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 are you feeling?

The word anxiety is, at best, only a pointer to what is going on underneath. When I have a patient come to me in a state of bad tension, and they are using the word anxiety, I usually start by asking them to describe the actual feelings they are experiencing within their bodies.

It always then becomes clear that, as much as it is thought of and talked about as if it were a psychological state, anxiety involves a great deal of profound physical discomfort and there are invariably a number of tangible and most unpleasant symptoms.

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Inner peace is often compared to being like a lake of calm water. In this analogy the mental state of anxiety is a disturbance at the surface of the water whilst physical tension is the deeper agitation underneath. People with anxiety are mostly aware of their disturbed thinking on the surface but it is the physical tension beneath this that contributes to most of the actual feelings of anxiety.

Understanding how the body and mind work in this way gives a tremendously important key to curing anxiety. The more a person can 'calm their inner water', i.e. release their physical tension, the more the mind will inevitably relax because anxiety cannot be sustained without a lot of tension underneath it.

All the old cultures of medicine understood this and I likewise find people immediately grasp this concept as soon as they consider it with an open mind. People do not have to solve all their problems before they can get better and neither do they have to stop worrying about those problems before they can relax!

A person makes their anxiety worse by over-analysing it, what is much more helpful is to take some practical steps that release that underlying tension. Once the logic of this approach is firmly grasped this then the way to go forwards quickly becomes clear...

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Herbal Medicine

In September 2010 we experienced the first of three massive earthquakes in Christchurch. Many lives were lost and our inner city was decimated. In the immediate days that followed I thought deeply on how I could best help and so worked through a process to put together a certain combination of herbs that I've simply called 'relaxing herbal formula', it is described in detail further below.

I had built up a large data-base of past patients since being in practice in Christchurch since 1989 and so sent out an email to everyone saying, despite much damage to our own clinic, that we were still open and that they were welcome to come and get this relaxing herbal formula and be shown how to use it for no charge other than the pure cost of the medicine itself.

Over the coming months I saw many hundreds of people in extreme states of stress and anxiety. Many had lost loved ones, lost their homes, lost their livelihoods. Just about every day there were significant aftershocks, many thousands in total and our community was in collective shock. Each time I saw a person who needed it I gave them a dose of the relaxing formula then and there in my rooms, showed them how to use it, then gave them a bottle to use as freely and frequently as they required.

This hands-on process 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 taking that first dose I saw 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, and you would nearly always see a hint of 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 and we only used and passed on that which actually helped!

I would not dream of treating anxiety or tension without using herbs first and foremost and I likewise urge you to begin your own healing process with some good, strong help from nature. As much as anxiety appears to be a psychological condition the truth is that the mind is profoundly affected by the body and letting Nature help us to relax takes us a huge step forwards to getting back our inner peace.


Lobelia inflata

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Relaxing Herbal Formula

Lobelia leaf 5 mls
Cramp bark 10mls
Kava root 10 mls
Wild Yam root 10 mls
Skullcap leaf 10 mls
Licorice root 5 mls

The formula above is to make 50mls, note that we make our own ethanol and our own tinctures from organic dried herbs so this may vary with other products but the typical dose I see from this mixture that has the right effect is around 20 drops (1ml) as frequently as required. I encourage my patients to use this formula very freely in the early days of treatment with no upper limit on the number of times they can take it in a day and I have never seen it do any kind of harm to anyone when used in this way.

So long as the patient can feel a characteristic subtle but scratchy 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, their breathing deepens, their shoulders drop and they start to visibly relax. Also, if you feel the pulse before 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 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 just as often as you wish or whenever you find your subconscious drawn back to thinking about the herbs and what it is you are trying to achieve.

When I give the relaxing formula I pretty much always give the first dose with my patient with me in my rooms and then I also teach them an extremely simply breathing exercise to do each time they take a dose. It involves just three deep breaths where you breathe in through the nose to the count of 7, then out through the nose to a count of 11 with a pause at the end. In 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 wait for your body to take in the next inhalation.

The 7-11 relaxation exercise has the instant effect of slightly increasing carbon-dioxide levels and is a 100% effective method to stop hyperventilation and panic-attacks. I talk some more about this exercise and then go once through it in a short recording that you can find near the top of this page here.

Notes on the herbs in the relaxing formula

I and others believe that one of the most relaxing of all herbs is Lobelia, a key remedy of the great Native American herbal tradition. Lobelia must certainly be used with care but it is extremely potent when used wisely. Anyone wanting to get further acquainted with it should learn more about it before using it, perhaps starting here.

Another fast acting herb in the formula is Cramp bark, which lives up to its name in how it rapidly eases muscle tension throughout the body. Cramp bark has an accumulative effect and is a large part of the reason why the formula deepens its effect when used in successive doses; more on it here.

