The leaves are turning colors. We spent a few months out and about playing under the sun and outwardly traveling about. Since after Labor Day, we have been slowly making our way back home and inward. Students returning to school. Parents preparing the house to begin a new school year. Adults in general returning back from vacationing and starting a "new work year." The air is becoming brisk and light. The sun is retreating and the darkness of night increasing at an earlier time again. We have officially entered into Autumn and this is the time of year where the qualities of cold, dry, light and mobile increase in the atmosphere...but it doesn't stop there. Since we are a part of nature, we are easily influenced by the season. It is during this time of year that some of us are likely to experience symptoms such as anxiety. A prelude to the development of such a state can be seen from the perspective of Ayurveda which states that dryness and the influence of cold, light and mobile qualities are a contributing factor. Ayurveda is a science about cause and effect. As practitioners, we attempt to avoid bigger issues from developing by being aware of the fact that it is the little things that accumulate (starting from a point of possible past mild state) and that further develop into something that significantly grabs our attention. Typically, this is the "diagnosis" stage. Ayurveda attempts to prevent the bigger things from happening by noticing what little things build up. In the case of anxiety, we see that the mentioned qualities are a precursor for the development of anxiety. Anxiety tends to be accompanied by restlessness, insomnia, panic, fearful thoughts and nervousness. Of course, Ayurveda suggests that not everything is always clear cut and that there can be other factors such as genetics and trauma that can contribute towards Anxiety, but it is beyond the scope of this current article. At this point, we are simply looking at the qualities of anxiety and its relevance to not only constitution but also its expression during this season. Prevention and awareness are keys to supporting body-mind-spirit, according to Ayurveda.
As fall progresses into winter an increased dryness in our sinus passages can be noticed. The sinus' get dry and we have reactive mucus which can lead to colds and other upper respiratory infections. Other cavities of the body like the intestines can experience imbalances due to these qualities, thereby, producing symptoms such as constipation and even sleep related disturbances. When we have dryness in our colon, we have difficulty passing stools. We know that there is a direct connection between the state of the colon and our minds. The old adage that "most of life's most important decisions are made on the toilet." The skin is the largest organ of immunity and it is an absorptive organ. There are thousands of tiny micro-bacteria that live on the skin and maintain its integrity, protecting us from the environment. It is important to take care of the skin and by taking care of our skin, it takes care of us as a powerful pillar of health. Ayurveda says "you should be able to eat whatever you put on your skin." In essence, since the skin (consisting of approximately 12 pounds of our body weight) is an absorptive organ that whatever substances we put on our skin the skin will absorb so it is important to take note of how natural these products are. Substances that aren't natural to the body makes its way to through the body and to the liver where the liver has to process toxic chemicals and can cause negative effects on the mind as these free radicals roam throughout the body. This can directly/indirectly have an effect on how sensitive we are to the environment and depending on a person's constitution the predisposition of anxiety can increase. For instance, Vata (consisting of the elements air and space/ether) predominant types are already more inclined to experience anxiety. Pitta (consisting of heat and some water) types are not as easily swayed in the direction of anxiety and Kapha (consisting of water and earth elements) predominant types are least likely. Though, all three doshas (biological humors) can experience anxiety, it depends on specific circumstances. What is undeniable is that the qualities of the current season will have an effect on us. The main quality of cold definitely affects Vata and Kapha because both share the quality of cold and Pitta is more of a hot/fire nature and therefore, the cold simply alleviates the heat. As for the anxiety itself is an emotion that possesses the qualities of cold, dry, light and mobile. Vata governs the nervous system and Vatas primary qualities are cold, dry, light and mobile. Vata Season which is Fall/Early Winter, according to Ayurveda, is when these qualities are predominant. See the connection?
WHAT INCREASES ANXIETY?
