What Can Ayurveda Teach Us About Anxiety?
It’s a real possibility that anxiety has touched nearly everyone I know. The pressures of life, the uncertainty of the future, and a constantly changing world are more than enough to create the sense that the rug is perpetually being pulled out from under our feet.
My first experiences with anxiety began as a little girl. I remember getting my first failing grade. As my eyes settled on the big “Unsatisfactory” scrawled at the top of my fourth grade math test, my mind launched into a fast-forward of my future.
Was I going to graduate? Go to college? Be able to support myself? Was I going to be able to survive?
When I took my driver’s test at 15 years old, I was again riddled with anxiety. My nerves were so jumpy that I accidentally started to make a left turn into oncoming traffic, failing instantly.
I hadn’t even left the DMV parking lot.
This was also about the time that I began yoga practice, and I kept wondering why I couldn’t simply will myself to be calm with the meditation techniques I learned in class.
If only it were so simple.
It’s been a journey of years to help me understand the deeper elements at play behind my experience of anxiety, and Ayurveda has played an integral role in this process of self-reflection.
Ayurveda is the name of the traditional medicine system of India. In Sanskrit, it means “science of life.”
Ayurveda isn’t just about herbs and complementary treatments. It’s actually a complete outlook, a way of seeing life and the world that has a rich history and cultural depth.
Ayurveda is still highly relevant for millions of Indian people today, and increasingly for Westerners as well.
While Ayurveda is sometimes treated as the latest buzzword without much cultural context or background (or in some cases, accuracy), it’s finding a place in Western society more and more.
Ayurveda is getting more attention and acceptance as accredited training programs true to the system’s roots pop up across North America and Europe.
Ayurveda is a self-contained, cohesive system with its own cosmology, herbology, and process of diagnosis. It’s a rich lens for understanding our health, our bodies, our minds, and the environment in which we live.
Blowing in the wind
To understand anxiety through an Ayurvedic lens, it’s important to first understand that Ayurveda sees existence itself as made up of particular elements. I think of this lens as a poetic metaphor for experiencing self and life.
Whether fire, water, earth, wind, or space, everything in existence is made up of some combination of these parts.
It’s easiest to see the elements expressed in food: a hot pepper contains fire element, a sweet potato contains earth, and a brothy soup contains water. Simple, right?
You can see the elements in emotions as well. If you’re angry and “seeing red,” you bet there’s some fire element coursing through you.
If you’re deeply in love, you’re likely experiencing the ooey, gooey sweetness of water element. If you feel strong and grounded, you’re likely experiencing earth.
When it comes to anxiety, wind element is largely at play. If you imagine a leaf blown about by the breeze or a candle flame flickering in the wind, you can see why anxiety and wind go hand in hand.
As I looked at myself with this metaphor in mind, I saw that I was constantly on the move, both in my body and my mind. I walked quickly, balanced 10 tasks at once, and was always “on.”
When fear and stress are acute, it’s difficult to feel calm, still, resolute, and sure of where you’re going. My experience felt very much like a leaf trembling in the wind, blown about by every new gust.
Beyond the elements
Ayurvedic cosmology breaks down the elements even further into gunas, or qualities. These qualities are the basic building blocks that compose everything, from food to feeling.
A fundamental shift happened for me when I began to see the gunas manifesting in everything I did and experienced. When I became sensitive to the underlying qualities that made up those experiences, I could seek out the ones that brought me closer to a state of calm.
The 20 gunas are as follows:
At first blush, it may seem difficult to apply these qualities to our everyday experiences. But with an open mind and a closer look, we can start to see how the polarities in these qualities can apply to much of life, including the experience of anxiety.
If you think back to that leaf blowing in the wind, we could assign it with the following qualities:
The leaf is crunchy and dry. Its cells no longer have nutrients or liquid to keep it lively and green. No longer malleable to the touch, the leaf is hard, rough, and crunchy. It may even crumble when held. It’s mobile and fast in the sense that the wind is blowing it every which way.
When I personally experience acute anxiety, I feel many of these qualities as well.
My thoughts get going at a break-neck speed, evoking the qualities Fast and Mobile, and are often rough, or self-critical, in nature. I sometimes get a dry mouth when anxious, feeling thirsty or even parched.
I feel sensations in my body I’d describe as subtle: tingles, numbness, or even heat. I often feel lightness in the head, even dizziness. My muscles feel dense from tension, and my mind is cloudy to the point that I can’t think straight.
Now think of that leaf when it was lush and green, still attached to the tree and full of nutrients. It was getting plenty of water, making it supple and bendable. This was largely due to the liquid inside of its cells.
The water the leaf held inside gave it more weight and substantiality. It was soft to the touch and might have even had a smooth, oily sheen. It was moving much more slowly, gently bouncing in the breeze rather than flying about erratically with every gust.
Similarly, relaxation looks a lot more like this leaf. When relaxed, I feel slow, smooth, and soft, and my mind feels clear. When my body isn’t stressed, my skin, hair, and nails have a healthy, oily sheen.
We can apply these same qualities to our actions. When I want to evoke calm rather than anxiety, I look for opportunities to incorporate calming qualities into my day to day.
One of my staple ways to do this is with daily self-massage, or abhyanga. I use sweet almond oil to slowly and intentionally massage myself from head to foot before stepping into the shower.
I clear my head and focus on feeling the sensations, consciously letting go of thoughts about what I’ll be doing next. Adding body awareness emphasized Gross (in the sense of broad and unmistakeable, not in the sense of vulgar or offensive) over Subtle, since the body itself is gross, physical, and tangible while the thoughts are subtle and invisible.
This practice is intended to soothe the nervous system and creates a sense of cohesiveness in the largest organ, the skin. Plus, it checks the boxes for the qualities of Slow, Smooth, Soft, Oily, Liquid, and Gross.ADVERTISING
Steps to still the wind
If you want to try the Ayurvedic approach to calming anxiety, all you have to do is evoke the qualities that are its opposite.
The beautiful thing about it is that it can be totally customized to what works best for you. Below are some options for hitting each category in doable, realistic ways.
The easiest and most satisfying way to evoke this quality is to eat a filling meal.
You don’t have to overdo it, but there’s a lot of psychological power in having a satisfied belly. It sends signals to your brain that your most basic need is met, and the experience in itself can be comforting and nourishing.
Another way to evoke Heavy is to get a big cuddle. Sometimes nothing is better than playing the little spoon when you feel anxiety coming on. Weighted blankets and weighted vests can be another great option.
My preferred way to evoke this quality is to simply stay put. This means if I don’t have to go somewhere, I don’t. I don’t run around just to fill my time, and if I need to run errands I try to cap at three per day if possible.
When I travel, I prefer to stay in one place for a longer chunk of time rather than hopping from city to city. This gives my nervous system time to settle in and really savor the experience (plus it takes a lot less planning).
I evoke Soft in my day by wearing comfortable clothes that aren’t too tight. I choose clothes that allow for good circulation, breathability, and flexibility. This doesn’t mean I wear yoga pants every day. I just tend to avoid itchy, tight, or artificial fabrics.
Other favorite ways to evoke Soft are petting my cats, singing my son to sleep, or cuddling under satin sheets.
Oil acts as a barrier, giving us an extra layer for keeping things like germs out. Oil pulling is another way to create this barrier.
I also focus on getting lots of oil in my diet. Healthy fats replicate the fatty texture of myelin, the protective coating of the nerve cells. Consuming fats can help reduce demyelination, which is the erosion of these protective sheaths.
To evoke the quality of Clear in my life, I clear out my schedule. I only commit to what’s necessary, and let other things go.
This is a constant practice. When I notice I’m starting to inch toward overwhelm, I pare back my commitments.
I also avoid media if it isn’t necessary. I immediately feel my mind jumble up when I engage in it, even if it’s just reading the news or answering my text messages. I do my best to keep it to a minimum.
Another favorite activity for evoking Clear is simply taking a little time to gaze at the horizon on a clear day. As simple as it is, it can create a sense of expansiveness even when I’m in a difficult place.
To invoke Slow, I literally try to slow down. In addition to under-scheduling and limiting my errands, I try to move more slowly when I notice my pace is ramped up.
I’m naturally a fast walker and fast driver. My friends will tell you I’m usually 10 paces ahead. When I deliberately go more slowly than my nerves might like me to, I’m retraining them to enjoy slowness and not crave constant speed.
I’ll drive just a little bit slower, walk at a more relaxed gait, even intentionally miss a yellow light so I can practice waiting patiently at the red.
I also try to eat my meals with a little more deliberateness. If I can, I’ll spend 20 minutes on a meal rather than grabbing something and rushing off to the next activity. I try to allow myself to focus only on the meal without multitasking.
Again, my oil massage hits this mark. That’s why I’m such a fan. Other ways I like to evoke smooth are through sensual dance, listening to jazz music, or playing with clay.
Getting an oil massage from a massage therapist is a great option, too.
One of the most powerful ways that I evoke Gross is to do a hard workout. I avoid cardio, as that can increase the feeling of “windiness” from being out of breath. Rather, I focus on heavy weights and making my muscles really work. This gets me out of my head and into my body.
Another way to do this is practice body awareness. You can feel the bottoms of your feet as you take a walk, or simply bring your attention from body part to body part and really feel each one as you go.
When invoking Liquid, I eat hearty soups and stews made with vegetable or bone broth. I include sea vegetables like wakame and hijiki, and foods high in water content like cucumber.
I focus on hydration with extra water intake throughout the day. Drinking it warm in a thermos can be extremely soothing, especially in the morning and in cold climates.
Hot, Cold, Moderate
Interestingly, neither Hot nor Cold are considered helpful to reduce wind element in Ayurveda. Both extreme heat and cold can actually aggravate it. This makes sense to me as someone who can often feel very hot or very cold during acute anxiety. Instead, I focus on evoking the quality of Moderation in temperature.
I won’t take a bath that’s piping hot, and I bundle up well when out in the cold. I make sure my feet are always covered in socks when puttering around at home, and always have an extra layer available. https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Fortify your system
When I’m consistent with these practices, it makes a huge difference. I don’t feel like a pingpong ball bouncing from place to place.
To calm the erratic quality that anxiety often brings, I focus on creating strong boundaries. I do my best to stick to my routine, schedule necessary activities, and introduce regularity into my life.
I also make an effort to be intentional about whom I share space and time with, and I’m still working on saying no when I’m at my max.
In Ayurveda, this is known as “creating a container.” When you create a container, you’re sending a signal to your body that its walls are fortified, that you’re safe and protected inside.
The concept of creating a container also extends to your social and emotional boundaries, your immune system, your decision making, and your steadfastness.
When you have strong boundaries in your relationships, you’re protecting your container from emotional “invasion.” When your immune system is cultivated and cared for, you’re protecting your container from germs.
When you trust yourself and stick to your plans and commitments, you’re protecting your container from structural leaks. You’re showing up in the world as who you say you are. Your actions are consistent with your words.
Anxiety can be truly debilitating, but these steps may provide a sense of calm. When practiced with regularity, they in themselves create an intentional container for calm, relaxation, and presence.
This article was originally published on Healthline.com.