The events of today’s world can be traumatic, and even the pace of everyday life can be cause for anxiety.
Who hasn’t experienced it?
All too often we put up with the stresses that cause anxiety while forgetting that we have the power to take actions that can create more peace within. While it can be easy to get caught up in an anxious state, it is important to recognize anxiety for what it is – a feeling that results from one’s biological responses to a perceived threat.
There are many types of anxiety, ranging from occasional circumstantial anxiety and social anxiety to generalized anxiety disorders (GAD), where one feels anxious most of the time (panic attacks and phobias). Anxiety can manifest as insomnia, depression, fatigue, addictions (self-medicating), and can also be a cause of other illnesses– for example, the dysregulation of cortisol (the stress hormone) can lead to insulin resistance and eventually diabetes. Anxiety can also lead to heart disease.
Anxiety from a Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective
From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), anxiety is classified as a disorder of Shan You Si (anxiety and preoccupation) and is believed to affect the Zang organs.
In TCM, the organs are viewed as centers of activity which are separated into yin (Zang) and yang (Fu) zones. In TCM the organs are appreciated for having far-spreading influences beyond anatomical structure.
In fact, each of the Zang organs are associated with a spiritual quality, which is viewed as critical to a person’s health and well-being. The Zang organs include the heart, liver, spleen, lungs, and kidneys; all of them store and preserve Chi (vital energy) and blood, as well as direct the innermost workings of the body- supporting other organs with vital energy and each containing unique spiritual/emotional manifestations.
In one of the most important and ancient texts of Chinese medicine, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, one will find described these spiritual manifestations and qualities of each Zang organ:
The spirit of the heart is known as the Shen, which rules mental and creative functions.
The spirit of the liver, the Hun, rules the nervous system and gives rise to extrasensory perception.
The spirit of the spleen, of Yi, rules logic and reasoning power.
The spirit of the lungs, or Po, rules the animalistic instincts, physical strength, and stamina.
The spirit of the kidneys, the Zhi, rules the will, drive, ambition, and survival instinct.
In all cases of Zang imbalance, the Shen is disturbed. Shen can be roughly translated to our spirit. Thus, in TCM, restoring Shen is often the focus when working on anxiety. In TCM there is a deep belief that if the spirit and will of a person are strong, there is a greater chance of healing.
To protect our hearts and in turn our Shen, it is important to learn how to manage anxiety. Dr. Aviva Romm says, “Learning how to manage anxiety is like learning a new language of the mind. In may take time. But it is learnable, and it is worth the investment in yourself…Life is a precious gift. It is too easy to fritter it away with worry when we can instead learn to live it joyously, with greater ease and comfort. We can’t necessarily change all of the world’s problems – but we can refuse to live as victims.”
If one’s anxiety is mild to moderate, practices to calm the mind and herbal/nutritional support may be all one needs. In cases of more severe anxiety, these practices can also bring relief, while seeking out professional support from an integrative physician or therapist may also be necessary.
Practices to Calm the Anxious Mind
1. Acknowledge your anxiety
Simply being aware of when you are anxious can be the first step to overcoming anxiety. The practice of observing the mind can help one recognize anxiety when it creeps on in.
Pay attention to what happens when you experience anxiety.
What feelings arise in your body? What are your thoughts? Can you identify what triggered these feelings?
From a place of observation, it is possible to reframe your perception and recognize that anxiety is your body’s fight or flight response kicking in. This is where mind-body practices come into play.
2. Mind-Body Practices
Biofeedback is a powerful mind-body practice, which one can use to signal a sense of safety to the body. One basic, yet powerful biofeedback technique is to slow your breathing down when feeling anxious. It can be particularly helpful to lengthen the exhalation of the breath.
Try breathing in for a count of four and out for the count of six. You can also signal relaxation to the body by slowing down your actions, such as eating more slowly, bringing awareness of your feet on the ground, and deliberately focusing on positive thoughts such as, ‘I am safe, I am grounded.”
Developing a daily meditation practice is a good way to train the mind to come back to the present. If you experience more severe anxiety, Dr. Aviva Romm suggests trying Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is a technique that helps change thought patterns to ones that are beneficial.
She also suggests keeping a “worry journal,” in which you set a timer for a few minutes to jot all your worries down. The idea is to get it out of your head and down on paper. In fact, journaling stimulates the left side of your brain which is rational and analytical. There is also mounting evidence that journaling has positive effects on immune system health.
