of their anxiety as worse than the actual symptoms. Simply not knowing when or why it will show up can cause some sufferers to think they’re going crazy.
It’s important to understand that while anxiety is viewed as an emotional condition, it is often caused by physical problems. Hormonal imbalances (e.g. thyroid, adrenal), digestive issues, heart problems, and drug side effects all can be an underlying cause of anxiety.
opens in a new windowAnxiety and Chinese Medicine
In understanding anxiety through the lens of the Five Elements in Chinese medicine, practitioners look toward the function of three internal organs—the Heart (Fire), Spleen (Earth), and Kidneys (Water). In this medicine, the internal organs have a physical presence, but are also considered to be symbolic and emotional systems of functioning. Each of your organ systems has a specific emotion tied to it that plays a role in the health and balance of the organ, as well as your overall health.
We intuitively know that the Heart is an organ of feeling and emotion. You can have a broken heart, thank someone from the bottom of your heart, or dislike someone who is heartless. In Chinese medicine, your Heart system is the keeper of Shen, which is closest to the Western idea of Spirit. With similar functions to your brain, your Chinese Heart is responsible for emotions, memory, thought, and consciousness. Whenever there is emotional upset or imbalance, your Heart is always involved to some extent.
The specific emotion related to a balanced Heart is joy. However, when your heart is out of balance, this fire element tends to speed up to the point where joyfulness can become mania or depletion can cause anxiety.
While your Chinese Heart is the organ system of feelings, your Spleen is considered the system of digestion. And while we think of digestion as the processing of foods, we also digest ideas in a similar way. The emotion related to your Spleen is worry—considered to be a kind of rumination, or “chewing” on the same idea over and over, until that worry blossoms into anxiety.
A third organ system, your Chinese Kidney is also related to anxiety in a couple of ways. Most notably is that the emotion associated with your Kidneys is deep-seated fear, which is the embodiment of anxiety. Secondly, your Kidney system is considered to be the most nourishing overall. It’s responsible for your body constitution, how healthfully you grow and age, and is the foundation of your body’s essential substances, such as Yin, Yang, Essence, Qi, and Blood. As such, your Kidneys are the organ system that can be the most damaged by unrelenting stress, worry, and anxiety. From a Western perspective, your adrenal glands are located above your Kidneys, and conditions such as adrenal fatigue, overworking, and stress all negatively affect your body’s stress hormones and adrenal glands.
Acupuncture can help
The good news is that many people suffering from anxiety have been helped by acupuncture and Chinese medicine. Depending on your symptoms and overall health, your practitioner would develop a treatment plan that is specific to your unique situation. Important strategies involve calming your Shen, most likely using acupuncture, which has been documented to affect brain chemistry in a calming way. Your practitioner would also assess the health of your Spleen and overall digestion, as well as determine the condition of your Kidney. In my clinic, I use the essential oil treatment opens in a new windowAAT in conjunction with needles to affect deeper relaxation and allow deeper healing. Beyond acupuncture, you may be prescribed an herbal formula specific to your case, as well as dietary recommendations, and other lifestyle changes to help calm your anxiety.
Many people struggle with anxiety, suffering with symptoms that run the gamut from mild and intermittent to chronic full-blown panic attacks. If you are experiencing anxiety, check out acupuncture—it may be the solution that you have been looking for.