Love or hate her, Sarah Wilson’s recent book “First, We Make the Beast Beautiful” has started lots of important conversations about anxiety. A recent survey found that 40% of women have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression. My experience in clinic mirrors this finding – so many of us are struggling with feeling overwhelmed and anxious.
Anxiety is a normal response to a stressful life event. It’s part of our early warning system, readying us to respond to danger, to fight or flee. Usually the anxious response dissipates once the danger passes and we return to our usual resting state.
Anxiety that is prolonged and intense, or that happens without an obvious stressor can become debilitating, stopping you from work, study or socializing. You may also be experiencing physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, insomnia and difficulty concentrating. If you’re disproportionately anxious, or if you feel like your levels of stress are making it difficult to enjoy life, you may need extra support.
One of the great strengths of Chinese medicine is its recognition of the deep connection between the mind and the body. Unbalanced emotions can lead to disturbances in the flow of our energy that manifest as physical symptoms. Our autonomic nervous system has two main modes – sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). When we are anxious, the balance between these two states is disrupted. The vagus nerve is the most important nerve in the parasympathetic division. Increasing the tone or activity of the vagus nerve can decrease anxiety and promote rest and relaxation.
Acupuncture in both traditional points and ear points have been shown to increase activity of the vagus nerve.
As well as being difficult in itself, constant stress or anxiety can lead to other health problems. When we are stressed body diverts energy, blood and resources away from day to day activities like digestion, reproduction and maintaining our immune system. Over time, that diversion can contribute to poor immunity, infertility, hormone imbalance and gut dysfunction. Even seemingly unrelated symptoms like difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), a persistent cough, gastroparesis and irritable bowel syndrome may be related to anxiety.
If your anxiety is becoming problematic there are other things you can do to start feeling better.
Abdominal breathing has been shown to decrease sympathetic activity, increase vagal tone and promote relaxation.
A systematic review of 36 random controlled trials found that meditation techniques were helpful in reducing the symptoms of anxiety.
If, like me, you find regular meditation difficult, see this blog post on my favourite meditation apps.
Back to that book, I found it a compelling, insightful and comforting read and I recommend it to anyone struggling to manage their own or a loved one’s anxiety. If you’re experiencing anxiety, panic attacks or stress Chinese medicine can restore balance to your nervous system and promote calm and relaxation.