by Dr John
McDonald, PhD

Anxiety can be very uncomfortable,
even excruciating and paralysing, but Traditional Chinese Medicine has developed
some strategies which might help.

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine was a Chinese medical
classic written more than two thousand years ago. This classic introduced the
theory of Five Elements – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. The Five Elements
harmonise with each other through the Generating cycle (Sheng cycle) and the Constraining
cycle (Ke cycle).

Wood generates Fire, Fire generates Earth,
Earth generates Metal, Metal generates Water, Water generates Wood.

Wood constrains Earth, Earth constrains Water, Water constrains Fire, Fire constrains Metal, Metal constrains Wood.

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic also associated a particular emotion
with each element – Anger with Wood, Joy with Fire, Reflection with Earth, Grief
with Metal and Fear with Water. The Generating and Constraining relationships
could also be applied to the emotions.

Anger generates Joy, Joy generates
Reflection, Reflection generates Grief, Grief generates Fear, Fear generates
Anger.

Anger constrains Reflection, Reflection constrains Fear, Fear constrains Joy, Joy constrains Grief, Grief constrains Anger.

The Five Element relationships between the emotions was used as
the basis for a therapy by 12th Century Chinese doctor, Zhang Congzheng.
By creating specific emotions, he reasoned that this could generate or constrain
other emotions. Among his case histories he recounts stories of making an emperor
laugh with a comedy performance to break through excessive grief, and provoking
anger to break through excessive reflection. According to Zhang, the Constraining
emotion should be used to produce a short-term effect but for long term
resolution, the Generating emotion should be the focus.

So how can this be applied to dealing
with anxiety? There are several strategies suggested by this model.

Reflection
constrains fear

Fear
is not just a feeling. It is whole body experience. When we experience fear, a
physiological alarm goes off. Our breathing changes, our heart beats faster and
a surge of adrenalin prepares us for fight or flight. But are we reacting to a
real danger, or is it just a perception of danger? Let’s take a scenario of running
late for work on a train. We become anxious and our breathing and heart rate
change. So how big a danger are we really facing here? Let us reflect for a moment.
Are we about to die? No. Suffer serious injury? No. Will our boss physically
attack us when we arrive late to work? Probably not. Will our boss be verbally abusive
and humiliate us in front of the other staff? Probably not. Will we be fired on
the spot? Very unlikely. We arrive at work to find that the boss has not yet
arrived. His train was delayed too. Then we wonder why we agonised through that
entire train journey over a threat which was not real. Reflection can be useful
to assess just how much danger we are really in at any given moment.

Joy
constrains grief, which generates fear

Laughter
helps to move us out of grief, even if only temporarily. These days comedy is
not hard to find and by choosing to watch comedy rather than horror or drama,
we can constrain grief, which in turn will then not generate fear. A good sense
of humour and a hearty laugh can help to move us out of anxiety.

Grief
generates fear

When
fear is a longstanding issue for us, Zhang recommended that we focus on dealing
with our sense of loss. Fear is generated by what we fear to lose. When we have
nothing to lose we have nothing to fear. This is a process which could take a
long time, but there is no rush.

Create
tranquility – breathe

The
opposite of fear is tranquillity. When we are tranquil and serene, anxiety
simply does not arise. The opposite of “fight or flight” is “rest and digest”. When
the sympathetic nervous system is triggered this creates the adrenal rush of “fight
or flight”. The parasympathetic nervous system, when activated, inhibits the sympathetic
nervous system and switches off the alarm – the emergency is past; everything is
fine. This is called the “rest and digest” state. So how do we switch off the
alarm? The key is to deliberately change our breathing. When our breath is
rapid and shallow, our body will believe we are in danger, even if the
emergency is running late for work, as opposed to being in fear of our lives. Our
sympathetic nervous system cannot tell the difference between real danger and anxiety.
The way to switch off the alarm is to breathe like we are perfectly safe –
slowly and deeply. This could be meditation, yoga or Tai Ji Quan but it does
not need to be. We can also achieve the same result by singing or physical activity
(dancing, walking, swimming, exercise) as they all change our breathing. Physical
activity also helps by burning off the arenalin that our body helpfully
provided us with to help us outrun whatever was chasing us.

REFLECT    LAUGH    BREATHE

This content was originally published here.

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