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Understanding Anxiety: East vs West


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I find it fascinating to compare how different medical systems approach the same medical condition. Let’s take a closer look at one of the most common conditions that we face today: anxiety.

1. Western: imbalance of neurotransmitters

In the West, we tend to think of anxiety as something that is “in your head.” In medical school, doctors are taught that anxiety is related to an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Thus, the most commonly prescribed medications are “SSRIs” or “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.” Essentially, these boost the levels of serotonin in your brain. 

 While SSRIs can be effective for some patients, many find them ineffective in the long run or run into troublesome side effects like low libido and sexual issues. As a reminder, you need to talk to your doctor before stopping any of your medications, and with SSRI medications specifically it is dangerous to stop “cold turkey,” as this will cause a sudden drop in your serotonin levels. These medications need to be weaned off slowly under the supervision of your doctor. 

 To be fair, most Western doctors also recommend talk therapy alongside medications. This is almost always a good idea! I am a huge fan of talk therapy. There are many different types of providers and styles for this, and there is no right or wrong here. It’s about finding the right provider and style based on your own personal preferences.

2. Integrative: overactive “fight-or-flight” response

In the Integrative and functional world, there are many alternative theories about anxiety. The most common theory is that anxiety is actually a symptom of overactive sympathetic nervous system activity. Your body has an autonomic, or as I like to call it, an automatic nervous system. This system is very old evolutionarily, and controls essential processes like our breathing pattern and heart rate. It has two parts, which act in opposition to each other: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. 

The sympathetic nervous system is also called the “flight or flight” response. This system evolved to help us to deal with life threatening situations, like facing a predator. You can either fight, flee, or freeze (play dead). In modern times however, this system gets hijacked by sirens in the street or even an email from your boss. Your body reacts as if these were a physical threat. Thus we get stuck in a state of survival mode. 

If this goes on for too long, it triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). This can trigger many negative side effects, like inflammation and anxiety. To counteract this, Integrative Medicine recommends vagal strengthening exercises like diaphragmatic breathing. 

3. Ayurveda: too much “vata” or ‘wind’ element

Ayurveda is an ancient system of medicine from India. If you’re not familiar with Ayurveda, check out our other blog posts here.

Ayurveda categorizes diseases into three main types: vata, pitta, and kapha. Pitta is a fire element and pitta conditions usually involve inflammation and excess heat. Kapha is an earth element and kapha conditions tend to involve swelling and congestion. Vata is a wind element and vata conditions often involve dryness and dehydration. Anxiety is a vata condition.

Vata is a mixture of ether and air. We can think of it as a cold, dry wind. Vata governs movement and circulation in the body. Vata controls your pulse. Vata controls the peristaltic waves that move food through your intestines. Vata also governs the flow of thoughts through your mind. In essence, the mind is a river of thoughts. 

Vata has the qualities of being cold, dry, rough, light, subtle, and mobile. Another word for mobile is racing. The defining symptom of anxiety is racing thoughts. But many patients with anxiety also experience palpitations, the sensation that the heart is racing

Vata is subtle. Many patients with anxiety also experience subtle fear, or a subtle sense that something is wrong or something bad is going to happen.

In the fall, which is vata season, we might notice that our skin gets dry and cracked. Our stools might get hard and dry. We get constipated. But we might not notice how dryness affects us psychologically, where it can show up as fear, isolation, and loneliness.

If you’re interested to learn more about the Ayurvedic treatments for anxiety, watch the video above!

Photo by AndreyPopov

Disclaimer: The content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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