Mental Health Vol. 2: Anxiety, A Tale of Air and Fire
Stress and anxiety are not the same thing. Unlike stress, anxiety does not require an external trigger. Rather, it is the relationship of mind with mind, of self with self that causes pain. To differentiate between the two, I will often ask people:
“If we took you and put you in your favorite place away from the rest of the world, would you feel better?”
If that thought brings on a big sigh of relief and a smile, chances are, the person is experiencing burnout. If the answer is still no, or the idea of not having distractions around makes someone feel even more on edge, the battle might not be between them and the outside world. They may be fighting an internal stressor, and there may not be anything “wrong” that is obvious to an onlooker. This, of course, only adds to the social stigma that mental illness is not “real”.
To take a deeper look at this from a first-person perspective, I would like to introduce Suz, collaborator on this piece. Suz is not only one of my apprentices, but she is an experienced Mental Health Counselor who also manages her own anxiety. She has agreed to share some of her knowledge and insight into this topic with us.
“Anxiety is part of the spectrum of human experience. In my experience it is something that can be relatable and relative. The concern comes when it begins to impact daily functioning and may become crippling and/or debilitating in nature. As stated above, it is helpful to externalize anxiety and think of what our relationship with anxiety is. To be clear person first language is important: you are not your anxiety…you are a person who experiences anxiety. For myself anxiety is synonymous with avoidance, procrastination, overthinking, perfectionism, and codependency to name a few.
I first met anxiety in my early teens, it manifested in excessive worry over a family member in active addiction. In young adulthood, I experienced several traumatic experiences, and in my 20’s I began to channel and focus all my energy into work and achievement to prove to myself I was better than what I’ve been through. I note these experiences because anxiety has many forms it is almost like a chameleon. Behaviorally, there are common themes in the thoughts, feelings, and eventually actions and these only become compounded with multiple experiences. I lovingly named my anxiety…resilience because that is what I needed to address it as to survive I later learned. This is a window into coping with complex trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms. “
Energetically speaking, anxiety is a state of hyperactivity, which is excess tension and/or excess heat. There is bombardment of the psyche with too many things. And it just won’t stop, and it won’t go away, and there is no “talking oneself out of it”, as I have heard some health professional tell patients to do. After a while, with all this clutter, it can seem like there is no room for “us” in us anymore, and it becomes impossible to relax. Despite hyperactivity always being at work, I have found that it can present in two very different ways, depending on the person. It has been an important distinction in my practice, because I use different types of plants depending. By definition, “excess tension” finds itself under the heading of Air (or Wind), whereby “excess heat” has its home in Fire.
Air people are cerebral by nature. They are thinkers, artists, creators and storytellers. They live their lives through the eyes of their minds, and the mind is their safe place. They can often be introverted, but not always. Air reigns over the nervous system in traditional energetics, and excess air shows itself as nervous tension and hyperactive energy. Folks with excess air are prone to anxiety and might experience the following symptoms:
Lack of confidence/timidity
Inability to make decisions/Fear of making the wrong choice
Physical symptoms like skin complaints, GI upset or hypersensitivity syndromes
Reliance on stimulants like coffee/amphetamines to get through the day
Being labelled as a “worry wart”
Along with the tension comes dryness. These folks tend to have “weak” constitutions easily affected by the smallest change in the wind. Consumed by mental chatter, they often forget to eat, drink or nourish their bodies, which only continues the cycle of physical deficiency. Nerves are raw, body is weak, mind is a million miles a minute.
Herbs for Excess Air
The place to start here is with nourishment. Nutritive carbs like squash, beans and root vegetables bring down heat, coat the nerves and feed the brain. They create a solid and strong foundation for all other things. Herbal therapies tend to start in a similar place – to build constitutional strength, we focus first on nourishing, nutritive plants:
These are preferably taken as food or as herbal infusions because the starches and minerals in these plants are primarily water soluble.
We then move on to nervines. Nervines, as their name suggests, work primarily to relax nervous tension. Most nervines are cooling and relaxing, making them appropriate for heat states as well as tense ones. Most of these herbs work best taken daily over long periods of time. Here’s some examples of classic herbal nervines:
Vervain (Blue and White)
Milky Oats (warming)
Many of our best nervine allies also work as hypnotics to promote sleep, which anxious folks desperately need. Nervines that are also hypnotics include lavender, California poppy and passionflower. For that reason, it should be noted that these herbs are a bit sedative in nature and can make people feel sleepy.
