What is anxiety?
It is a just a concept unless you can define what actually makes you anxious and what are the predominant emotions that express this anxiety. In Chinese medicine anxiety is about fear, fear of the future, of unpredictable circumstances that seem out of control. Anxiety can thus result in actual physical symptoms like increased breathing, hyperventilation, chest pain, rapid thoughts, nervousness, profuse sweating, etc. In other words: All the whole marks of panic. We panic when fear overcomes us. In Chinese medicine Anxiety is also related to the work of the Kidneys, bladder and sphincters. You might have noticed that when people fall into major panic or fear they can lose control of their sphincters and urinate or defecate on them (specially kids.)
Yet, anxiety is also a survival mechanism we have been endowed with. Evolutionary biology required the development and adaptation to anxiety; because, without anxiety to protect us – to release the adrenaline and epinephrine necessary to act fast and efficiently – may not be able to survive. So the problem is not about feeling a little anxious as we undertake a difficult situation or a condition in the future. The problem is when this condition overpowers our senses and becomes a source of panic and illness. Yet, if you are human, you must experience anxiety and this is the paradox.
Calm Spirit herbal formula is a very effective formula to reduce and control anxiety in a natural way. As an aid in the process of overcoming this conditions without drugs it provides good results. Acupuncture, Tai Chi, Mindfulness and Emotic practices are also very effective in overcoming anxiety and panic disorders. Next month we will look at how specifically mindfulness and Emotic practice can help us overcome anxiety and panic disorders.
I treat anxiety a lot. The four most asked questions by my patients as we work together are:
- Why do I have anxiety? First we need to define and bring into insight the feelings and perceptions that specifically you experience with what we are calling anxiety. Otherwise, anxiety is just a word. There can be multiple sources, stress and traumatic imbalances; learned paradigms of living, assumed perceptions, physiological reasons, energy imbalances, combination of factor, phobias, drug and alcohol use, etc. just to name a few. People often are also working with a psychotherapist and have gained better insight into themselves. I also suggest they read and learned about how the neurological system works so that they can understand better how we are wired. Please read my full blog to gain some insight into this matter.
- How those acupuncture help anxiety? By sedating and rebalancing the nervous and energy systems thus improving brain wave functioning and calming the mind.
- How long will it take to feel better? Most people have tremendous relief from the outset. But it normally takes a number of sessions (5-10) to really improve long term. Improvement is also related to lifestyle and thinking habits among other factors.
- What else can I do to overcome this? Aside from getting more educated about how the brain works in relation to anxiety states (see Sifre Blog), keeping a journal to try to identify triggers as well as to write through the insight can be important. So is also mindfulness meditation practice mindfulness philosophy (see Have a Better Mental Day at the Qi store) and Tai Chi. The homeopathic remedy sold OTC Rescue Remedy can also be very helpful. Psychotherapy can improve your insight, especially if the anxiety is associated with an existential problem. But acupuncture will be the fastest at reducing physiological symptoms without drugs.
For now let’s look at a story of us, early humans, in order to understand the anxiety paradox better.
The Human brain is divided into different components. For example, left and right hemispheres. It can also be divided into frontal, pre-frontal or occipital cortex. As far as we know, these brain parts have different functions. For instance in general the left hemisphere is related to analytical functions while the right hemisphere is in charge of more creative functions. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body –meaning the cranial and peripheral nerves that provide function to this side — while the right hemisphere does the same for the left side. As you will see most brain functions can be categorized in terms of Yin Yang theory — thus the word I have coined: NeuroyinYangnology.
Within the hemispheres we have the different brain cortexes: the specialized systems within each hemisphere. You can also, as you will see, sub-categorized these into their own Yin Yang manifestations. Bottom line: we have a Reptilian Brain (Yang) also called the “Old” brain– composed of the Brain stem, medulla and limbic system; and we have Cerebrum or Cerebral Cortex (Yin) also called the “New” brain (composed of the two brain hemispheres in themselves containing the Frontal, Prefrontal and Parietal Cortex).
The Cerebrum (the new brain) reflects some of the Yin aspects of mental functioning. These include the higher, executive, consciousness and super consciousness abilities of the being including the relaxation pathways that mediate feeling like “one with the universe”. These originate in autonomic nervous system processes in the Brain Stem.
The Reptilian brain on the other hand is the Yang component of the central nervous system mechanism. It controls “survival” functions and directs the body through sympathetic (reactivity) pathways to react when neurological sensors detect a dangerous situation (whether real or imagined). This encapsulates what are called the fight or flight response (a Yang function of the old Reptilian brain) V.S. the relaxation response (a Yin function of the New Brain).
It has been shown by neuro-scientific experiments of meditators and athletes that when such subjects reach the deep state of relaxation and focus that has come to be known as the “zone”, the cerebral cortex (the Yin-new brain) is able to turn off electrical activity of the deep brain structures in the Reptilian (old) brain and sedate the pre-frontal cortex control reactions. This in turn mediates deep relaxation-focused processes which are associated with feelings of inner peace that the mystics talked about. Whereas what is experienced in heightened states of alert –mediated by the so called Reptilian Brain – are the feelings that we relate to anxiety, reactivity and stress.
Embryologic Evolution of the Brain:
So we humans already come into existence wired to increase the capacity for survival. It is an inherent aspect of being. If anyone has any doubt of the paramount importance placed by evolutionary nature on survival and control mechanisms just look at how we evolve embriologically. Evolutionary biology clearly places a tremendous importance on the development of the Reptilian (Yang) brain, before any other more complex mechanisms like organs.
The Central Nervous System (CNS= Brain Stem, spinal cord and the rudimentary expression of what will become a fully developed Autonomic Nervous System ANS) and the heart appear in the first three weeks of embryonic/fetal growth. In other words, biological evolution is programmed to make sure that the survival mechanism that we are calling the Yang Brain or the Reptilian brain are in place as quick as possible.
Where is your Neanderthal? In the back of your head lives your friend and foe: Anxiety.
Why is this? Simply because the main organizational structure of early humans is not based on reaching high levels of consciousness but simply on trying to stay alive. To be able to cry for the nipple while still not being fully awake to consciousness. To be able to cry, scream and fuss so that your care takers can know you are uncomfortable or hungry or cold or scared. To be able to express in some way that something is wrong, that you need help: that you need to survive. In such a state a fully developed cerebral cortex is useless. Reaching high levels of consciousness is a “learned” process that utilizes very sophisticated wiring of cerebral cortex structures (Yin Brain). Whereas the old Yang brain reactions are not learned. They are automatic. At the early stage of neurological evolution thinking is not as necessary as surviving and expressing distress in a very reptilian form is fundamental to survival. It is the expression of a primal anxiety state. It is sort of like kicking and screaming. The Yang (heightened, expressive, violent, aggressive) mechanisms of the brain are favored over the Yin (high consciousness, intelligence, etc…) mechanisms of expression.
It is important to remember that for over 200,000 years, hominids –early humans – not homosapiens – dominated the population of the planet. During that time, men and women were concerned by one thing only: physical annihilation or survival. As hunter-gatherers we needed to protect ourselves often in very inhospitable environment in an endless search for food, clothe and appropriate shelter.
Some of this food was gathered, but little vital protein sustenance –especially in winter- could be gathered. Rather, this type of food needed to be hunted by every capable member of the clan. This is a very dangerous and extremely energy consuming situation. Moreover, the clan needed to protect itself not just from animals but from members of other clans who were in competition for the same food, shelter and clothing sources. This is a tremendously stressful, high anxiety situation. At any moment you could be killed, either by an accident, animals or by other humans.
Our brains needed to be almost in a constant state of stress alert. That is, when the Fight or Flight response – the Yang mechanisms necessary for survival – kicked in the thrust of the anxiety response. Language was not as important. Poetry writing was not as important. Knowing God? What exactly would be the use? It was most important to kill and survive.
Obviously, this Reptilian Yang brain structures continued being of great importance through the ages, even as we became more sophisticated beings. For anyone who has had to undertake a dangerous mission this is familiar. The sense of fear for what needs to be done provides the body with the chemical structure necessary to get the human being a higher chance of coming out alive through the mission.
As human evolution through the ages became more sophisticated with agriculture, economic production and governmental organization, clans became villages, villages became towns, towns became cities, cities organized as city-states and states became countries organized under governments which provided protections to its citizens through laws, policing and organized armies. Rather than have the clan protect the children and elderly, we had now professional police structures, and so on and so forth. Humans became able to raise animals and to farm them and sell them in the markets, along with other goods and services. Gone by-and-large was the need to hunt and gather. Now, production systems allowed humans to make money or something that could be exchanged or bartered, so that it became possible to pay for food, shelter, clothe, safety, etc.
The anxieties inherent in the survival mechanism seemingly had been transformed. And it is anxiety, which is nothing else than a rational Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) response to the sense of a threat to survival, what lead the march on a morning when you and your friends decided to go out to hunt a mastodon. With progress the reptilian Yang brain was now a second thought, put aside for the more sophisticated cerebral cortex structures that could lead to human progress and transformation through mathematics, economics, physics, medicine, law, government, technology and spirituality. And as the human race has surpassed the agricultural, industrial and technological revolutions, it has arrived at the age of post-modern advanced development, the digital revolution.
The fossil record shows that over one hundred fifty thousand years ago we roamed this great planet as Neanderthals – hunters and gatherers — with no real use for evolved states of consciousness associated with advanced cerebral cortex structures. Why? Because we didn’t need to understand God, or art or math. We needed to survive. Due to the prevalent conditions of man and nature at that time, we needed to live with a very short fuse all the time and by design. Only the strong in the clan survived more than thirty years. This was not a time conducive to human dialogue because we didn’t even have language. To fight or flight, injure or kill, was a very sane and appropriate solution under these circumstances. The brain was totally wired to the reptilian mechanisms of anxiety and reactivity necessary to mount a major attack and hope to survive.
Anxiety in the 21 Century
So what happened to the Yang-Reptilian brain? Nothing. The reptilian brain does not know the story I just told you. It is wired by evolutionary biology to be there. What I mean is that the mechanisms of reactivity to fear and panic are still working as it was over 100,000 years ago. No one came and said “Opps, we do not need this reptile brain any more”.
Once we fear and panic about a perceived conditions or future event – what happens in anxiety states — the person experiences a physiological cascade: a negative feedback loop of stress hormones that are released through molecular pathways. Result: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, decreased blood circulation to the organs, increased visual and hearing disturbances, increased release of potentiators to the musculature, blood vessels, etc… These stress hormones once in the blood stream make up quite a powerful cocktail — chatecolamines, cortisols, adrenaline, noreprinephrine. These are powerful chemicals which at the time of battle, hunting, escaping for dear life or saving someone –come very handy.
When fighting or fleeing is the response at hand, this ‘natural’ anxiety and its physiological cascade is a force designed to increase your chances to be saved – your chances of survival. In such a situation no one thinks about calling a psychiatrist to order medications to stop these symptoms. Because these symptoms are what will help save your life or someone else’s and interfering with this natural anxiety would probably cause your demise.
Yet when this same cascade of physiological mechanism ensues as a result of an office situation, argument or fear about what an unknown future may hold, then it can become an anxiety disorder. But it is still the same old Yang reptilian brain doing what is designed to do: scan, perceive and catalogue threats to survival and provide a response to this threats. This response can take different forms: from a full blown pre-emptive counter attack, to a flight and run as fast as you can, paralysis, or just simply play dead.
As you will see our old and trusted friend – the reptilian brain — is still there acting in similar ways as it did for our ancestors way over 100,000 years ago. The problem is that this brain is unable to rationally understand that things have changed. It is unable to logically relate to the explanation that I just discussed. It is still the same “Old” Yang, reptilian brain. And it acts as if the mastodon or the saber tiger is running after you. The difference is that there are no mastodons or saber tigers running after you. There are no hunting or clan wars to undertake in order to make it to the grocery store. There are however the office politics, the family politics, the relationship politics, the friends, the health and the “what is the future going to bring for me”.
 Principles of Anatomy and Physiology: Unit 5 Development and Inheritance