3. Move your Body!
Exercise can help you physically clear your body of the excess neurochemicals and hormones that arise in anxiety. No wonder why it feels so good to walk it off, dance, or run when we’ve got the jitters. Exercise also increases our body’s feel-good hormones.
4. Eat Whole Foods and Maintain Balanced Blood Sugar
Are you aware that highs and lows of blood sugar can be the root cause of anxiety?
Keeping blood sugar balanced is key to informing the brain that the body is safe, otherwise, the same symptoms of anxiety arise. Focus on eating a whole foods diet, with plenty of healthy fats (think omega-3, grass-fed animal products, avocado, olive oil) and quality proteins (eggs, grass-fed meats, legumes).
It is important to eat breakfast and not skip meals. If your blood sugar tends to run low, you may need to snack between meals. Avoid refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and caffeine- all of which can lead to blood sugar drops.
It is also important to identify personal food insensitivities and allergies, as these trigger an autoimmune response which creates inflammation in the body. Inflammation fuels anxiety! There is a plethora of research connecting the relationship between gut health and mental health.
Take the time to observe how you feel after meals. You can also support the health of your microbiome by incorporating fermented foods into your meals- try adding a tablespoon or two of kimchi or sauerkraut to meals.
You can also consider taking a probiotic supplement. Working with a qualified health practitioner can be helpful in assessing your individual needs.
5. Herbs and Supplement Support
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs): Our nervous systems require EFAs for optimal functioning. These can be found in foods such as fish, walnuts and flax seeds. Taking a supplement such as cod liver oil can be particularly helpful to make sure your needs are being met.
Magnesium: This is one of the most common deficiencies. It can lead to heart palpations and anxiety attacks. Dr. Romm recommends 150-600 mg/day of Magnesium citrate or glycinate. She says that it is one of the supplements she recommends most frequently for treating anxiety.
B-Complex: This is another one that Dr. Romm frequently recommends, as the B vitamins are necessary for the breakdown of neurotransmitters released during anxiety.
Bacopa monnieri: Also considered the “Herb of Grace”, Bacopa is a powerful nootropic- meaning that is neuroprotective and neurorestorative. It can help aid in anxiety, as it promotes neurotransmitter balance. For thousands of years, it has been appreciated by Ayurvedic medicine as a Rasayana (a restorative herb that sharpens the mind). Bacopa has been shown to display adaptogenic (balancing) properties- which help the body cope with stress better. Recent studies show that Bacopa can inhibit inflammatory pathways in the brain. The understanding is that it can help limit inflammation in the central nervous system, and therefore can be helpful in the treatment of CNS disorders such as anxiety.
Albizia julibrissin: Known as the “Tree of Happiness,” Albizia is a wonderful Shen tonic. In TCM there is the belief that there is a strong connection between the mind and the heart. Albizia is used to nourish the heart and calm the spirits and has been found helpful in the treatment of depression and anxiety. It is believed that the plant brings both calming and brightness.
Reishi mushroom: Yet another powerful Shen tonic, Reishi is well-regarded for its adaptogenic (balancing) properties. Reishi protects the heart and modulates blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol. Also known as the “Mushroom of Immortality,” there is a growing body of research displaying the anti-aging effects of Reishi. With its ability to calm the nervous system, Reishi has been shown to offer support in reducing insomnia, anxiety, depression, and paranoia.
Remember, while it may take time to learn how to manage your anxiety, it is certainly possible and definitely worth it.
Banish Depression with the Tree of Happiness. NaturalNews. Retrieved from
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Kirar, Vandana, et al. Lingzhi or Reishi Medicinal Mushroom, Ganoderma Lucidum(Agaricomycetes), as a Cardioprotectant in an Oxygen-Deficient Environment. International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms. Retrieved from http://www.dl.begellhouse.com/journals/708ae68d64b17c52,3e829fa15c9a53be,
Nemetchek, M D, et al. (2017) The Ayurvedic Plant Bacopa Monnieri Inhibits Inflammatory Pathways in the Brain. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Retrieved from
Anxiety Disorders and Traditional Chinese Medicine. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.pacificcollege.edu/news/blog/2014/10/04/anxiety-disorders-and-traditional-chinese-medicine
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