Anxiety - Excess Tension

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Finding a good herbalist

Most of what's written in this article is entirely suitable for a person to work through themselves but, especially if things are quite bad, or you just know that you need further help, then there may be a great deal of benefit to you to go to whatever lengths necessary to find a good herbalist or truly holistic practitioner to guide you on to a safe and strong treatment program. There's a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here

What's going on?

The word anxiety is, at best, only a starting point to what's going on underneath because, even though it is talked about as a psychological condition, it is the profoundly uncomfortable physical symptoms of anxiety that are, by far, the hardest part of it to deal with. As any person who has experienced acute anxiety can attest, it is a truly horrible way to feel.

Take a moment to personalise, and take in, what is being said here about the physical nature of anxiety. It is essential to grasp this point, because approaching anxiety from a psychological angle appears to have no end to it, whereas understanding and treating the underlying physicality of it sees much more positive progress being made, and quickly too.

Consider your own state for a moment, how anxiety has been making you feel. Notice where it resides in your body, how it feels. It's not just in your head, although that is where you can observe it and think about it, but its abiding presence is deeper down than thought. Wherever it is, your chest, gut, back, neck, hands, shoulders, wherever you feel it, that's where it lives.

Firstly, let Nature help, don't do it alone. Secondly, recognise its physical reality and work with it, not against it. Once this is understood, the way forward becomes clear.


Herbal Medicine

In September 2010, we experienced the first of three massive earthquakes in Christchurch. Many lives were lost, our inner city was decimated. In the days that followed, as I walked around my destroyed home city, it came to me to put together and offer a certain combination of herbs called 'relaxing herbal formula', described further below.

Since having already been in practice for over 20 years at this time, a large data-base of past patients had been gathered and so we sent out a message to everyone saying that, despite extensive damage to our clinic, we were still open and that they were all welcome to come and get this formula and be taught how to use it for no charge other than the cost of the medicine.

Over the coming months we saw hundreds of people, many of them in extreme states of stress and anxiety. Some had lost loved ones, many had lost their homes and their livelihoods. Almost every day there were significant aftershocks, many thousands in total, our community was in collective shock.

Each time I saw someone who needed it I gave them a dose of the relaxing formula then and there in my rooms, showed them how to use it, and then gave them a bottle to use as freely and frequently as they required.

This experience gave me an extraordinary and lifelong appreciation of how powerful and immediate the effects of herbal medicine can be, even for extreme levels of tension and anxiety.

Within a matter of moments of giving that first dose I would see the same process happen again and again. The patient's 'colour' would come back to their cheeks, you would see their chest begin to rise and fall as they began to breathe more deeply, their shoulders would drop, in many cases you would see a return of a smile.

Many people expressed a sense of wonder that this medicine could work so quickly but most of us in our modern world have forgotten that herbs were our first medicine and have always been with us for the simple reason that they worked, we only passed on through the generations that which reliably helped.

I would not dream of treating anxiety or tension without using herbs first and foremost, likewise I encourage you to begin your own healing process with the help of Nature.

Don Whelan, my father, had been the musical director of this Cathedral for nearly 50 years


Relaxing Herbal Formula

Lobelia leaf 5 mls
Skullcap leaf 10 mls

Cramp bark 10mls
Kava root 10 mls
Wild Yam root 10 mls
Licorice root 5 mls

This formula makes 50mls, note that we make our own tinctures from dried herbs so this recommendation may vary with different preparations, but the typical dose is around 20 drops (1ml) as frequently as required.

People are encouraged to use this formula freely, it has never been seen to do any kind of harm and, especially in the first few days of using it, there is no upper limit on how many times it can be taken.

So long as the person can feel a subtle, characteristic 'scratchy' or 'slightly numb' sensation in their throat followed by a kind of 'warm-glow' in their chest then you know you have achieved the therapeutic threshold.

If you watch yourself or someone who has had a dose of these herbs you will see how within about a minute they get more colour in their face, how their breathing deepens, how their shoulders drop and how they start to visibly relax.

Also, if you feel the pulse before, during and after a dose you will also see for yourself how the herbs invariably slow, open and relax the heart-beat.

Taking a bigger dose than the amount the person can palpably feel does not seem to work any better and may in fact be less helpful in the long run. That last point may sound counter-intuitive, but these are not mind-altering drugs, they are physical relaxants and you want to work with the body, not over it. Larger or less frequent doses do not work nearly as well as small doses taken as freely and frequently as needed.

7-11 breathing exercise

Each time you take the relaxing formula, as soon as you can feel it in your body, do three deep breaths in a certain way that is guaranteed to bring about a further relaxation response.

You breathe in through your nose to the count of 7, then out through your nose to the count of 11, and then leave a pause at the end of your out-breath before you breathe in again. During this pause, which is as long or as short as you feel comfortable, you centre your attention under your ribcage where your diaphragm is, and you simply wait for your body to take in the next breath.

