The Naturopathic Approach to Anxiety
by Dr. Olisa Mak, ND
From a very young age, my life was controlled, not by my mom, my dad, or any particular person, but my own anxiety. It controlled, what I thought, what I did, but whenever I looked for it, it was hidden. The only sign of my anxiety - my short, uneven nails that my mom would say were ugly, and unsightly. And like every daughter, I hate it when my mom is right. For almost my whole life, I have been an impulsive nail biter but the trigger? I had no idea. My sister had been a nail biter as well but in her late teens, she stopped. And it was just me in the family - the nail biter. As a child, it was only my family who ever commented on it, but as an adult, it became something I felt the need to hide. “Oh, I broke my nail, I can’t go for a manicure” became a common line. I am not sure how many people noticed my “unsightly” nail length and to not be rude, just didn’t ask about it.
A total of 3 million people or 11.6% of all adults in Canada report they have had a mood and/or anxiety disorder.
According to the Canadian 2014 Survey on Living with Chronic Disease, an estimated 3 million Canadians or 11.6% of all adults reported they had a mood and/or anxiety disorder. More than 27% of these adults felt that their life and been affected “quite a bit” or “extremely” in the last 12 months - where their basic activities and their ability to work became a challenge.
Are you hiding your anxiety?
As a result of my own struggles with anxiety, I am especially passionate about helping people with anxiety. I understand how it feels to be controlled by this chronic anxiety. I understand how it can leave you feeling helpless and frustrated at the same time. I understand the feeling of wanting to be free from all the restrictions that this chronic anxiety imposes on you.
When treating anxiety, It’s important to understand the underlying cause. Although anxiety is often rooted in mental-emotional stresses, anxiety can be a symptom of a bigger problem, for example an overactive thyroid or even blood sugar issues Proper testing to rule out more serious causes of anxiety is necessary. Symptomatic relief is also important and people should be equipped with something that they can use to deal with acute anxiety. This allows individuals to return to doing basic activities and work as soon as possible.
Naturopathic medicine is especially effective at helping those suffering from anxiety. With such a wide range of skill sets, naturopaths can create an individualized treatment plan to address the often multifactorial cause of one’s anxiety. The patient’s short-term and long-term goals should be addressed, as well as the person’s own preferences.
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), organs of the same name as in western medicine have very different functions. For example, in Chinese medicine, the kidneys are responsible birth, growth, reproduction and development as well as urination and bone marrow production.
From a TCM perspective, there are various underlying causes of anxiety such as an imbalance in the heart and spleen. To successfully treat anxiety with acupuncture, it’s important to look at the whole person and all the symptoms they experience, even those unrelated to the anxiety. Nonetheless, there are some points that are indispensable when treating anxiety with acupuncture.
Constitutional homeopathy, homeopathy that takes into account a person’s whole picture can often be useful in treating anxiety. To properly prescribe a homeopathic for someone with anxiety, it’s important to look at what distinguishes one person’s anxiety from another person’s anxiety. What makes that case of anxiety unique and peculiar? For example, for anxiety around health, agaricus would be a homeopathic remedy to look into. Whereas argentum nitricum is best for people who are anxious when they are late for something, or while anticipating an engagement or a test.
Although often controversial, homeopathy is widely practiced in European countries such as Germany, France and Ireland In fact, in 1998, homeopathy was the most frequently used form of alternative medicine in five out of 14 countries surveyed in Europe. In France, 70% of physicians consider homeopathy effective and homeopathy is taught in multiple medical schools across the country. While many people are still skeptical about homeopathy, the number of people who get results from homeopathy is increasing.
Herbs are often my go-to treatment method for anxiety. They can be used in combination to address both acute symptoms of anxiety that might keep someone from engaging in basic activities as well as long-term goals of treatment. Some of my favourite herbs for treating anxiety include Withania somnifera (Ashwaganda), Avena sativa (Oats), Passiflora incarnata (Passionflower) and Matricaria recutita (Chamomile) which is also great for the digestive system. To ensure that an herb is not harmful and being used properly, make sure to consult someone well-trained in the medical properties of herbs, as there are different ways of preparing an herb, yielding different physiological effects on the body.
