This week in our exploration of life as seen through Chinese medicine’s Five Phase theory, we’re going to discuss how the condition of anxiety can be seen through this lens. For a review of the basics of Five Phase theory, please see the Intro to Five Phase blog.
Anxiety can range in severity from a vague, momentary nagging feeling to a full-on panic attack, and its emotional component can also range from generalized feelings of instability to gut-wrenching fear. Although every phase can experience anxiety, this set of emotions can usually be traced back to an imbalance in either the Earth or Water phase. Earth and Water are the phases charged with feelings of stability and security. Water is our foundation, our well of personal resources that feeds and sustains us, allowing us to approach our lives with the confidence that, whatever happens during the day, we will somehow find the strength, willpower and cleverness to get through and even thrive. Earth, meanwhile, is our source of comfort and peace, the place in which we rest and rejuvenate. Earth is abundance itself, and it is the stage where we take both the innate resources we possess and the external resources we consume from the world and transform them into new life and health.
A quick disclaimer: anxiety can be your body’s way of telling you that it’s your life that’s out of balance, not you. As you work toward overcoming anxiety, always listen carefully to yourself to be sure whether the true source of anxiety comes from within or from without.
Let’s examine Water imbalance first. A healthy Water phase is strong and clear but also goes with the flow, like a clear freshwater lake or river: the water flows, but gently and smoothly in proportion to the appropriate boundaries created by its shoreline. When the water stops flowing, it can become a murky and stagnant pool, or dry up in the heat of the sun. Whether or not you are a Water-type person, either extreme of the Water phase can cause anxiety in the form of fear. Most commonly this type of anxiety affects Water, Fire and Earth phase people. It may show up physically as an inability to face the cause of the anxiety, refusing to budge from an old point of view, job, or place because the idea of change is just too frightening (this would be stagnant water, like the pool), or it may manifest as jumpiness, panic attacks, and being easily frightened or startled, or just feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, anxious because life just feels like too much to bear (this shows dried-up water).
If your anxiety symptoms fall into these categories, you may be able to balance your Water phase by using the other phases. Fire types can enlist their high level of social motivation to resist the stagnant impulses of Water and simultaneously renew dried-up Water by approaching the source of anxiety as a game or a social activity- safety and comfort in numbers and getting into the flow with others will help calm fear and re-ignite motion. Earth types can use their helping impulse to do something similar. Rather than a game, though, an Earth type will regain confidence and drive by exploring the possible ways in which the source of anxiety could be changed into a source of nurturing: are you afraid of taking a new class that, in the end, will help you become a better teacher/doctor/artist/lawyer? Water types experiencing fear-type anxiety can examine whether they have too much Fire or Earth encroaching on their life, or not enough. A Water-type approaching a new challenge from an Earth or Fire perspective (taking a new class and expecting oneself to be outgoing and charming on the first day) will naturally feel afraid.
Earth-type anxiety is more a feeling of inertia. The mind keeps retracing its steps, ruminating and working itself up, but the body feels exhausted even before any activity, which can lead to a lot of sitting around and no action taken to address the source of the anxiety. Physical symptoms include digestive upset, whether stomachaches, constipation, diarrhea or acid reflux. The metaphor for this situation would be a field: with little nutrients and no rain, crops can’t grow in the poor soil. If the field is a swamp, though, many plants may grow- just not so many useful ones. When there is adequate soil, rain, and drainage, nutritious, healthful crops will grow tall. Earth-phase anxiety is most likely to affect Wood, Water and Earth types.
If this type of anxiety is affecting you, try bringing your Earth phase back to balance. For Wood types, this generally means using your powers of organization and control to an appropriate extent: Wood loves nothing more than just to do all the jobs of all the phases. This level of control and constant activity, however, eventually depletes Earth. A field must have fallow years of rest and unfettered, disorganized growth in order to replenish. Adding the goal of rest and unscheduled time may sound distasteful to the Wood-phase person, but in the end it will make you stronger and more relaxed, therefore more able to accomplish your many goals.
Water types may have more of a tendency toward bogged-down Earth, which can lead to anxious feelings because Water has innate belief in potential, but then sees no results. A little activation will go a long way in this case: drain the field, and what is left is incredibly fertile soil. While Water is not naturally driven to action, in this case, once you see the outward flowering of your own potential it will reinforce your sense of power and confidence.
Earth-types experiencing this sort of anxiety should first determine whether they feel more depleted or bogged-down, then use the above-mentioned strategies to counteract their anxiety. Like the Water-phase anxiety, another consideration is whether you are attempting to react to a stressful situation like the Earth type you are, or attempting to approach it like a Metal or Wood-phase person. You will feel less anxious in general if you can approach life from an Earth perspective, using your copious resources and knack for caring to care for yourself as well as others, to enjoy the fruits of your efforts as well as ruminating over what must come next.