The 7-11 relaxation exercise is a 100% effective method to stop hyperventilation and panic-attacks. I discuss this exercise further, and then talk you through actually doing it in a recording called '7-11 relaxation' near the top of the page here

Lobelia inflata


Notes on the herbs in the relaxing formula

Many herbalists believe that one of the most relaxing of all medicinal herbs is Lobelia, a key remedy from the great Native American herbal tradition. Lobelia must be used with care, but it is safe and extremely potent when used wisely. Anyone wanting to get further acquainted with it can read more here

The herb Skullcap is one of the best remedies from all of Nature for an overactive or racing mind, more here

Cramp bark, gets its name for how it eases muscle tension throughout the body, more here

The Pacific Island herb Kava is a powerhouse of a medicine for tension and anxiety, more here

Wild yam particularly helps tension stored in the gut; more here

Licorice root is there to make the medicine easier to take but also for its own gentle tonic action on stressed adrenal glands; more here

Scutellaria lateriflora (Skullcap)



Many people learn to control, or at least reduce, their anxiety through exercise. It helps to us shake loose a tension that would not leave us without some physical movement, but each person needs to find their own best way to do this.

The more tense or anxious a person is, the more helpful it is to do at least some exercise as part of the cure. However, when people get into very bad states, they can feel too exhausted to contemplate exercise and it can seem too hard to start.

Even if the only thing that can be managed is going for a daily walk, this will be of much help, especially if it is combined with the 'worry time' as described shortly. It's ok if a person prefers to do more vigorous exercise too, but only if it suits their nature. You just must move your body in some way every day.



Letting Nature help with herbal medicines and moving every day will help, a lot, and now we must come to the paradoxical subject of relaxation. I say paradoxical for two reasons, the first because the more stressed a person is the less they ever spend time relaxing and the second is that the more you 'try' to relax, the more you end up making yourself tenser!

The reason that the more stressed a person is the less they ever spend time relaxing is that we subconsciously believe that we cannot relax until we have solved the causes of our stress.

The reason that the more we try to relax the more we end up making ourselves tenser is that meditation, mindfulness etc, tend to make us more aware of our mental agitation without releasing physical tension from our bodies.

For relaxation to work, it must be natural, easy and enjoyable, and it must begin with doing things that you already know and trust. Ask yourself the following, which is the same question in two forms:

"What do I already know that always used to relax me?"
"What do I trust will relax me so long as I actually do it?

All you need is at least one answer and you will know what to do. For a reference point, common responses from others to this question include

  • Doing some exercise
  • Reading a book
  • Taking a bath
  • Going for a walk
  • Being with friends
  • Listening to music
  • Watching TV, You-Tube, Movies etc...

Now you have to choose at least one way that you know has always relaxed you and commit to bringing it back into your daily life.

However, you must expect, at least at first, that what you know, and trust, used to relax you will not be as enjoyable, or as relaxing as it used to be.

When this happens, remember that it is only because of the excess tension and that you are hard-wired to be trying to fix your problems (or at least worry about them) before you can relax.

It will still work, just little by little, keep doing things that used to relax you and they will become more natural, more enjoyable, you will forget to be worried and tense for increasing periods of time. The world will keep turning and your inner 'spring' will be uncoiling.

After you've picked back up one or more things that you know and trust, by all means try some new steps, such as the guided commentary called 'relaxation when there is anxiety', found here.


Worry time

What follows is at first going to sound like odd advice, but this method has been shared with a great many people and it can be truthfully stated that 'if you do it, it will work!'

It comes from recognising that it is in the nature of our minds to worry and, rather than see anxiety as an enemy, you accept it as an essential part of human nature. With this understanding, you then consciously create a time in the day when you allow yourself to worry fully and freely about any and all of your problems.

This is 'worry time'. It is important to do it when physically moving in a way that doesn't require concentration, e.g. a walk is ideal, or some other household chore that happens regularly.

Even after just doing it once or twice you should start finding that, knowing that the 'worry time' is coming up, far from creating any sense of foreboding, helps you to better have some peace of mind in the present. The subconscious knows that you will be later working through your mental 'inbox' and is better able to give you some space until then.

The technique is as follows:

1) Pick the subject.
It is best to start with the top of the list, ie. whatever is the main worry in your life right now

2) Think about what is the worst thing that could happen
Don't hold back, go to as many worst-case scenarios as you can think of and each time ask this...

3) 'What could I do about that?'
Really imagine it happening, whatever the worst things could be, and think about what you would do, how you would react, how you would cope with it, or even if you could cope.
Whatever you come up with, keep asking yourself 'and then what?' until you get to the end of it.

In effect, you are imagining the worst-case scenarios about anything and everything that is currently worrying you or could conceivably worry you in the future. Believe me when I say I know how counter-intuitive this seems because I see the look on my patients faces when I first suggest it to them! They are already feeling terrible with anxiety and I am telling them to do something that just seems like it could only make it worse!

What I then do, because all of us learn best by doing, is to go through the exercise with them then and there in my rooms. I ask them to pick the thing they are most worried about and then ask them 'what is the worst thing that could happen?' then what would they do about it if it did? Whatever they come up with I will say something to the effect of ... 'and then what?'