Medication Preparation for these plants can be tincture or tea. They can be used as a single herb formula or in conjunction with other plants. For tincture I start with 1 dropper daily and increase up to 3 if needed, but I find it rare that someone requires more than 2. Tea can start with one 8oz cup daily and increase that to 3-4 if needed. Tea drinking as a practice an promote the calming nature of the plants, but keep in mind that not all folks are tea drinkers, so as always, be prepared to meet people where they are. Lastly, some aromatics like lavender do well when inhaled or smelled.
Another category of herbs that works synergistically with nervines are the antispasmodics. They also have a more pronounced effect on cardiovascular tone and pain as well as muscle tension, providing major symptomatic relief during times acute anxiety and panic attacks. Some of our best antispasmodics include:
St. John’s Wort
Like the nervines, some of these can also assist greatly with sleep such as valerian and Kava Kava. Preparation and dosage is similar to that of the nervines, but when being used for panic attacks, the preparation is always tincture and the doses should be bigger: 1-2 droppers every couple hours or as needed. The goal is to reduce physiologic symptoms of panic and relieve tightness in the nerves, heart and muscles.
When anxiety manifests as excess fire, it often looks quite different. Fire folks live in their drive. They are the micromanagers, obsessive organizers, planners and list-makers. In balance this can be great, but in excess, anxiety easily results. They can take on too many burdens or start carrying those of others around them, and often have a hard time setting boundaries. They can also easily become controlling and judgmental, holding themselves and others to unattainable expectations. Fire folks are prone to heat and they risk becoming engulfed in their own flames. This type of anxiety doesn’t stem from worry, but rather from weight. Like Atlas holding up the globe, these folks risk being buried under the weight of their own mental demands, and the stress of living up to their own expectations becomes a full-time job. The anxiety is often only kept at bay with absolute control of the environment and with constant work at “self-improvement”.
When excess fire is present, folks may present with redness in the face and other heat signs such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar and an elevated heart rate. Fire folks tend to be extroverted, but not always. They are often the life of the party, chatty, good natured and loyal. When anxious, however, they have a tendency to lean towards anger and may lash out, especially if something feels out of control. Folks struggling with excess fire are prone to obsessive - compulsive patterns and may struggle with change, especially during transition times.
Herbs for Excess Fire
Our goal is to help folks struggling with this sort of anxiety to find some self-acceptance of their own humanness, and that of those around them. Peace comes through learning to leave oneself alone a little. I want to preface this section by saying that the natural energetic thing to do with excess heat is, of course, to cool it. In fact, most herbal references will say that nervines, since they cool heat, are the best remedy for anxiety rooted in excess fire. However, I have had this approach backfire more than once. When given herbs that sedate or cool right up front, folks in excess fire can often start feeling more stressed, since these herbs can create a feeling of loss of control.
So what’s the plan? Where do we start?
1. Slowly removing heat triggers:
-Decreasing the consumption of hot, spicy foods and beverages
-Ensuring rest days if there is excessive exercise patterns
-Introduce cooling antioxidants such as rose-family berries and other blood colored fruits
-Introduce cooling starches such as burdock, dandelion and root vegetables
2. We work with herbs that promote sleep, if sleep is an issue:
In my experience I have found that people do want to sleep at night, and are more open to “calming” herbs at bedtime. This is usually the best time to first introduce nervines. Hyptonic nervines can be used here, such as California poppy, valerian and passionflower.
3. Encourage Talk Therapy
Fire folks do well with counseling, support groups and fellowship, and will often find that these social, discussion-based therapies feel comfortable and provide a great deal of relief.
4. Redirect Energy, Rewire the Mind
As I mentioned, this type of anxiety does not lend itself well to “excessive relaxation”. Activities like meditation, yoga, bubble baths and reading may not provide relief, since these folks need to be both mentally and physically active to feel secure. Productive energy should never be suppressed, just rerouted. The following sorts of activities not only keep energy moving but help rewire the mind away from judgement and insecurity and towards peaceful acceptance.
