Let’s talk about anxiety. Although it is not the desired emotion, anxiety is normal and essential for our survival, it is a part of the Fight-Flight-Freeze(F3) response in the body, an in-built reaction to protect us from threat and danger. It was essential for our hunter-gatherer ancestors – you need adrenaline when you are chasing an animal or being chased by one! The difference between us and them, however, is that for us the F3 response gets activated even when there is no real existential threat. The constant overstimulation of the nervous system through news, social media, work deadlines, caffeine, alcohol, sugar, overexposure to artificial light and perpetual background noise are all contributing factors. Ayurveda believes that our psychology and physiology are interwoven and its approach to the treatment of anxiety reflects that.
Looking through my old childhood journal, I found an entry from when I was just 13 years old. I didn’t quite understand what was happening to me, but I have described the symptoms of anxiety to a T – heart racing, sick feeling in the stomach, tightness in the chest. I was experiencing a panic attack and I still remember the event that caused it. How did I cope with it at the time? I got it out on a piece of paper and documented it. To date, writing my thoughts out in a journal remains my number one strategy - it helps create space when my mind feels congested, connects me to how I experience emotions in the body at that moment and helps me analyse my thoughts. Ayurveda and yoga also recommend self-reflection as a way to bring stillness, especially when there is turbulence in the mind.
Anxiety is a topic close to me as I have suffered with it for most of my life. Yet, when I mention it, even to my closest friends, they are surprised - “Who?? You?? No!!” And yet YES, I have experienced some of the most acute anxiety and panic attacks over the years, but I preferred to keep them hidden under a mask of self-assurance - one of the many masks that I wore over the years to hide my 'imperfections'. I still put on a mask from time to time, but these days I am more aware and willing to be vulnerable. It’s a work in progress...
It's interesting to reflect on how we habitually present ourselves in the world. Without the quality of conscious awareness, we can go through our lives never really dealing with insecurities, desiring to be liked and accepted yet never fully accepting ourselves for who we really are. Chronic anxiety, I find, is very much linked to this. It is the dissonance between who we try to be and who we are that causes it. When I was studying Yoga Sutras, I came across the interpretation of this essential Yogic text by Ravi Ravindra in which he wrote:
“Who am I? Out of fear and out of desire, I betray myself. I am who I am not. I cover my face with many masks, and even become the masks. I am too busy to perform who I think I am to know who I really am. I am afraid: I may be nothing other than what I appear to be. There may be no face behind the mask, so I decorate and protect my mask preferring a known fanciful something to the unknown”.
At the time I was going through a lot of personal changes and associated anxiety and these words caused a breakthrough! I now approach anxiety in a very different way, a more spiritual way.
When we see ourselves as eternal beings, the mundane problems lose their power over us. When we connect to our true nature, which is only and always love, the self-judgment and fear simply dissolve giving way to joy and peace. Both Ayurveda and Yoga have the capacity to help us achieve this is in a very logical and accessible way. Ayurveda, literally translated as The Science of Life, offers practical solutions through which we can improve our health and quality of life on every level. It does that by recognising that we are a part of nature and helping us align with the environment inside and outside of ourselves.
In Ayurveda, the symptoms of anxiety are known as Chittodvege and and are the result of an imbalance in the VATA dosha. But it isn’t just Vata dosha that affects mental health. Whilst Vata aggravation can create anxiety in the mind, Kapha aggravation will lead to depression and Pitta aggravation to excess anger.
I have used Ayurvedic strategies to manage anxiety and panic attacks for several years and I would like to share some of them with you. Try them out when you are feeling 'spacey', chaotic or stressed. These strategies will also help to pacify Vita dosha.
1. Try to eat at regular intervals and consume warm, cooked meals such as soups, stews, kitchari and dhals. Add plentyof good oils and ghee to your food.
