Monday, June 18, 2012


We can all feel a little anxious from time to time - before an exam, or a job interview, an important meeting, before a first date, and so on. For some people however, these anxious feelings can continue over extended periods of time, and sometimes with no real or valid reason. When the feeling of anxiety is affecting your ‘normal daily routine’, then this is an indication that there is something wrong which needs to be addressed.

According to Western models of mental health, there are a number of anxiety disorders:
  • generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • panic disorder
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • social anxiety disorder
  • specific phobias
Whilst all of these have their own idiosyncratic nature, at the heart of it is some irrational and excessive sense of fear, worry, and dread.

According to Beyond Blue, these disorders are the most common, with an estimated one in seven Australians experiencing an anxiety disorder in any given year, with one in six women being affected, and one in ten men.

Chronic feelings of anxiety - termed generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) - is said to affect 5% of Australians. It can also occur alongside other mental health disorders, such as depression, addiction, or other anxiety disorders. As well as the uncontrollable worry about everyday concerns, sufferers of GAD can also find themselves with a number of physiological signs and symptoms, such as muscle tension, abnormal sweating, nausea, cold/clammy hands, difficulty in swallowing, edginess/jumpiness, gastrointestinal discomfort (such as diarrhoea), irritability, tiredness and insomnia.

Panic disorders on the other hand a little more dramatic, with the tell-tale ‘panic attacks’ - sudden and acute onset of intense fear or discomfort which lasts for up to ten minutes, accompanied by symptoms such as the feeling of imminent danger or doom, the strong desire to flee, heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, hot flushes, a possible shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered, a choking sensation, possible chest pain, a feeling of nausea or abdominal discomfort, dizziness, depersonalisation, a fear of losing control, or a fear of dying. Diagnosis of this disorder is based on the frequency and intensity of the attacks, and also monitoring for subsequent and continued sense of anxiety about further attacks, or fear of the triggers of such attacks. It is thought that about 3% of Australians suffer from this disorder.    

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are attacks of anxiety that are directly linked to traumatic events, such as assaults, major accidents, natural disasters, neglect, experiencing unpleasant medical procedures, and so on. As well as the usual signs of anxiety, sufferers from this disorder will also experience flashbacks, nightmares, a loss of interest in what was once enjoyable, and memories of the event that continue to intrude on normal, everyday thoughts.
There is no exact equivalent in Chinese Medicine for anxiety, however there were some disease states which closely resemble this, known as “fear and palpitations”, “panic throbbing”, and “agitation”. Involving a state of fear, worry, and anxiety, these disease states share many of the same physical and emotional symptoms described above.

The aetiology of anxiety from a Chinese Medicine perspective is usually some form of stress, which can involves any of the emotions. Emotional stress can lead to the stagnation of Qi , which can also generate internal heat which will deplete the yin-natured aspects of our body, which agitates the Mind. Sometimes, there is also what is referred to as ‘constitutional’ factors, which include the development of patterns of behaviour and coping skills within families. Diet also plays its part, with irregular eating and the excessive consumption of Damp-producing foods - such as processed foods, preservatives, and additives being the worst - causing sluggish flows of Qi in the channels, leading to obstruction the Mind. Haemorrhages and other heavy losses of blood can also lead to the patterns of deficiency which affect the Heart, the organ-system which plays a vital role in our emotional health. Finally, extreme taxation and fatigue caused by working long hours without adequate rest and recuperation can deplete our vital energies, which also throws the internal organ-systems out of balance, leading to the patterns of disharmony which are found in cases of anxiety.

In Chinese Medicine, the Heart organ-system is said to be the “seat of all emotions”, and so any psychological/emotional disorder is linked with pathologies involving this organ. In anxiety disorders - especially in panic disorders - this connection is obvious given the associated symptoms of palpitations, chest fullness, and so on. However, all the organ-systems and channels of the the body are involved in the treatments of this disorder.

Being primarily an energetic medicine, Acupuncture is particularly beneficial in treating individuals with these disorders, as emotions - like Qi - is fundamentally an energic quality. By palpating points along the channels, assessing the pulse, and asking about any other symptoms, Acupuncturists are able to harmonise the channel system, the network which interconnects all parts of the body. Systematic reviews of the research into Acupuncture treatment for some anxiety disorders showed some positive results

Herbal medicine and nutritional health also plays its part, as we are able to bring our internal landscape into balance, harmonising the organ-systems which lead to patterns such as Qi-stagnation, or depleted energies of the individual organs.

Meditation and mindful exercises such as Yoga or Taichi are also very useful to help to learn to relax the body as well as the mind, and providing the time and the space to unwind and alleviate stress.
Something that helps with all types of anxiety is the ability to talk with someone you trust and share how you feel about issues. Speaking with a trusted practitioner - a Chinese Medicine practitioner, your GP, a counsellor, or a psychologist - can also be of great benefit. Practitioners can help in ways beyond the mere physiological, and can also help refer you onto services - such as
Beyond Blue, Lifeline, and Men's Helpline - that exist to help you further.

Anxiety isn’t something to be afraid of, nor ashamed of. But it is something that will affect our daily lives if we let it, and can lead to further complications.

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