Community volunteer work
Family & faith-based engagements
Art, Music & Writing
Service work of all kinds
5. Cooling Mints, Cooling Stimulants & Milky Oats
When we start talking about daily formulas, I always start with herbs that have mixed energetics. They maintain some aspect of warmth or stimulation while at the same time starting to cool an overheated person. I find these herbs to be a good “starter pack” for those with excessive fire who may be opposed to really cold, relaxing herbs up front. I always pick herbs that are not known to be sedating.
*See my previous post on blue vervain for more information on using this plant for excess fire. It is one of our best assets for helping folks remove the weight of expectations.
6. Kava Kava, Nettle & Milky Oats
I love Kava Kava for excess fire because it’s a warm, spicy plant but actually cools the system. Folks with fire love it because it feels stimulating but actually allows them to relax easily and take some weight off. Its fast, strong and doesn’t pull punches, so it feels like home.
Nettle, either as tincture or flower essence, is used energetically for setting boundaries with oneself and with others. I find its cool energetics pairs well with Blue Vervain and Milky Oats for fire folks, and the three together make a great starting formula for anxiety stemming from excess fire. Milky oats should always be used as daily nerve support for any type of anxiety, and I find it well-tolerated by all constitutions.
After the above interventions have had some time to work, cooling nervines can be used. Be prepared for dosages of any herbs to be higher with fiery folks and tea is not always a great starting point. Start with 1 dropper of tincture daily of any herb or formula and be prepared to increase to 3 if needed.
For my part, I wanted to close with some thoughts on bias in mental health, especially when it comes to the use of medications. We all come to the table with different backgrounds, values and sets of experiences. When our goal becomes to help others, however, as much of that bias as possible has to be taken off of that table. We are obligated to meet people where they are, not where we wish they were or where we think they are. This is especially true when it comes to the use of pharmaceuticals for mental health. I have heard many holistic practitioners look down on folks who use SSRIs, Xanax or mood stabilizers, or on the medical professionals that prescribe them. That sort of judgement should not be part of the conversation on mental health and can only hurt folks who are already struggling to keep their heads above water.
Closing Notes from Suz:
“Since anxiety often originates early in life it is important to always screen for a trauma history. As a trauma informed practitioner, this is essential to creating a safe environment and one where an individual can feel empowered to grow and heal. If not in a profession where this is necessary, be mindful that much of the population experiences trauma however, most experience posttraumatic growth and it does not have long lasting effects on all individuals. This is said because anxiety often thrives in silence and shame and it can be isolating. When it should not be. Being a safe, understanding, and accepting person for others you care about is so important.
What does this look like in application for any person? This could be letting the person you care about set the pace for opening up to you. It is honoring the person’s experience as truth, validating their emotions, and encouraging them to identify and express what they are thinking and feeling, this can be therapeutic and destigmatizing. Turning it inward, it is doing your own work. I invite you to do all the above. As someone once said, you cannot pour from an empty cup. For myself I needed to discover and practice self-soothing coping mechanisms, re-establish trust in myself, and cultivate self-confidence and self-worth.
A couple suggestions for creating self-soothing practices is to focus on your five senses, these help you to anchor to the moment and remain present, not tied up in the past or future. A fun and practical exercise may be
1) Identify things for each sense and have them on hand and use them often, they can be in a box or in your immediate environment it is up to you. For example, some of mine are hot showers/baths, my corn bag, stress away oil, my cats, earbuds for instrumental music/nature sounds, favorite playlist, dim light, and tea/coffee.
2) Another note is that you can practice mindfulness in any environment by practicing breathing exercises, this helps to bring your body and mind from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state.
To establish trust:
1) Align your actions with your values, this helps to back up that sense that you are living the life you enjoy.
2) Also consider how to create intimacy first with yourself and then with others. Allow yourself to speak up and assert yourself, good boundaries only come with practice.
3) So as they say, do something each day that scares you just to show yourself that you can in fact do it and it wasn’t so scary after all.
And lastly a word on self-confidence and self-worth:
1) Feel free to engage in the activities that provide you flow, that you feel you are good at and make them part of your everyday routine. For example, one of mine is to dance it out when it gets too serious, it keeps it playful.
2) It is not crazy to repeat affirmations like I am worthy and say it until you believe it.
3) Your environment should include those who want to see you smile and who have your best interest at heart, so if they are not cheerleaders in your growth, rethink their presence.”