2. Include root vegetables such as pumpkins, squashes and sweet potatoes to your diet.
3. Avoid sugar, caffeine, alcohol, fizzy drinks and dried, raw, frozen and fried foods.
4. Avoid cold/iced water. Drink warm water instead.
5. Self-massage with warm sesame oil –full body before shower if you can or foot massage before bed.
6. Meditate regularly, even if it is just for 5 minutes a day. What matters is that you do it every day!
7. Drink a glass of warm milk with honey and saffron before bed. For non-dairy version, make almond milk at home – soak 10 raw almonds overnight in water. Peel their skin in the morning (cover with hot water first to make the process nice and easy) and blend with 1 cup of filtered water, a pinch of ginger and a small pinch of nutmeg and saffron.
9. Switch off your phone! At least one hour before bed turn your phone off or put it into an 'Airplane' mode. Don't turn it on for at least one hour after waking up in the morning.
8. Get outside as often as you can and get plenty of sunshine!
And here are a couple of simple remedies you can make at home to help calm down your anxiety attack:
1. Make a paste of 2 almonds soaked overnight and peeled, 3tsp grated fresh coconut, 1 tsp fennel powder, 1/4 tsp black pepper powder and 3-4 tsp of rock candy (Mishri) or jaggery. Mix all ingredients and drink with saffron milk.
2. Add a few fresh or dried rose petals to a cup of boiling water. Let it cool. Add 1/4 tsp of sugar and drink twice a day.
Ayurveda also uses herbs to treat imbalances in the body and mind and here are a few accessible herbs you can safely use at home. I would still recommend speaking to an Ayurvedic consultant to make sure that a combination of herbs you decide to take suits your individual constitution. Take advantage of my 15 minute mini-consultation offer to help you decide which herb will be most beneficial for you.
1. Holy Basil - this herb has been revered as a sacred plant for centuries in India. Known as Tulsi in Ayurveda, it protects against chemical, emotional, and physical stress.
Tulsi is available as a tea, tincture, liquid gel, capsule, and powder. An average recommended dose is 500–1000 mg up to three times daily, as needed. Tulsi tea is a wonderful alternative to alcohol for unwinding and calming the nervous and endocrine systems at the end of the day. Growing this plant at home will bring harmonious vibrations to your garden.
2. Ashwagandha is one of the best Vata-balancing herbs out there. It is soothing, grounding, and warming. It boosts thyroid activity a bit (an action that is likely responsible for the warming effect), so it can often be a helpful herb for those with borderline or low thyroid function.
Because of this warming property, ashwagandha is not great for longer-term use by Pitta doshas (they are already warm). It can aggravate their heat and increase their irritability overtime. A few weeks use when acutely anxious, however, is not usually a problem.
4. Jatamansi has been used for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years in Ayurveda. It has a role in anxiety, depression, insomnia, and more. It is a very strong antioxidant, and it has even been found to be protective against gamma radiation exposure. More recently, it is being looked at as a cancer preventive or treatment.
5. Gotu Kola is a marvellous plant remedy that has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda for a variety of conditions—most notably those that have aneurologic component (memory issues, nerve damage, learning enhancement, epilepsy) or psychologic component (anxiety, depression, stress). It actually is a leaf that can be eaten as a salad! Although a fresh leaf can be quite hard to find, gotu kola is widely available as a supplement. The recommended dose is 350–1400 mg per day. I recommend starting slowly and working your way up depending on symptom severity and the body’s unique response.
5. Brahmi is a traditional Ayurvedic herbal medicine that has benefits for anxiety, memory/mental acuity, and ADHD. In fact, it has even been scientifically studied as an alternative to prescription stimulants in children with ADHD (and performed well for this purpose). There is also quite a bit of scientific data supporting brahmi’s use in elderly adults or others with cognitive decline. The usual dose is around 750 mg per day (range: 500–900mg).
These are some of the general ways to help you deal with anxiety using Ayurveda. However, every individual is different and if you would like to get a more in-depth understanding of your condition and a detailed step-by-step treatment plan, then book an Ayurvedic Consultation with me. It can be done face to face or over ZOOM.