A Chinese Medicine Approach to Anxiety
by Warwick Poon
Anxiety in Chinese Medicine is a function of two organs not communicating properly, namely Kidney and Heart.
Heart is the thinking organ. Heart energy is not associated necessarily with heart attacks, in the short term. It has more to do with deep thinking and consciousness. If the Heart energy is too low, then fainting or passing out will occur. If it is too strong, then sleeplessness will result. A balanced Heart energy will result in long term, deep and clear thinking. When it becomes too hot, the deep thinking will begin to enter the area of over-thinking, and the clear thinking will become pinpoint and micro level thinking.
Kidney is the coping organ. When a person needs to cope with a situation, no matter if it is a good situation or a terrible one, it is the Kidney energy that is used to find a healthy balance. Energy patterns are subject to habits and associations, just like the rest of our anatomy. Learning to walk took about a year and a half. But when you could finally walk, habit allowed you to do so, without thinking about it. You just walk. Likewise, when you first encountered a dangerous situation like say a big dog, what you did to survive that, whether it was to pat it, or to run away from it, then that is the action that you tend to adopt for the next few times that you encounter the same type of dog. This forms an emotional habit.
Similar things happen with qi patterns. If you were tired and had a poor sleep the previous night, then you would be likely to have low Kidney energy. So you will attempt to deal with the situation with fear and trepidation. The next time that a similar situation happens, no matter how rested you are, habit will squash the Kidney energy, and you will cope with the new situation in a similar way to the way that you survived it the last time. That is why, when a certain situation reminds you of that first time, the fear resurfaces.
These two organs by themselves will not cause anxiety, but when both are low, they can bring about an unease. When you think about a situation very deeply, whether real or abstract, and then combine that with a lack of ability to cope with the possible outcomes that you imagine, an anxiety arrives. Finally, the 'coup de grace' is that the Heart is also in control of the short term memory, and you may forget the original thoughts.
Now you are in a state of anxiety, with fear feeding the over-thinking, and the over-thinking feeding the fear, and you have no memory of why it began. This then gives you no weapons for attacking or controlling this spiraling out of control. In my clinic experience, the most common response is to curl up and try to sleep all day long, in an attempt to strengthen the Kidney energy, and calm down the hot Heart. The second most common response is to try to calm the Heart thinking with drugs of some kind, either self dispensed or pharmaceuticals. These can sometimes unfortunately damage the Kidney energy at the same time as calming the Heart energy. This can put the person at risk of further anxiety in the near future.