The Pacific Island herb Kava is a true powerhouse of a medicine when it comes to tension and anxiety, it also must be used with great care but can be incredibly relaxing. If you can get Kava wherever you are then do use it but if not then I would suggest you double down on the Cramp bark as they are at least a little similar in how they help bring about physical relaxation through the body, more about it here.

Wild yam has an excellent effect on tension stored in the gut, which is clearly a huge issue for many people with chronic anxiety. The action of Wild Yam seems to unwind the 'knot' in the gut just a little bit further with each subsequent dose; more on it here.

The herb Skullcap is one of the best of all remedies from Nature for an overactive and racing mind. Skullcap's action is not at all like a sedative drug so you can't compare them in that way but if a person takes a dose of Skullcap and observes its effect they will surely feel how things mentally cool down and ease up, more about it here.

Lastly the small amount of Licorice root is there to make the medicine much easier to take but also for its own gentle tonic action on stressed adrenal glands. Licorice root is an important remedy to many great herbal traditions, more on it here.


Scutellaria lateriflora (Skullcap)

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Exercise

There could have been be no possible doubt, but now a number of landmark studies have gone on to further prove, that exercise is of great benefit to people suffering from tension and anxiety. Mentally, exercise somehow shakes loose something that otherwise stays stuck and physically, whatever form of exercise you do, it contracts and stretches muscles that cannot help but be more relaxed at the end of it.

Most people know about this already but the two main obstacles I see in this area are 1) feeling too tense & tired to get started or 2) the opposite extreme; trying to do too much!

Tense and tired

Being tense for any length of time is frankly exhausting and many people with chronic anxiety feel too tired to exercise as well as too tense to relax! Making yourself exercise when you feel tired can take a real leap of faith in the beginning but you truly can trust that it will eventually help.

A person who is suffering from anxiety gets a kind of 'caged-up' tension that can best be released by physical exercise. It doesn't matter what you do so long as you are getting your heart rate up to at least some extent, which you can easily know you have achieved because you have to breathe harder!

Doing too much

At the other end of the scale plenty of people try to self-manage all of their anxiety through exercise and as a consequence tend to work-out rather frequently and intensely! This approach does help but if it is the only method then the person eventually tends to over-train which in turn leads to injury or exhaustion, This can lead to even more tension as the person is now unable to de-stress through their exercise.

Exercise should be a part of the cure for anxiety but not the whole answer. So how do you know if you are overdoing exercise? The answer is that the recovery time takes too long, the best level of exercise today is one that you are capable of doing again tomorrow.


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Relaxation

As well as calming herbs and stress-relieving exercise we must now also include the mind, which brings us 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 if you 'try' to relax you end up just making yourself more tense!

The reason that the more stressed a person is the less time they give to relaxation is that when we are agitated we have high levels of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol circulating in our bloodstreams. These are not happy, chilled-out hormones, they are highly get-up-and-go, aggravating hormones. They make us feel that we cannot relax until we have solved the causes of our stress, even if a part of us knows that this is a 'tomorrow will never come' type arrangement.

It also must be understood that trying to relax will only make a person tenser. Meditation, mindfulness etc. definitely have their place and I'm personally a big fan but I would gently suggest to a person with high levels of anxiety that this kind of thing might be better to get into after they have already gone a good way towards regaining some inner calm, not before. I say this because I see there is a better way to start relaxing and it is with those things that you already know and trust,

Do what you trust

For relaxation to work it has to be natural, easy and enjoyable and I think the initial focus should be on what a person already knows and trusts relaxes them.

This is a good question to be asked or to ask yourself 'what do you trust will relax you, what do you know will relax you so long as you actually do it?

Common responses I hear 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...

I usually get my patient to choose at least a couple of ways that they know and trust will genuinely relax them and then make them commit to actually doing them! When you go to all the trouble to book in and see someone and then on top of that you pay them for their time then you tend to listen to their advice, even if it is something so obvious as 'if you are tense then do what you know relaxes you!' You who are reading this have not had to travel or pay to hear any of this from me so I can only hope it doesn't just wash over you like a thousand other pieces of advice you may have already heard...

This said, you should expect, at least at first, that what you know and trust may not be as enjoyable or as relaxing as it used to be. This is because of the increased anxiety and the feeling this brings that you should always be doing something to fix your problems and that you just don't have time to relax!

If you know to anticipate this and resist the temptation to over-analyse it, then you will find that the world did not collapse because you took some time out. Little by litttle, the urgent, incessant drive to be always on, always doing or worrying, will start to lose its strangehold on your peace.

