Anxiety can manifest in a multitude of different symptoms. These include tense muscles and headaches, feeling light-headed or dizzy, a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat, sweating, raised blood pressure, insomnia and panic attacks.
In addition to these physical symptoms, it causes negative thoughts and feelings which can feel overwhelming – feeling tense, nervous and on edge, having a sense of dread, feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down, feeling restless – or even just feeling numb.
Social anxiety is likely to abound as we emerge from lockdown. If you feel worried about adapting back into social situations and suddenly being surrounded by people, Chinese wisdom has a uniquely practical approach which may help.
Chinese medicine works brilliantly for anxiety treatment because it recognises that powerful interplay between physical and mental health; that the two are, in fact, inseparable. Emotional upset disrupts our internal environment, leading to the physical symptoms of anxiety. There is no physical and mental health in Chinese medicine, we view body and mind as a whole. And it has a very strong self-help game.
Self-help for social anxiety
All emotions are good for us. What is vitally important is to express those emotions, whatever they are. Think about the last time you had a really good cry. Like one of those wailing, snot-pouring, ugly blotchy face bawl situations. Didn’t you feel better afterwards? That’s because you dealt with the upset. When people say, ‘come on, get it all out’ – that comes from the Chinese philosophy that emotion is better out than in.
Repressing how you feel, keeping it all in, is seen as hugely damaging in Chinese medicine. Because unexpressed or negative emotions get stuck in your body and stop the proper balance and flow of energy and blood. And stagnation in Chinese medicine is what leads to illness. There’s a tonne of Western research out there to back up the view that suppressed emotional negativity results in physical disease.
In Chinese wisdom, every organ has its role to play. We’re talking not only what they are responsible for physically – but also emotionally. So yes, the job of the heart is to pump blood around the body, but it’s also in charge of joy and anxiety. In fact, the heart has a special importance to the Chinese, because it’s seen as the ruler of the organs. It also houses our ‘Shen’, which many people refer to as the spirit.
Here’s an interesting example of the interplay between emotional and physical. In Chinese medicine, anxiety can cause ‘heat’ in the heart, which may manifest as urinary tract infections or symptoms. This is because to protect the heart, heat is transmitted to the small intestine. The small intestine sends fluids to the bladder, where the heat manifests as an urgent need to urinate, painful urination and dark urine.
If we support and nourish our Heart Qi, this can actually alleviate the symptoms of anxiety.
If that moment when the room shrinks and your heart starts racing is an all too familiar situation, start with a simple breathing exercise to alleviate the symptoms. Slow, deliberate breathing is the first defence against stress and will immediately help you feel less anxious. And it is something you can do discreetly in social situations to feel better and process those negative thoughts. One of the hormones released when we are anxious is noradrenaline – produced by an area in the brain called Locus Coeruleus, which is sensitive to how much carbon dioxide is in our blood. We can regulate this by deep breathing – a powerful self-help technique.
The vagus nerve is the most important element of the parasympathetic nervous system (the one that helps calms you down when you are stressed). The vagus nerve ends your body’s fight-or-flight response once a stress has passed.
The vagus nerve acts as the mind-body connection, and it is the cabling behind your heart’s emotions and gut instincts. You cannot control this part of the nervous system on demand, but you can indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve with your breath. Doing this restores the parasympathetic nervous system, calms the mind and heart rate, deeply oxygenates the blood and overrides any negative emotions and mental fug.
Other treatments if you are feeling anxious
Take a Nap
If there are emotional or energetic issues with the heart, your tiredness may well hit between 11am-1pm. During these hours, it is best to relax if you are able, take a siesta and enjoy lunch. The heart dislikes heat (emotional & physical), so try to avoid caffeine, stress, intense exercise, or anything that raises your blood pressure. None of this is critical to your health, but if you can be mindful when planning your daily routine, it genuinely will help!
7-11pm is also a key time to protect your heart energies, so use this time to relax if you can. Ideally avoid eating after 9pm.
Eat fermented foods
A recent study in Psychiatry Research reported that eating fermented foods can help reduce social anxiety symptoms. While this strengthens the case for the mind-gut connection, Chinese medicine offers people a simpler explanation.
In Chinese medicine, each of the five major tastes – sweet, sour, salty, spicy, and bitter — correspond energetically to a different internal organ. Each of our organs regulates a particular emotion. When an organ’s energy is out of balance, that corresponding emotion can dominate your mood patterns and cause physical symptoms.
Whilst the heart is the primary organ associated with feeling anxious in Chinese medicine, the liver plays a large supporting role in how you feel. The liver energetically processes stress and emotional distress. So, strengthening the liver is a practical treatment that helps people deal with social situations and supports your mental health. The taste of sour, found in most fermented foods, stimulates liver function.
Improve your Health with Qigong
The Chinese practice of Qigong combines breath, meditation and movement. It has been proven in studies to be super effective at alleviating anxiety and indeed improving mental health in general.