From the moment that we are born, we begin interpreting the world around us. We judge and interpret other’s behaviours and actions and subconsciously determine whether or not our actions are accepted by those around us. We internalize these interpretations into messages that we construct a self with. For example, “If I cry, my mom will hold me” or “If I cry, I will be ignored.” Who must I be to survive in this world? We modify our behaviours, censor ourselves, build barriers around ourselves, in order to fit ourselves within this range of what’s accepted in society. We do all of this in order to feel safe, accepted and to belong, an innate survival mechanism.
For example, one of my most prominent memories as a young child was an interaction between my mom and I. I remember asking my mother to help me cut my fingernails because they were too long. She said she was too busy. From this interaction, I received the message that I am not worthy of being taken care of, I must take care of myself or else I won’t survive. I’ve always remembered this particular memory but it never made much sense to me because I have always felt my mother’s love but as a child, it’s not so easy to understand the meaning behind certain interactions or situations. As an adult, this message manifests itself as anxiety from asking others for help because this is a sign of weakness. By finally understanding this childhood memory, I was able to more easily identify triggers to my anxiety and therefore more easily calm my inner voice and insecurities. I no longer let my inner child control my behaviour. As an adult, I no longer rely on others to survive and those internalized messages no longer have a place.
To unravel the messages that have been internalized into our subconscious but still somehow have a hold on us, counselling is crucial to treating anxiety. In understanding the underlying cause of one’s anxiety, it’s important to ask questions.
Through counselling, I support, guide and facilitate a person’s exploration of what holds them back and where their fears come from. I work with people to take small yet safe steps out of their comfort zone. People become more connected with their mind, their thoughts, and emotions. This ultimately helps people to identify and harness their strengths more easily, and to calm down their insecurities or inner voice. People become a new and better version of themselves.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Mindfulness is crucial to understanding the underlying cause of one’s anxiety. Although meditating can often be a daunting task, it’s really quite simple. For a great introduction to meditation watch this short video https://vimeo.com/131682712.
Being mindful encourages people to connect with thoughts going through their minds, and to eventually control thoughts. Anxiety for many can be a manifestation of negative thoughts and insecurities that they are trying to suppress. Commit to meditation everyday, whether it be one minute a day, five minutes a day, or 10 minutes a day. Sit in a quiet place, with your back straight and eyes closed and just notice the feeling of your breathe coming in and going out. When you notice your brain becoming distracted, just redirect your attention to your breathe coming in and going out again. That’s all it takes.
Meditation can be an uncomfortable exercise for many because people don’t want to hear the negative thoughts in their minds and don’t want to sit with their insecurities. What’s unfamiliar is scary. By connecting with those insecurities and negative thoughts, you’re taking control and power away from them and back to yourself. Once you start taking the time to notice what’s going on in your mind and body, you’ll start noticing the voice of a more confident self and a voice that’s protecting you, and holding you back, the voice of that child who just wants to survive.
“This doesn’t require some giant investment. I don’t care how busy you are. You have 5-10 minutes to give this a shot. I guarantee you this will make a big difference.” - from meditation 101
In addition to the treatment methods above, there are numerous other treatment methods that should be a part of a treatment plan for anxiety. These include exercise, stress management and dietary changes. Supplements may be recommended and Craniosacral therapy, and Bowen therapy may be considered as well. It is also important to consider individual triggers such as caffeine, alcohol, and medications.
Treating anxiety can be especially challenging and difficult because it requires a patient’s openness about what they are trying to hide most about ourselves. It requires vulnerability. As a healthcare provider, I am dedicated to creating a safe, supportive, non-judgmental place for people to connect with their thoughts, emotions and ultimately, their anxiety. I meet people where they’re at. I understand that unraveling the underlying cause of the anxiety is part of a process, a journey that it cannot be rushed.