You just keep doing this, imagining the worst and what you could do about it, until you are at the end of it. Maybe the end will be some sort of solution but plenty of times you will find that you are worrying about things that ultimately you really can't do anything about. That's ok, once we truly realise this, then there is a release there too. However, you still need to go through the process of worrying it over first, it can't be abstract, you must look at it, think about it, and see what could happen as if it were a fact, no matter how much you might prefer it otherwise.

When people do this, there may be some initial increase in the physical discomfort of anxiety, and this is one of the reasons why it is important to be moving while you do this exercise, then, invariably, the mind and body both relax, often quite tangibly and quickly too, In other words you temporarily and briefly get worse, and then you get better, which is often the case in a healing process.

There is no doubt that this is a tough treatment, and don't be surprised if you find yourself making excuses not to do it, at least at first. However, all that matters is if it works, and it does, moreover if you practice it you will get better at it.

As you practice this method you will see your mind and your subconscious start to release that constant nagging sense of worry that is always present to an increased degree in a person with anxiety. The reason this happens is because you are truly attending to a basic need within, we really do need to worry! At least some anxiety is a part of our inherent nature, it is part of being human.

By the way, aside from its therapeutic benefits, don't be surprised if you come up with some good ideas to improve your life from doing this practice too! Every person who achieves success in their life, whatever form that might take, shares a quality of caring, and worrying, about those things that are important to them.

That said, remember that there will be plenty of times that what you have to worry about does not have any good answers to the 'and then what' question, that's ok too.

Even if you cannot solve a problem, somehow the mind and subconscious recognise that the anxieties have been acknowledged and internally 'discussed' and so they can be put aside for a time.

If and when you pick up those same problems the next time you practice your 'worry time' you may notice how they sting just a little bit less, and how you can carry them just a little bit more lightly...


Drug therapies

Enormous numbers of people take pharmaceutical drugs for anxiety and most of them come to feel quite dependent and stuck in a kind of 'holding pattern' with these medications. There is clearly a compelling belief, that many people share, which is that reducing the suffering of anxiety is good enough grounds for some degree of sedation and a life-long dependency.

However, even if this has been the case, no-one should therefore assume that a person could never find a way to improve their mental health to the point of not needing any kind of medication.

In my own practice, I advise people to wait until they start feeling tangibly better from the herbs and other steps before coming off their drugs. People always do improve with the approach described here, often quickly too and, once they are sure it's working, it is a much easier prospect to take the great step of getting drug free.

Stop when ready

I know that what I am about to say goes against mainstream medical opinion but, after working with a great many people with this issue, my experience has been that most medications that affect the mind are better to just stop completely when the person is ready rather than via the slow process of gradual withdrawal that is recommended by prescribing doctors and their support staff.

Mind altering drugs, which certainly includes anxiety medications and anti-depressants, bring about both physical and psychological dependency. This is not much talked about or acknowledged but if you have been on these medications for any length of time and accidentally missed a few day's doses, or maybe just stopped taking them before you were ready, you will have been left in no doubt about it.

The brain is the most sensitive organ in the body and it certainly notices when things that have been affecting its core chemistry are changed or withdrawn. Most people feel at least a little weird as they go through a process of readjustment from stopping any kind of mind-altering substance.

There is a period of time, usually about 5-7 days long, and usually starting after a few days of stopping a mind-altering drug, where people can feel quite 'altered'. The process is experienced and described differently but a common ground is in just how physical it is. Their head, their nerves, their brain feels different, 'out of sorts', it's not painful per se, just 'weird and different'

If a person didn't know that this was happening because of a drug withdrawal they would likely worry that it was signifying a return of their symptoms of anxiety or depression and this is why many people fail when they first try to stop their medications. They freak out that the 'weirdness' they are feeling is a sign that they are going back into a bad place and never imagine that it could be from any kind of withdrawal.

What has been seen, time and again is that, so long as the person is already doing tangibly better with a natural approach and they feel ready to stop, and that they know to expect a short period of feeling altered, that nearly everyone can move through this phase quite smoothly, because it does soon pass...

The other big change that then happens is that the person simply 'feels more'. The drugs that reduced anxiety also reduced other emotions. People talk about feeling like a kind of 'fog' or 'blanket' has been lifted off their nerves after they go through this process.

They feel more raw and vulnerable to the world and this is certainly tough to get used to again. They also, at least sometimes, feel more joy and happiness too. People just feel more... everything. Many people have told me how strangely glad they feel that they can cry again, something that may have dried up more or less completely for however many years they were on medications...

Believe me when I say that I do know how this approach can look like a tough prospect to a person and you should know that I never put pressure on my patients to stop their medications before they are ready, never.

If they aren't ready, then we just call this topic an 'open conversation' that they are welcome to come back and revisit whenever they want to. Nearly everyone gets there eventually, and it is extremely rare that they ever want to go back to taking drugs again.

Viburnum opulus (Cramp bark)


Constitutional Health Note

Finally, you might benefit from learning about your constitution to know what kind of foods, herbs, exercises etc. will work especially well for your health in general.

Constitutional health is an old and fascinating way of understanding our differences. There's a brief introduction here and a more detailed section on working out which constitution you are here

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd