Note that while this article focuses on anxiety, worry and fear, most of the insights and treatments can be of use for any sort of mental stress or general neuroses, where the mind is in an agitated state.
Traditional & Contemporary Ayurvedic Viewpoint (with citations from Charaka Samhita)
Ayurveda, which takes a comprehensive view of an individual’s physical and mental conditions, associates anxiety disorder symptoms to aggravated Prana Vayu (the governing aspect of Vata Dosha) which symptoms like worry, anxiety and depression. When aggravated, Prana Vayu weakens the nervous system and triggers mental imbalance. It also weakens the neurohormonal system and nerve impulses.
Ayurvedic treatment of anxiety disorder focuses first on correcting aggravated Prana Vayu (and Vata Dosha more generally) then secondly increasing Sattva Guna in the mind, which envisages a stable and peaceful mind through self-realization and self-control.
Charaka (the oldest and almost comprehensive Ayurvedic treatise) defines fear, anxiety, anger, greed, confusion, vanity, envy and misconceptions as the main examples of “wrong use of the mind”. This is interesting. It suggests that anxiety etc. is something that we do rather than something that simply happens to us. If this is so, we ought to be able to stop doing anxiety. As a starting point to any discussion about psychology, this is a wonderfully liberating concept.
According to Charaka, there is, however, one physical cause of anxiety, that of aggravated Vata Dosha:
“The corporeal vata, when aggravated, afflicts the body with various types of diseases and affects the strength, complexion, happiness and the span of life. It perturbs the mind; affects all the sense faculties; destroys, deforms or detains the embryo for long. It gives rise to fear, anxiety, bewilderment, humility and delirium. It takes away the life.”
And yet in the same text (Charaka Samhita), anxiety is listed as a cause for the aggravation of Vata:
“Vata gets aggravated by the over indulgence in the intake of ununctuous, light and cold things, over administration of emesis, purgation, cleansing type of enema, errhines, physical exercise, suppression of the natural urges, fasting, assault, sexual indulgence, anxiety, grief, blood letting in excess, vigil during the night and by maintaining irregular posture.”
In the above statements, notice that Ayurveda was well aware of the psychosomatic / somatopsychic mechanisms of disease. We are reminded that although appearing as separate or different, mind and body and soul are one.
Anxiety and other mental neurosis can lead to depletion of your body tissues and overall vitality, eventually contributing towards emaciation:
“The following are the causes of the diminution of Dhatus: Physical exercise, fasting, anxiety, intake of ununctuous food and food in small quantity or habitual intake of food having one taste only, exposure to the wind and sun, fear, grief, intake of ununctuous drinks, vigil (less of sleep), excessive elimination of phlegm, blood, semen and other excreta, old age and period of Adana (hot season) and demoniac seizures.”
“Sukra (semen) and Ojas (Rasa or plasma) get diminished because of excessive emaciation as a result of jealousy, anxiety, fear, apprehension, anger, grief, excessive indulgence in sex, fasting and intake of less nourishing food. All these factors lead to the diminution of the unctuousness of the body and aggravation of Vata. This aggravated Vata causes aggravation of the remaining two Doshas, Pitta and Kapha.
Anxiety is also a common cause of insomnia:
“Elimination of doshas from the body and head through purgation and emesis, fear, anxiety, anger, smoke, physical exercise, blood letting, fast, uncomfortable bed, the predominance of sattva and suppression of tamas go a long way towards overcoming the sleep in excess. The above-mentioned factors along with overwork, old age, diseases, especially these due to the vitiation of vata like colic pain, etc. are known to cause sleeplessness even in normal individuals. Some are insomniac even by nature.”
On the contrary “Freedom from anxiety about any work, intake of nourishing diet and adequate sleep makes the man fatty like a boar.”
Anxiety (and other mental afflictions) are often listed as causal factors (and symptoms of onset) of numerous diseases (especially those of Vata Dosha). The creation of digestive born toxins is no exception:
“In addition to the intake of food in excess, the following factors also affect the body by vitiating the undigested food product:
- untimely intake of food and drinks which are heavy, ununctuous, cold, dry, despicable, constipating, irritant, unclean and mutually contradictory;
- intake of food and drinks when the individual is afflicted with passion, anger, greed, confusion, envy, bashfulness, grief, indigestion, anxiety and fear.
Thus it is said: wholesome food taken even in proper quantity do not get properly digested when the individual is afflicted with grief, fear, anger, sorrow, excessive sleep and excessive vigil.”
Anxiety is produced by fear. Most types of chronic fear come from a mistake of the intellect. This can be succinctly portrayed by a clever little acronym for fear:
FEAR = False Evidence Appearing Real
Once we realise this, we can become mindful of our anxiety and enquire into whether the basis of our fear is valid or not. Most fears and the chronic anxiety they produce turn out to be invalidated by this line of enquiry.
Modern viewpoint of anxiety
Anxiety is a common condition characterised by excessive, persistent and unrealistic fear or worry and can have a range of extremely mild to debilitating and chronic symptoms. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting more than 18% of the population. Despite the fact a majority of anxiety goes untreated, anxiety often has symptoms like physical illness, so people with anxiety disorders are up to five times more likely to go to the doctor than those without anxiety.
Anxiety has a powerful impact on social and intimate relationships as well as your relationship to your own body and internal experience. Negative looping–“pervasive thought patterns that amplify the negative emotional and physical impacts of an anxiety-provoking incident“–can be relentless, stealing your mental focus and draining energy. Anxiety is unpleasant and impacts your physiology, cognition and moment-by-moment experience, giving rise to a neurochemical avalanche of catecholamine (stress hormones) and hormonal shifts. “Stomach knots” are not uncommon.
People who suffer most from anxiety are found to have:
- Increased activity in the amygdala, a primitive, emotional centre of the brain that regulates fear responses
- Decreased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the more advanced “thinking” part of the brain indicated in social behaviour and emotional regulation
- Changed functioning of the hippocampus, one of the primary neural mechanisms responsible for memory
- During episodes of anxiety, the brain’s ability to regulate emotional intensity becomes impaired, while the brain’s instincts for protective vigilance and self-preservation ramps up. While this cascade of events can certainly aid us during threats to survival, it rarely serves us in the modern world.
The immune system is in constant interaction with our emotional neural circuitry. The important links between the mind and the immune system have lead science to explore the implications of chronic anxiety, in particular, as playing a critical role in an array of physiological symptoms including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, and arthritis. The costs of hidden anxiety in the body are extreme and continue to be explored by researchers (though anxiety already costs almost a third of the country’s $150 billion mental health bill).
The emotional centres of the brain are physiologically connected to the nervous system, the hormonal apparatus, and the behavioural response systems, being joined together by chemical messengers. When the brain’s neurotransmitters are consistently taxed by overriding chemicals associated with anxiety, the implications to various systems and functions of the body are greatly impacted.
When acute anxiety is triggered, not only is the function of immune cells diminished, increases in cortisol release will occur, leading to hypervigilance, muscular exertion, spurts of endurance, and enhanced memory activation related to prevailing emotions. When anxiety is chronic, however, cortisol levels ultimately decline but can lead to atrophy and neuronal death of the hippocampus and its function in the brain. Some researchers believe that chronic anxiety can be a contributing factor toward dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life.
The good news is anxiety is highly treatable. Keys to success in managing anxiety include mindfulness, skills to navigate and mitigate the body’s reaction to anxiety, and reframing of current life experiences. Because anxiety can be relentless, learning to track related sensations and thought content is a necessary first step to managing and ultimately transforming anxiety. Once you learn to identify the path that anxiety takes in your unique body and mind, you can build the emotional, relational and behavioural support necessary to practice new responses that may ultimately “rewire” your anxiety response patterns.
Worry is a pathological habit
Anything that we do on a regular basis become a habit. Habits can be physical or psychological. The American Journal of Psychology defines a “habit, from the standpoint of psychology, as a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.”
Many techniques exist for removing established bad habits, e.g., withdrawal of reinforcers—identifying and removing factors that trigger and reinforce the habit. The basal ganglia appear to remember the context that triggers a habit, so habits can be revived if triggers reappear. Recognizing and eliminating bad habits as soon as possible is advised. Habit elimination becomes more difficult with age because repetitions reinforce habits cumulatively over the lifespan. There is a loop that includes a cue, routine and reward for every habit. An example of a habit loop is TV program ends (cue), go to the fridge (routine), eat a snack (reward). The key to changing habits is to identify your cue and modify your routine and reward.
In Ayurvedic terminology, A repeated action (whether it be of physical or mental nature) is called a Samskara. The word is also used for a deep seated mental habit that inflicts pain or suffering to the self. It is interesting that the same word is used to describe the cause and the effect! Another word to know (for students of Ayurveda) is Satmya, which means “habituated to” or “that which is tolerated by way of habituation”.
Samskaras have momentum as if they exert a force or possess a degree of individuality. Neurological pathways develop for any repeated process of mind or body. Changing habits can take time and effort. Knowing this at the outset is useful, but it can also become part of a “suffering complex” or “story of pain” that our ego attaches to (because the ego doesn’t care what the content is about, it just wants something to own). Again, as with many aspects of holistic living, we are asked to accept a degree of paradox.
Among all the practices described below, Mantra is probably the best for shifting stubborn mental habits such as chronic worrying. My Mantra guide, Muz Murray, used the metaphor of a builder’s power hammer that chisels away at cement or rock with relentless force. In a similar way, the use of Japa (repeating a Mantra over and over again) can help to dissolve physical, mental and emotional blocks quite effectively. I would say that for anyone who identifies with the idea that their neurosis has a force all of its own, Mantra should be prescribed (see later in this article).
Note however that the other school of thought in the healing community insists that any practice that we employ or construct in opposition to an obstacle that needs removing carries the risk of giving the obstruction all the more reason to exist.
CHIKITSA (TREATMENTS FOR ANXIETY)
Traditional Ayurvedic protocols for treatment of anxiety and fear can be divided into categories depending on which of the five aspects of the holistic being are targeted:
- ANNA MAYA KOSHA: Treat Vata Dosha in the gross sheath using physical treatments (warm oil massage, warm grounding foods etc)
- PRANA MAYA KOSHA: Treat Vata Dosha in the energy sheath using subtle and sensory treatments (calm music, safe environment, warm colours, mantra, calming pranayama, energy healing)
- MANO MAYA KOSHA: Treat the emotion of fear via the emotional sheath by creatively employing the opposite emotion of love (being with loving people and animals, positive affirmations and visualisations or meditations on love and safety)
- VIJNANA MAYA KOSHA: Treat the thought processes that perpetuate chronic anxiety as “lower level mistakes of intellect” via the rational sheath (reason, logic, analysis of thought patterns)
- ANANDA MAYA KOSHA: Treat the sense of separateness known as “higher level mistake of intellect” via the higher end of the rational sheath and bliss sheath via any process that allows you to become align with Big Mind & Big Heart/oneness (wherein fear is almost non-existent)
An introduction to some of the above methods is given below. As a general rule, relaxation around fear and anxiety with focussed awareness and acceptance is the most direct and effective of all methods. In order to do this, our attitude has to be aligned appropriately.
CLASS 1: MINDFULNESS / WITNESSING AWARENESS / “HIGHER MIND” APPROACHES
ATTITUDE SHIFT: RECOGNISE THE POSITIVE FUNCTIONS OF FEAR
Learn to see when fear is useful as opposed to harmful or disruptive. An awful lot of fear and thus anxiety is unnecessary, especially for adults.
The mental functions or appearance of fear, and to some extent anxiety (as well as the other basic mental neurosis), can be viewed as natural and healthy when we consider the protective roles they provide for the self.
The stress of fear (and by extension anxiety) is often coexisting with the buzz or aliveness of risk and excitement. Often, the very situation that brings thrill and aliveness (which you may want) also brings with it is a degree of risk, fear and anxiety.
These ideas and other logical reasonings, when contemplated, can help lessen the grip of anxiety, helping us to accept and include fear rather than ban it all together.
We are using Buddhi (discernment/choice faculty) to see that fundamentally, fear is neither friend nor foe, it is a question of perspective and context.
AWARENESS HEALS ALL: RELAX INTO WITNESSING WHILE ALLOWING FEAR & ANXIETY
With the above insights, it is possible to practice opening and relaxing into fear and anxiety. This is an active choice that your higher self or Buddhi is taking. In this sense, you are not doing fear in the same way anymore, as you are willing to allow it, to witness it and include it, rather than to avoid it.
While sitting, observe your thoughts and feelings of anxiety with a curious but neutral stance. By falling back into the pure witness, you are allowing judgements and the emotional aversion of fear (and its causes) to be noticed but not obsessed over. Anxiety will begin to release its grip. The race horse of anxiety will slow down from a gallop to a canter, then from a canter to a trot, then from a trot to a gentle walk. Anxiety is now becoming manageable and reasonable as opposed to unrelenting and harmful.
At this point, as we explore a mindful or meditative approach to witnessing fear and anxiety, we should be on the lookout for mental programs relating to fear. For example, we might develop a program that says “I will always have fear because it is a natural function”. Or “I must do what I can to remove fear from my mind”. The point here is to be wary of the tendency for the thinking aspect of the mind to create a story or belief about fear and anxiety. The mind will, of course, do this naturally, so we have to tread a middle path, neither attempting to shut these ideas down nor embellish or feed them. Neutrality is key!
Ultimately, we are invited to simply witness what is happening around our fear and anxiety, while opening and relaxing into it with a neutral, curious, caring awareness. It’s a form of self-compassion that is born naturally from the qualities that emerge from the pure witness or pure presence.
This approach is useful assuming that the anxiety is not an indication that some sort of appropriate action should be taken (such as checking that our children are in safe hands or making sure that we didn’t forget to turn off the gas on the cooker). As mentioned above, most forms of chronic anxiety come from a misinterpretation of reality or “false evidence appearing real”.
BEWARE, BE-AWARE: WHAT ONE RESISTS PERSISTS
If I am very attached to getting rid of anxiety, what does the mind have to create in order for me to be able to carry out this important task of getting rid of it? The mind will create more anxiety, i.e. the very thing you resist will persist. The mind creates the experiences it thinks it needs. So learn to never mind your mind! Learn to step back into beingness or pure awareness.
So much of suffering comes from the unwillingness to have pain or uncomfortable experiences. This equation is useful:
Suffering = pain x resistance
“Am I willing for it to be OK to have this fear/anxiety?”
If this seems to absolute, ask:
“Am I willing for it to be OK to have this fear for the next . . . . . . minutes/hours etc.”
Sometimes the response is “yes, I’m willing”. Dropping the resistance to the fear (acceptance) significantly reduces its intensity. This cannot be overemphasised enough!
If you are unwilling to accept the anxiety, then go ahead with this question:
“Am I willing to let it be OK that I can’t accept this anxiety?”
At some stage, you will find a yes. You might need to go out another step or more, for example:
“Am I willing to be OK with my anger towards not being OK that I can’t accept this anxiety?”
At some point, you will get a “yes” and this will change everything or at least, begin to bring relief.
So putting the above items into practice looks like this:
- When anxiety or fear arises, don’t try to change it or avoid it, instead, decide to relax with awareness.
- If the mind spontaneously comes up with ways of dealing with the anxiety, we allow that.
- But we avoid constructing a story around the anxiety.
- We find a way to accept the anxiety or to accept our non-acceptance.
- We are careful not to make the removal or acceptance towards anxiety into an important quest of self-improvement, as this is likely to allow the mind to perpetuate the situation indefinitely.
- We just allow the anxiety to be witnessed.
- While witnessing, and opening, we attempt to stay focused, aware, undistracted.
- We stay present in the moment, holding the anxiety in awareness.
- We recognise that part of this anxiety is a healthy function and towards that healthy function, we afford gratitude and love.
When we do the above, the anxiety tends to be transformed into pure energy, it transmutes and is partially or fully liberated.
SAMANYA ON FEAR / THE “BRAVE HEART” METHOD: FACE THE FEAR THEN FEAR WILL DISAPPEAR
If we use the laser-like quality of pure presence, focused awareness to be counter phobic, we can enter into the heart of the neurosis to dismantle it. This is a form of meditation and requires a degree of concentration.
Focus your attention on the anxiety/fear and stay with it for as long as possible. Investigating it. What is it like to feel this anxiety? Discover it’s emotional tone, somatic location, associated imagery and thoughts (as a spin off this may reveal valuable insights into the causes of your anxiety).
If possible, with laser-like awareness, go right into the centre of the fear/anxiety. Be with the emotion, right up close, with pure presence.
This is counter-phobic. Instead of withdrawing, we go towards and then into the emotion. The aversion to the fear will be dissolved and the energy of the emotion will eventually dissipate into pure energy.
RECOGNITION OF INSUBSTANTIALITY OF ALL PHENOMENON (PURE AWARENESS)
(This is a causal level stage practice and requires great attention and a higher degree of awakening).
The more deeply we look into the core of any experience, the more we find an emptiness or insubstantiality at its essence. When we look closely at a car, we see the components (steering wheel, motor, seats etc). And as we examine each component, we discover further sub-elements.
The more closely we look at fear (or any other emotion), the more you find that the experience of fear disappears and is replaced by raw sensations and movement. And as fear disappears, one experiences raw sensation and literally see through the fear. The more closely you look at any emotion, the less emotional quality it has.
We suffer most from fear when we have a certain distance from the raw experience of it. Typically, we are reacting more to the concept of the fear (anxiety) not the actual raw experience of fear itself. This is crucially important. Usually, we experience the concepts and not the actual experience itself.
The above techniques are very subtle. The tools (aspects of self) used are those of free-will, intention, understanding and most of all, the pure witness. We can say in simple Ayurvedic jargon that we are using the higher or Sattvic level of Buddhi.
If we can do the above things then great! These are arguably the most powerful, direct and effective approaches we can employ. However, they require a certain degree of awakening, willingness, trust, courage, faith and ability to concentrate mentally. But if anxiety/fear is too strong or overwhelming, it is fine to use more tangible interventions that use thoughts, emotions, impressions and physical tools to affect a state change in our mental-emotional landscape.
CLASS 2: PSYCHOLOGICAL / LOWER MIND / SUBTLE APPROACHES
Anxiety is triggered or nourished by fears of things that might happen in the future. In some cases, we may be able to take reasonable action to mitigate the chances of the feared events occurring.
Here is an introspective rational approach that employs the dynamic middling aspect of Buddhi (Sattva-Rajas mode) for dealing with this “action versus acceptance” dilemma pragmatically:
A DIRECT MENTAL PRACTICE
Decrease your anxiety by seeing what’s driving it:
Anxiety feels terrible, a gnawing fear that is hard to pin down and harder to shake. This activity may help you alleviate anxiety: when you can see the core fear that’s really underneath your anxiety, you loosen its hold on your emotions and feel more empowered to address it.
Below you can find a list of some frequent core fears to help you think about your own. Which core fear(s) do you think might be driving your anxiety? (the list below gives ideas. It is not critical to understand the Dosha style behind the fears but can be useful for other practices such as use of Mantra and Pranayama).
Vata psychology inspired fears
- Fear of losing stimulation, newness, change
- Fear of being unable to move, being stuck
- Fear of losing spontaneity
- Fear of being alone and unsupported
- Fear of being with other people (social anxiety)
Pitta psychology inspired fears
- Fear of being goals or purposeless
- Fear of losing
- Fear of being imperfect
- Fear of not being recognised for your achievements
- Fear of being incompetent
- Fear of losing control or being controlled
Kapha psychology inspired fears
- Fear of not being loved
- Fear of not being accepted
- Fear of not being valued
- Fear of being deprived
- Fear of losing security and stability
- Fear of being alone and unsupported
- Fear of losing peace of mind, emotional stability
NOTE: If there is fear for no reason, this points to a physical aggravation of Vata and suggests the need for physical interventions that lower the aggravated Vata energy as primary interventions. Also, if there is any doubt about which Dosha style is behind anxiety, proceed initially by treating Vata Dosha.
Step by step guidelines
- Sitting quietly, become centred.
- Focus on the feeling of anxiety you now have.
- Recognise it without trying to suppress or judge it.
- See if you can locate where it is in your body.
- Where exactly do you feel this anxiety?
- Let it be there without judgement.
- Take a deep breath.
- Now ask yourself “what am I afraid of?”
- Listen for the answer. Be patient.
- Don’t judge the answer. Be open to receiving it.
- With the answer, take another deep breath and ask yourself “If that happens, now what am I afraid will happen?”
- Listen for the answer.
- After the answer comes to you, take another deep breath and ask the same question again “if that happens, then what am I afraid will happen?”
- Using your breath, repeat this question as often as necessary until you get to the end of the line or the bottom.
- Pause recording here until you get to the end of the line.
- Bring the last answer back up to the original fear.
- Now ask yourself if that thing is likely to happen.
- Be honest with yourself.
- If the answer is no, accept that, and let it go.
- If the answer is yes, accept that, and ask yourself “what action do I need to take?”
(This practice was based on an Integral Life Practice published in 2017 at http://www.integrallife.com).
A RATIONAL EXPLORATION OF ANXIETY
Worrying is hard to overcome because, in a strange way, it actually makes a lot of sense to the worrying mind. First, you imagine risks, and sometimes you are right.
Worrying is such a widespread habit that many neurotics don’t see themselves as anxious. In fact, many worriers often feel justified. Convinced of its own beliefs, the worry is anxiety backed up by excuses invented by the mind.
Worriers believe they are doing good by protecting us all from danger or discomfort. A worrier’s mind is filled with every conceivable risk. Like hoarders who never throw anything out, worriers uses the same philosophy. If one item proves useful, it justifies keeping a hundred that aren’t. We don’t see the obvious: worrying about ninety-nine useless things is a waste of time and energy. But until we can accept this fact, we will feel justified. Far from making a positive contribution, worries slow things down, throw up needless barriers, and increase anxiety in everyone else. In the end, we usually wind up being shut out and ignored. In response to being ignored, we worry even more.
Worriers feel the need to worry. It has become a habit. If this need isn’t fulfilled, we fear disaster. Who will keep things in one piece if we aren’t doing the worrying that is so desperately needed? But, this obsessive behaviour blocks deep insecurity by giving the mind a “solution” that feels convincing even though it is utterly false: the more I worry, the safer we will be. To turn the mind around, we must be given better reasons to not worry than to worry.
Worried belief: The world is risky. It’s only normal to worry.
Better belief: You can still be safe in an unsafe world. By making your own situation safe, you add to the world’s overall safety.
Worried belief: Life is full of accidents and random bad things. I have to be on the lookout for them all the time.
Better belief: Accidents can be prevented with useful measures like wearing a seat belt and not living in a flood zone. Once the precaution is in place, there’s nothing more to do. By definition, unpredictable things cannot be foreseen.
Worried belief: You inherited the worry gene. You can’t help it.
Better belief: You learned how to worry so you can unlearn how to worry. It’s a habit rooted in your sense of insecurity. By becoming more secure in yourself, you can gain control over your fears.
In addition, a recovering worrier should write down certain basic facts and consult the list regularly to see if their belief system is starting to match reality. Here are a few examples:
- You aren’t improving anyone else’s life by worrying about them. To improve their lives, be supportive and appreciative.
- Not to worry is psychologically healthy. Non-worriers aren’t being reckless or negligent.
- Worry is a sign of deeper anxiety. It is healed by addressing that deeper level.
- Worry is making you miserable. This is reason enough to give it up.
- Worry leads to bad decisions because they are coloured by needless, unrealistic fears. If you want a better life, you need good decisions.
- Worry shuts out people who want to be close to you. The more you worry, the farther away they will go.
Often there is a family history of tension, stress, or abuse. Perhaps one parent is an alcoholic or has a bad temper or there might be constant fighting and arguing in the house. Under those circumstances, a child learns that there is always a storm to follow the calm. This lesson becomes imprinted as a fearful expectation. “Mommy and daddy aren’t yelling at each other, so I need to be very, very still and make them not start again.” This childish reasoning doesn’t work, of course. The parents won’t stop fighting, the father won’t stop drinking, and the mother won’t stop having angry outbursts. So the only form of control the child has in order to live with the fear is to constantly wait for the other shoe to drop. The habit born in childhood of being on the lookout for new troubles is at the root of anxiety in many adults.
We can simplify this by saying that for an anxious person, the mind is no friend. It is necessary, then, to turn your back on fearful thinking and stop trusting it. Learn to confront the onset of worry with the following statements to yourself:
- Fear feels convincing, but it’s only a feeling, and feelings pass.
- The situation can be dealt with.
- I need a clear decision here.
- I will look for a clear decision in myself first, then I will turn to others I can trust.
- The voice of fear is the last thing I can trust.
This doesn’t mean you should fight against your mind. “Calm down” and “There’s nothing to worry about” are useless phrases when other people try them; they are equally useless when you try them on yourself.
A mind fighting with itself only adds another layer of anxiety, because when you know that fighting the fear is pointless, you feel more helpless. The way to healing is always the same: find your true self, become whole, rise above (though don’t abandon) the divided self.
PUTTING YOUR ANXIETY/FEAR INTO WORDS
Talk about your anxiety to someone, or express it in words through journal writing. Putting it into words, but particularly when spoken, helps to create distance between you and the emotion. We go from being the anxiety to observing it. We go from the first to the third person.
A secondary benefit comes from the fact that we express the energy of the emotion and therefore feel somewhat cleansed, liberated from it. Again, this approach applies to all kinds of neurosis, not just anxiety.
MANTRA (PRIMORDIAL SOUND)
Mantras chanted allowed and repeated mentally are among the most traditional and effective subtle techniques I know for giving immediate relief to the agitated mind, whether it be anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy etc. Mantra literally means “mind protection”. Some of the most effective mantras for westerners are the most simple and pure ones known as Bija Mantras (seeds sounds). I prefer these simple Mantras as they have no literal meaning and therefore carry less magic/mythic religious connotations.
A good starting place and in many cases a great means to an end is to chant the Sanskrit Alphabet. Good individual Mantras for fear and anxiety are Om (for peace of mind), Ram or Hum (for confidence), Sham (for calming the mind), Aim (for concentrating the mind). Chanting the sounds for the four lower Chakras in the specific order of Ya Ra La Vam is useful for grounding mental energy into the body.
Find a Mantra that you like and chant it for 5 minutes 2-3 times a day, then use freely as needed.
PRANAYAMA (BREATH WORK)
Calm, steady, relaxed belly breathing, Ujjayi Pranayama, full yogic breathing and Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) all serve to balance the subtle aspect of Vata Dosha and thus instantly and radically calm any state of agitated or anxious mind. 5-10 minutes 2-3 times per day will deliver good results. Retention (holding breath) should be avoided.
POSITIVE AFFIRMATIONS / POSITIVE EMOTIONS / VISUALISATIONS (USE THE OPPOSITES OF FEAR/ANXIETY)
Assuming that appropriate action has been taken in life to deal with any situational issues that are feeding your anxiety, you can use the law of opposites to antidote it. This is where traditional Ayurveda would be most active in prescribing interventions, mostly Vata balancing therapies.
We can use the subtle and gross forms of energy/matter which have the opposite qualities to fear and anxiety such as openness, calm, equanimity, comfort, pleasure and most of all love. These qualities can be prescribed in forms of sensory impressions (sounds and music, touch, colours, tastes and smells) as well as emotions and thoughts. When we encounter these qualities through these different vibrations of energy/matter, we will experience an antidote effect to the fear and anxiety, causing them to subside.
These kinds of balancing interventions are most effective when a degree of acceptance, self-awareness and a more “mature mindset” has been cultivated where we have attained a degree of detachment and responsibility for the situation rather than remaining locked in an egocentric “poor me” or victim type mentality.
CLASS 3: PHYSICAL APPROACHES
Fear and anxiety, on a physical level, are understood to be an expression of increased space and air elements expressing through the qualities of coldness, contraction, agitation, tightness, hardness, stiffness, irregularities in movements and functions. Opposite qualities are prescribed and will help to reduce anxiety and fear indirectly via the body.
In general, Vata balancing diet and lifestyle practices are useful.
Learning how to relax the body is the most important of physical interventions. Many techniques can be used for this, such as Yoga Nidra. Ayurveda would prescribe hot oil massage with slow reassuring touch as a primary way to reduce Vata Dosha thus relieving anxiety.
All forms of physical exercise can help to diffuse the trapped energy of anxiety. Care must be taken not to use exercise as a way of masking the underlying causes of chronic fear (mistake of the intellect, i.e. failure of Buddhi)
FOODS & BEVERAGES
Unfortunately, foods (especially sugars) and beverages (mainly alcohol) are often used intuitively to treat anxiety and other emotional disturbances due to the fact that they are instantly relaxing and comforting to the body and mind.
Used intelligently, food and drink can be appropriate providing that they are suited to your body type and that your Agni (digestive fire) and Doshas (biological support systems) are able to digest them and cope with any side effects they might produce (metabolic toxins, inebriation etc).
In most cases, however, we tend to abuse foods and drinks. At first, they serve as an instinctive quick fix, but later they become substances of dependence or addiction.
Ayurveda has a comprehensive nutritional science wing that merits in-depth study and experimentation. Foods are classified according to the effects on body, mind and soul (quality of awareness).
The reader should know that as part of a general approach to treating anxiety, fear, worry and other “cold” or “nervous” neurosis, a Vata balancing diet is generally recommended. Modifications according to body type must be applied otherwise secondary imbalances will be produced. The following list summarises some of the key Vata balancing food habits:
- Eat relatively grounding foods
- Favour hot cooked foods
- Eat meals at regular times
- Favour foods that are bland to sweet, somewhat sour and salty in flavour
- Reduce foods that are overly spicy, bitter or astringent (drying)
- Eat foods that are somewhat unctuous
- Reduce strongly stimulating foods (and drinks) like strong spices or raw garlic
Foods also affect the mind including awareness directly. In general, we can all benefit from increasing foods that promote clarity of mind and emotional harmony. According to Ayurveda and Yoga, foods belonging to the “Sattvic” group promote these qualities of mind. Books on Ayurveda usually mention them.
Sattvic foods are fresh, mostly plant based (though include naturally produced milk and ghee if the animals in question are treated kindly), mild to sweet in flavour and action (strong tasting foods and stimulants are not Sattvic). Humanely produced fresh fruits, fruit juices, vegetables (raw or cooked), vegetable juices, sprouts, nuts, dry fruits, honey, milk, ghee, fresh butter, and buttermilk are the best to increase Sattva and enrich the mind.
Non-Sattvic foods belong to either the Rajas (stimulating, agitating) or Tamas (inertia producing) groups. Most animal-produce, as well as most modern processed foods, fall into one or both of these categories, as does alcohol and most recreational drugs including tobacco and cannabis. Try to cut down, or if possible stop, the use of black tea, coffee, white flour products, chocolates, white sugar products, deep fried foods, hot spices, meat, fish, and eggs. Such restrictions benefit in anxiety disorders.
By favouring Sattvic foods, we indirectly support our state of mind. No direct mental training or personal development is needed. The results are stable but require some time to become noticed. Normally, a considerable and rewarding change of mental state can be achieved within as little as 4 weeks. After 3 months, the effect has built up momentum.
Anyone wishing to support a healthy mental state or achieve emotional balance, whether it be for general health purposes or because you depend on increase clarity of mind for professional or personal reasons, Sattvic foods are a necessary component of daily nutrition.
PLANTS & HERBS
Ayurveda has much to say about the use of plants to support mental well-being. The subject deserves an article all to itself. As a general rule, chronic anxiety sufferers can radically increase their chances of recovery or management by introducing herbal anti-anxiolytics into their lives.
Dosing should be adaptive to the situation. Most publicly available doses published on the internet and on pill containers are on the lower side. These low doses will be effective only when taken for long periods of time or for very mild cases. In general, for moderate to acute cases of anxiety, we build up to a high dose, maintain for 1-2 months until results of relief are substantial, then lower the dose to a moderate level for 3-12 months, then drop down to a low maintenance dose for 1-3 years then review. This is just to give a general idea of how a typical long-term anxiety sufferer might proceed with herbal support.
I am not an anxiety sufferer, but I do have a constitutional (lifelong) low-grade agitation that ripples up through my nervous system and into the realm of the senses, emotions and thinking mind. To counter this, I do many things, including the use of low doses of common anti-anxiety herbs that are also considered excellent nerve tonics and longevity supplements. Currently, I take 4 grams daily of a mixture of Gotu Kola, Ashwagandha, Shankapushpi and Gokshura (well known Indian herbs for the mind).
CONCLUSION: TRANSFORMING MY ANXIETY BECOMES A GIFT TO OTHERS
Realise that by healing your fear/anxiety you are gifting to others. This can inspire you to make the commitment and take the action required. Whether you embrace the “non-doing” approaches of the pure witness, or the more concrete, dynamic practices.
Owning and accepting our fears and anxiety, and then realising that others are in the same boat as us, leads to profound compassion. This, in turn, brings us closer to the hearts of others and in doing so, relieves the potency of the anxiety.
Charaka Samhita, audio lectures by Dr Roger Walsh, articles by Deepak Chopra and Integral Life Institute.