Ellen Vora M.D. is a holistic psychiatrist practicing with Frank Lipman M.D. at the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City. This week, we’re sharing Dr. Vora’s expertise in a new series on natural remedies to calm the body and mind. To learn more, check out her mindbodygreen class How to Control Anxiety: Doctor-Backed Natural Remedies for a Calm & Centered Life.
In Western medicine, we have a tendency to see symptoms as annoyances that should be defeated and squashed. Anxiety is no exception. We pop pills, get drunk, stay busy, work excessively and generally distract ourselves in an effort to avoid feeling our anxiety. This is understandable—anxiety can be quite unpleasant.
But so often, the missing piece of the puzzle to heal our anxiety is to actually let ourselves feel our anxiety and listen to what it's telling us.
The Nature of Anxiety
As a holistic psychiatrist practicing in New York City, I'm guilty of making this mistake as well. When a patient tells me they have anxiety, my first thought is let's fix it. Instead of prescribing medicine right away, I work with patients to heal their anxiety through sleep, nutrition, gut healing, exercise, stress management, yoga, meditation, community, and nature.
But at the end of the day, I, too, am guilty of bulldozing right past the meaning of the anxiety. Often the clue to how to soothe anxiety is baked into the anxiety itself. When it comes to anxiety, the most important thing any of us can do is listen. Get quiet and listen.
Anxiety & Panic: Internal Body Language
Anxiety and panic are two ways the body communicates. Anxiety is often the body saying, "No, I'm not aligned with some aspect of this situation." In fact, anxiety and panic are not your body talking but your body shouting. This arises after months or years of rumblings from your body being repeatedly ignored.
Say your gut knows you're not in the right relationship or the right job, or you're not treating someone right, or you're not being treated right. It might begin with subtle signs, like irritability, a sense of unease in certain settings, or even a sense of knowing that something has to change. If all these murmurings are systematically ignored, eventually the body escalates and starts to talk louder. Enter anxiety and panic. They are serving a purpose: They are our gut feeling telling us that something isn't right.
And yet, we think of panic and anxiety as a nuisance, a discomfort, something to be suppressed with medication or alcohol. When we do this, we miss out on the message. The message itself is not a nuisance but a treasure. It's often an inconvenient truth, but it must be heeded.
Anxiety is not an annoying symptom to be suppressed or ignored. It's your body, in all its wisdom, communicating something important. Rather than suppressing this feeling, we need to listen to it. Only then will we be able to respond appropriately and treat the anxiety effectively.
How to Listen to Your Anxiety (for Relief)
How do you listen to anxiety? There are a few approaches.
You can meditate—basically sit, get quiet, aim for choiceless awareness, and see what bubbles up. You can take a cue from Freud and free associate, saying or journaling whatever comes to mind. What I find most effective with my patients is to listen to the language of the anxiety and repeat it out loud until something resonates. It might feel weird at first, but the language and theme of your anxiety offers clues to the underlying issues at play.
Do you feel most anxious when you're alone? Then you probably need to reclaim community in your life, and you need to at least take steps toward developing fulfilling relationships.
Sometimes panic always strikes on Sunday night or while you're commuting to work. Then we need to look at your feelings about your job. Perhaps you're remaining in a job because you feel you "should," when you actually strongly dislike it. Perhaps there's a boss or a co-worker with some bad juju. Speak up and do what you need to do to create a positive work environment for yourself.
Do Something About It
Only when we pause to listen to the language, the symbolism, the context of the anxiety do we get the message. Anxiety is not an annoying symptom to be squashed, suppressed, or ignored. It's your body, in all its wisdom, communicating something important.
And always remember to say thank you. Thank your body for anxiety. Thank it for being concerned about you and for taking the time and energy to start the dialogue.