Even if at first you don't feel very relaxed whilst walking, or reading, or being out wiith friends etc. your subconscious is still registering that you are doing things that you associate with being happy and relaxed and that things aren't actually so bad, in fact they may even be ok...

Only after you have restarted doing those things that used to relax you and eventually will again do I recommend you consider going to some further steps. For this you might want to look at some of the guided relaxation commentaries in the section on my website, especially the one called relaxation for anxiety, you can find it near the top of the page here.

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Doing worry time

What follows is at first going to sound like odd advice but I have shared this technique with a great many people who have clearly found it to be of tremendous help. In fact I can factually state that 'if you do it, it works!'

This approach comes from recognising that it is in the nature of our minds to worry and, rather than see anxiety as some kind of character failing, you accept it as a part of human nature, even something that can convey its own benefits. 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.

I call this 'worry time' and encourage people to only do it when they are physically moving in a way that doesn't require concentration e.g. whilst walking, doing the dishes etc. Doing this when you are lying down or sitting still doesn't work so well, you need to be moving in some way to not get stuck but rather get through the process.

It's ideal to link the worry-time in with a routine walk, or some other household chore that happens at a similar time of day. Even after just doing it once or twice you should start finding that knowing that the 'worry time' is coming up at a certain point in the day, far from creating any sense of foreboding, helps you to better stay in the present and feel some peace of mind. This happens because the subconscious understands that you will be attending to some necessary material in your mental 'inbox' and is able to give you some space until the alloted time comes along!

The technique is to a) pick a worrying subject, and generally it is best to start with the number one worry in your life and then go down the list from there, then b) ask yourself 'what is the worst thing that could happen?' then c) go over 'what you could do about that?'

Whatever you come up with, you 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.

What I then do, because all of us learn best by doing, is actually 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 have to 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 (this is another reason why it is important to be moving while you do this exercise) and 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 oten the case in a true healing process.

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

If you practice worry time you will also see how 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 need to worry! At least some anxiety is a part of our inherent nature, it is part of being human, however sometimes we need to learn how to channel this instinct a little more carefully!

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 shares a quality of caring, which includes worrying, about things that another person might not bother with. There is good reason why a tendency to worry has been passed down though the generations, it has always helped us to survive and even thrive!

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, and remember that this really is ok.

Even if you cannot solve the problems of today or tomorrow, somehow the mind and subconscious recognise that the anxieties have been acknowledged and discussed and so can be put aside for a time. Pick up those same unsolvable problems the next time you practice your 'worry time' and notice how they sting just a little bit less, how you can carry them just a little bit easier...

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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 their medications, There is an argument that reducing the suffering of anxiety is good enough grounds for some degree of sedation and a life-long dependency but no-one should ever assume that a person cannot find a way to improve their mental health to the point of not needing any kind of medication.

In my own practice I almost always suggest to people to wait until they start feeling tangibly better from the herbs and other steps before coming off their drugs. People really do improve with the natural approach described here, often rather quickly, and once they are sure they are feeling better it is a much easier prospect to face their next great step along the way to becoming well.

Stop only when ready

I do realise that what I say here goes against the mainstream medical opinion but, after working with a great many people with this issue, my experience has been that medications that affect the mind are nearly always better to stop completely when the person is ready rather than via the very 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 to the reality of that dependency, it's a little scary!

All people feel weird as they go through a process of readjustment when they stop a mind-altering substance that they've been using for any length of time. 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.

There is a period of time, usually about 5-7 days long, and usually starting on about day 3 of stopping a mind-altering drug, where people can typically 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 diffferent, 'out of sorts', 'weird', it's not painful per se, just '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 that right there, by the way, 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 going back into a bad place... no wonder so many people get stuck on their drugs!

However, what I have found time and again is, so long as the person is already doing tangibly better with a natural approach, that they know to expect a short period of increased weirdness and that, crucially, they feel ready to stop, 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 every other emotion. People talk about feeling like a kind of fog or blanket has lifted off their nerves after they go through this process. They do feel more raw and vulnerable to the world and this is certainly tough to get used to again but they also at least sometimes feel more joy and happiness and they do pretty much all the time feel a lot more alive! I've also had a lot of people tell me how strangely glad they feel that they can cry again, something that may have dried up 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' and come back and revisit it whenever they are ready for that too. Nearly everyone gets there eventually and then it is extremely rare that they ever want to go back to taking drugs again.


Viburnum opulus (Cramp bark)

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Constitutional Health Note

Finally, there are many other old ways of healing from Nature that you might like to learn more about and, if so, then a good place to start would be to learn about your constitution to help better understand how anxiety or excess tension became an issue in your health as well as more about what kinds of foods, exercise, herbs etc. may best help you in general. There is a brief introduction to this interesting subject 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!

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd