What causes anxiety?
According to TCM, anxiety indicates a problem with the zang organs – the heart, lungs, spleen, liver, or kidneys. These organs manufacture and store qi, blood and body fluid, and also serve to regulate our emotions. In Chinese philosophy, emotions are physiological phenomena, not psychological ones. The spleen is associated with feelings of worry, the kidneys with fear, the lungs with grief and anxiety, and so on.
When it comes to anxiety, imbalances in the heart and kidneys are your likeliest suspects. The heart is home to the shen, or spirit, which is disturbed by emotional imbalances. In addition, the pericardium, the membrane that encloses the heart, is known in TCM as the “Heart Protector,” and it serves to stabilize emotions. A problem with the Heart Protector can lead to anxiety and heart palpitations.
Your kidneys supply qi (vital energy) and yin and yang throughout the body, so a kidney deficiency can cause impairments in other parts of the body. Things like poor sleep, alcohol, drugs and eating too much cold and raw food can tax the kidneys, causing stress and anxiety. Signs of a kidney imbalance include hearing loss, ringing in the ears, and brittle hair.
The last option is a blood deficiency. Blood nourishes all of our organs and tissues, sustaining moisture and soothing the consciousness. Lack of blood or poor blood circulation can cause anxiety as well as paleness, excessive daydreams, forgetfulness, dry skin and numbness in the hands and feet.
Dietary suggestions for calmer nerves
Stimulants like refined sugar and caffeine can cause excessive liver heat, leading to feelings of irritation and anxiety. To relieve stress, try a cup of soothing peppermint tea to get your liver qi flowing freely.
Eat bitter foods
Practitioners of TCM believe that different flavors (sweet, salty, bitter, spicy and so on) act on different organs. Bitter foods primarily nourish the heart. Try to include foods such as bitter gourds, mustard leaf, kale and watercress in your diet.
In particular, wheat berries (fu xiao mai) are particularly effective at strengthening the heart and soothing the shen. You can mix the grains with white rice to make a congee, or roast them and simmer them in boiling water to make a tea.
Rose tea is another great option, as it enriches blood and qi, soothing the nerves and improving one’s mood. Add dried rose hips or rose petals to boiling water, steep for 20 minutes and drink. Feel free to add spices or honey to taste. Some chopped, fresh ginger helps to nourish heart qi.
To put out excess fire in the heart and liver, try tree peony bark (mu dan pi). This bitter herb removes heat and cools the blood. You can make a simple concoction by cooking it in boiling water, adding other spices or herbs if you wish.
Other tips for managing anxiety
Gentle aerobic exercise: Gentle exercise such as walking, biking and jogging can help to get qi and blood flowing to all parts of your body, nourishing the organs and tissues. Note that vigorous exercise is not recommended in TCM, as it puts excessive stress on your body and depletes qi.
Meditate: Meditation will help you clear your head, lower your heart rate, reduce negative emotions and calm the shen. Setting aside just a few minutes a day to clear your head and focus on deep breathing can help dispel anxiety. If you have trouble sitting still, you can try more active forms of meditation such as yoga, qigong and tai chi.