1. FOOD AND FOOD HABITS. Eating food that is opposite to the qualities of the season can create or contribute towards anxiety, especially if we are in Vata Season. Nature supports us each day and throughout each season. Nature says that it will produce foods that are opposite in qualities to the season because it operates according to the notion that "like increases like and opposites cure." During the winter months when the qualities of cold, dry, light and mobile increase Nature says that it will give us ground vegetables and warming foods such as grains. We come inward and cook on a stove, heat up the fireplace and turn on the heat to balance the cold element. And the act of coming inward and "hibernating" is natures way of encouraging us to stay still. Eating cold, light salads during the cold/.light/dry season will only increase such qualities in our bodies. Vata predominant types tend to already have poor circulation and feel cold faster than Pitta predominant types. Kapha types may or may not be cold depending on their circulation. Sometimes the extra insulation keeps in their own heat and other times it just like cold snow. Eating on the go...fast foods...skipping meals...and eating while distracted (like looking at smart phones) all contribute towards a negative effect not only on the digestive system but also on the nervous system, because such movement is broken again down according to qualities and movement can be drying, light and cold. Through proper metabolism, the nervous system largely depends on what is happening in the digestive system.
2. POOR SLEEP. Meaning that the amount of sleep and the time we go to bed has a grave influence on our nervous system. Less sleep increases anxiety. The brain and nervous system require an average of 7-8 hours of adequate, deep rest to truly reset itself. Going to bed late, past 11/12 and after, and either waking up early still or waking up later can increase the chances of anxiety. More so if there is less sleep. Going to bed later than 11 increases the propensity of inflammation in the body which eventually can break down the myelin sheet and increases sensitivity of the axon and decrease in the natural lubrication surrounding the nerve tissue (axon/dendrites.) The inflammation increases because as melatonin is at its peak around 10pm the liver engages in activities to scan and clean the body up from the days activities and prepare it for the next day. Sacrificing sleep shouldn't really be an option since sleep is an important function for our overall well being. It is restorative to the mind, senses and entire nervous system. Day sleep can never really be a replacement or substitute for night sleep. Different elements are present and therefore have a different effect on the overall body. Prolonged exposure to poor sleep can cause a cascade of health issues from anxiety, insomnia, constipation, blood sugar imbalances and eventually other long-term neurological disorders. Though, there are some jobs that require being up at night and this is understandable. Ayurveda, in this case, says do your best to balance sleep and take some supplements like Ashwaganda, Guduchi, Brahmi and Amalaki to aid with reducing the stress on the nervous system; along with Vitamin B Complex, Magnesium and Vitamin D. Note that viewing any screen right before bed will have a negative effect on the nervous system and pull you in, keeping you up versus reading a book that will produce a more calming sedative effect (unless you're reading about politics.)
3. TECHNOLOGIES and excess exposure. Being exposed to technologies such as cell phones, laptops and tablets on a regular basis and for prolonged periods of time has a negative effect on the nervous system. As mentioned before, "like increases like and opposites cure", the qualities of technologies are stimulating and yet after long periods of time can produce lethargy of the senses. In Ayurveda we call this the Rajasic (chaotic)/Tamasic (lethargic) effect. We can see this when we stay up late on the computer. There is a electromagnetic polarity emitted by these technologies that mimic the natural electromagnetic currents emitted from the body. This polarity attracts each other and can derange us by pulling us in like a magnet. In extreme cases it becomes an addiction. It's easy to stay up late on the computer or viewing any screen because we are falsely energized but there is a pay off and we feel it when our sleep is disrupted and we tend to wake up foggy. Hence, the rajasic/tamasic effect. Personally, I've witnessed this from personal experience where being up late and on my Iphone how my nervous system felt super charged and made it difficult to fall asleep because my mind was stimulated. Yet, when I finally fell asleep and woke up the next morning I didn't feel rested. Additionally, I've seen this with partners where they are excessively bound to the computer and while sleeping with them I would wake up to notice them having involuntary twitches and jolts during the night. The body and mind are settling from such high stimulating frequencies and these twitches are an example of how the frequencies are being accumulated in the nerve tissue and the system is trying to discharge it to create homeostasis. Prolonged exposure can cause a cascade of health issues from anxiety, insomnia, constipation, blood sugar imbalances and eventually other long-term neurological disorders.
4. LACK OF ADEQUATE EXERCISE. The body needs to move. Too much movement can cause issues in the nerve tissue and too little movement can also effect the nervous system. Some of this depends on constitution. For instance, it is the Vata predominate type that is more inclined to movement because of the air element and therefore it is natural that the Vata person would justify moving and multi-tasking a lot. The true balance is a cultivation of this movement with being still and grounded. The Kapha person, prone to stagnation because these types aren't as easily inclined to be active, like a boulder needing to be pushed, can also have anxiety because Prana (life force) is designed to flow throughout the body and any blockage can stimulate a from of anxiety. For the Pitta type, they naturally are motivated and focused on activities but it is the steadfastness of such a characteristic of the Pitta type that in excess can cause the tissues to burn up eventually depleting the body. Exercise that is stimulating at night time is contraindicated for several reasons, one reason being that exercise regimens are intended to stimulate the Autonomic Nervous Systems pathway of Sympathetic Activity where adrenaline and cortisol are provoked. This has an energizing and motivating experience, which is what we don't really want when we are attempting to get the body ready for slumber, that requires more of the Parasympathetic Activity of the nervous system. Simply, if we are engaging in such activities during the time when melatonin (the sleep chemical) is actively in the blood stream in the earlier to later evening, we are replacing it with more cortisol and adrenaline. Some may justify by saying that they sleep well after exercising at night because of the exercise but when we thoroughly examine the physiology and chemistry of this it, on the surface, makes sense to be tired after a good work out BUT this isn't because the body is feeling adequately utilized during exercises it IS because it is being depleted in the long run. Exercising earlier in the day has a different effect and is more in alignment with the natural flow of our circadian rhythm. Make sense?
5. LOSING THE SUN. As we enter into autumn and into winter we have longer nights and shorter days. The sun is inspiring and expansive in its own way with its own qualities but the darkness of night is also etheric and expansive and shows us more of the unknown. The sun shines and we are familiar with what we see more easily which lends itself to being known but the night possesses the qualities of unknown and we can get lost, per say. This causes anxiety. The mere fact that we transition from long days and shorter nights to longer nights and shorter days can cause anxiety. This leads to the tendencies of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) where either anxiety or depression or both are present. I'll be writing a separate article on this, so stay tuned for the details of that. Vitamin D is a key vitamin that helps to bring the sun inside our bodies. It's called the sunshine vitamin and has a balancing effect on our nervous systems and enhancing immunity.
6. LACK OF TOUCH. Touch possesses the qualities of warming, grounding and nurturing. This balances the nervous system and there are various studies showing the importance of contact, cuddling, affection and bodywork/massage. Lack of touch has been shown to cause an increase in anxiety and un-groundedness. The nervous system becomes hypervigilant.
7. RECREATIONAL DRUGS. Using alcohol, though generally classified as a depressant, the excess use of alcohol can negatively impact the nervous system because the high acidic content of alcohol through its fermentation process involving sugar and yeast can deteriorate nerve tissue over time. Addiction forms from an imbalance in the mind and nervous system. Use of other drugs can burn us up and burn us out. All systems of the body are affected by additions in general. Current medical science is justifying the use of medical marijuana to address anxiety and other ailments. This is still a work in progress and Ayurveda says that marijuana should be used with caution and that there are healthier ways to take in cannabis that will have less of an effect on the nervous system. This is up to a qualified Ayurveda practitioner to determine; not to mention that Ayurvedic Practitioners are not legally permitted to prescribe cannabis. Recommendations can be made though, for those clients that already are in possession of cannabis. State by state regulations must also be honored.
8. MIND. Mind is where everything seems to pass through and get interpreted by. The mind can create stories and fixate on the future, which isn't now, and this can cause anxiety. This also has an effect on our breath because Ayurvedic Psychology suggests that where the mind goes, the breath goes and vice versa. Therefore, in yogic breathing practices we control the breath and by doing so we eventually can change patterns of our thinking. Our nervous system, when activated by anxiety, engages the Sympathetic Nervous System physiological responses because anxiety has an hypervigilant, upward/outward, dispersive, shallow and rapid experience in the body. Similarly, the mind focusing on the past can get caught up in depression when it revisits the past and holds on. These thoughts are anchors and pull us down. There are valuable gifts to explore with each emotion if we allow ourselves to "go there" and through the journey they have to sh ow us. When the experience of depression takes hold of us, the breath is affected and expresses itself as a stagnation. The cells aren't really breathing deeply, fully and completely. To remedy these opposite states, specific breathing practices are implemented where the breath is designed to create and opposite quality. For depression, we want to practice a breath that is deep, full, heating, uplifting and motivating; highly oxygenating the cells and mind. For anxiety, we would like the opposite to occur by grounding, warming, pacing, slowing down and ease in the breath to anchor the mind; like a kite with a weight attached. When we cultivate our awareness of the mind through practices of meditation, we can learn to be more present and we reduce the vacillation of the mind that swings like a pendulum from the past to the future, past to the future, past to future repeatedly. Being in the present moment causes NOW to be all that exists and this can be frightening to the mind. Being present in the moment causes the future and past to not exist and if the mind doesn't exist it experiences its own death. The mind will do whatever is possible not to go there with it. Yet, the nature of who we are and the essence of us does not know time and is omniPRESENT.
9. RUN, RUN, RUNNING...around, multi-tasking and always on the go with minimal consistent patterns in our lives can cause a lot of wear and tear. This eventually makes its way to our nervous system and everything else runs off kilter. Daily practices/rituals that are rooted in consistent patterns helps to reduce anxiety. See my previous article on "The Self and Sacred Rituals: Dinacharya" for more details around this.
HOW TO BALANCE ANXIETY
Ayurveda says "like increases like and opposites cure." Therefore, it is evident that to balance Vata we use Ayurvedic recommendations that apply the opposite qualities. In the case of general anxiety, the quality of cold, is nurtured by warmth. The quality of light, is supported by heavy. The quality of dry is remedied by moist and the quality of mobile is reminded of static.
So this is what we can do. Here are some basic recommendations:
1. Be mindful and consistent with sleep.
2. Find a time and exercise regimen that best meets the needs of your constitution.
3. Minimize exposure to recreational drugs.
4. Be mindful of your practices around technologies and take breaks in between. Ideally, all systems should be shut down by 10 (11 the latest.)
5. Eat seasonally and per your constitution; foods being Vata reducing.
6. Apply warm sesame or almond oil to your feet before putting your socks on in the morning.
7. Wear heavier footwear during the fall and winter months.
8. Apply a drop or two of warm sesame oil to each ear and close the ear with a cotton ball before bed.
9. Get a warm oil massage regularly.
10. Stay hydrated and with warm liquids (not necessarily coffee). Hydration supports cells, tissues and digestion.
11. Cuddle. Cuddle. Cuddle! Affection, body contact, love and care have a natural effect on grounding the nervous system.
12. Get cozy. Stay warm. Be more still and follow the season inward. Going against nature can also cause anxiety on a deeper level of the heart. Doing what's not ideal, when we know what is right for us can cause a dissonance and this dissonance can add to anxiety because we aren't feeling right in our heart about such things.
13. Practice deep, slow, easy and consistent breathing exercises.
14. Meditation is great but depends on how you meditate. Sometimes meditation, especially in the beginning, can cause anxiety because being still and with the screaming awareness of the many crazy thoughts that we are left with can cause anxiety.
15. Slow down and take care of yourself. When we don't, we can get anxious.
16. Check out my previous article on DAILY RITUALS
17. Check out my article on SEPTEMBER TRANSITION for more ideas on self-care practices.
18. There are other remedies to help with managing anxiety such as herbs and vitamins. See a qualified practitioner to support you with this.
19. Vata reducing yoga practices are very good for balancing any Vata related imbalances such as anxiety.
DISCLAIMER: This information is meant for educational purposes only and not considered medical advice. Any changes in lifestyle should be reviewed with a qualified practitioner and/or primary care physician if you are currently under their care for specific conditions.