anxiety and TCM

Anxiety & Traditional Chinese Medicine

Fear and anxiety are normal emotions and most people will experience them to some degree as a normal response to stress. Fear is an emotional, physical and behavioral response to an immediately recognizable threat (eg. intruder, car spinning on ice) while anxiety is a distressing, unpleasant emotional state of nervousness and uneasiness with less clear causes. Anxiety is less tied to the exact timing of a threat, it can be anticipatory before a threat, persist after a threat has passed or occur without a threat. Anxiety & Traditional Chinese Medicine can provide much support and long term relief.

Biomedicine Pathology, Etiology & Treatment

Anxiety becomes pathological when it repeatedly interferes with daily life, is irrational, excessively prolonged or out of proportion with the cause. There are subjective as well as objective manifestations. Subjective manifestations range from heightened awareness to deep fear of impending disaster or death. The objective manifestations, which occur with activation of the sympathetic cascade through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HTPA), include restlessness, sweating, palpitations, increase in heart rate and blood pressure, dry mouth and a desire to run and escape. Anxiety is the most prevalent of the psychiatric disorders and affects 28.8% of all individuals, women more than men. According to the DSM IV classification system anxiety is subdivided into five types, depending on clinical characteristics and response to pharmacologic agents:

Panic Disorder

The experience of intense fear with neurologic (dizziness, lightheadedness, paresthesias, fainting), cardiac (tachycardia, chest pain, palpitations), respiratory (shortness of breath, feeling of smothering or choking) and psychological symptoms (feeling of impending doom, fear of dying and a sense of unreality). Panic attacks usually last for 15 to 30 minutes. Depression can co-exist in 40% to 80% of patients and substance abuse disorders are common. Neurophysiologic studies suggest that the attacks may result from an abnormally sensitive ‘fear network’ in the amygdala and involving interactions with the hypothalamus and prefrontal cortex. Panic attack patients have lower serotonin levels than normal. Treatment usually involves behavioral, psychological and drug therapies (antidepressants, SSRIs)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Chronic activation of a stress response as a result of experiencing a significant traumatic event – symptoms include intrusions (flashbacks), avoidance (emotional numbing), depression, hyperarousal (increased irritability, difficulty concentrating, exaggerated startle effect, increased vigilance and concern over safety), memory problems, sleep disturbances and excessive anxiety. Research is needed to determine the mechanisms by which the disorder develops so that treatment methods can be developed. Currently, debriefing following the traumatic event and psychotherapy are the prevailing biomedicine treatment options.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Excessive chronic uncontrollable worry for more than 6 months. Muscle tension, autonomic hyperactivity, vigilance, and scanning. Treatment by benzodiazepines (eg diazepam), buspirone, SSRIs (which support normalization of limbic, paralimbic and frontal hyperactivity), tricyclic and atypical antidepressants and beta-adrenergic blockers (which just block the symptoms).

Social Phobia

Intense fear reaction to social interaction – the fear must not be related to any physiologic effects of a substance and must be present for at least 6 months. It is a fairly common disorder with a lifetime prevalence of 12%. 50% of persons with social phobia also have a drug or alcohol problem. Treatment includes behavioral and cognitive therapies and medications (SSRIs, benzodiazepines and MAO inhibitors, beta-adrenergic blockers)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Repetitive thoughts (obsessions) and actions – these behaviors are time-consuming (like washing hands too often, praying, counting, repeating) and distressing to the individual. Between 2% and 3% of the world population has OCD and OCD is the 10th most disabling disease worldwide. Diagnosis is based on history and clinical observation and treatment include behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy and drugs (60% of patients “respond” to SSRIs).

(please note that the more recent DSM V lists more anxiety disorder categories: Separation Anxiety Disorder, Selective Mutism, Specific Phobia, Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia), Panic Disorder, Panic Attack Specifier, Agoraphobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Substance/Medication-Induced Anxiety Disorder, Anxiety Disorder Due to Another Medical Condition, Other Specified Anxiety Disorder, Unspecified Anxiety Disorder – ICD10 seems to reflect categories consistent with DSM V.)

Finally, it should also be noted that anxiety can be secondary to other pathologies and caused by drug use:

Biomedical Causes of Anxiety

Hyperthyroidism, pheochromocytoma, temporal lobe epilepsy, hypoglycemia, depression, neurosis, menopausal syndrome, premenstrual syndrome, stress.

Drugs Causing Anxiety

Withdrawal from or dependence on benzodiazepine, alcohol and other drugs of addiction, amphetamines, bronchodilators, caffeine excess, ephedrine, levodopa, thyroxine.

TCM Pathology, Etiology & Treatment

In contrast to biomedicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) takes a different approach to anxiety and in some cases, it is challenging to establish a direct correspondence with biomedicine classification (especially as it becomes more and more segmented with each DSM revision).

In OM, anxiety is the emotion most frequently associated with disorders of the Heart and instability of the shen. The shen is easily agitated by Heat and easily destabilized if Heart Qi, yin or Blood are weak. Anxiety can also occur in the presence of Phlegm Heat. Treatment focuses on calming the shen and nourishing yin and blood and tonifying Heart Qi. Herbs are effective at replenishing yin and Blood and providing a better anchor for the shen. It is also important to remember that patients might need to be progressively weaned out from anxiolytic drugs and also that their condition might be the result of those drugs or other substances (eg appetite suppressants). Finally, excessive use of caffeine (coffee, chocolate, cola drinks) can also be a cause of anxiety.

TCM Patterns & Treatments

Heart Qi Deficiency

The Qi of the Heart is most easily damaged by prolonged or excessive sadness, depression or grief. Heart Qi deficiency may also develop over time if the Spleen fails to produce adequate Qi for the body’s needs. Insufficient Heart Qi fails to protect the shen which becomes vulnerable, disoriented and unstable and this results in feelings of anxiety, unease, and apprehension.

In some individuals, excessive coffee consumption will also damage Heart Qi. This is due to the dispersing action of the bitter flavor of coffee. Also, profuse sweating due to fever, high environmental temperature or excessive diaphoresis can damage Heart Qi (and yang, yin, and Blood), as sweat is the fluid of the Heart.

Clinical Features

  • Anxiety, apprehension, constant worry
  • Palpitations, poor concentration, fitful sleep, insomnia
  • Shortness of breath, dizziness, mental and physical fatigue, pale complexion
  • T: pale with a thin white coat
  • P: thready and weak

Treatment Principles

  • Tonify and nourish Heart Qi
  • Calm the shen
  • Avoiding stress is important – this includes avoiding watching violent images on TV or movies. Also, coffee and other stimulants should be avoided.
  • Encourage the active pursuit of relaxation (Tai Chi, meditation, yoga, walking, running or swimming) in order to calm the mind and build Qi

Heart Blood & Spleen Qi Deficiency

Heart Blood deficiency may develop in much the same way as Heart Qi deficiency – through prolonged or intense emotions or through inadequate production of Blood by the Spleen. In addition, any deficiency of Liver Blood will lead to Heart Blood Deficiency via the 5 elements generative cycle. Significant blood loss can also cause Heart Blood Deficiency particularly if the bleeding is from the uterus (the Bao Mai links the Heart and the uterus directly). And as with the previous pattern, significant loss of fluid as sweat can damage Heart Blood.

Heart (and yin) anchors and grounds the shen and Spleen Qi supports and manufactures Heart Blood, so when the Heart and Spleen become deficient the shen is unanchored and becomes unstable. Clinically the mixture of deficiency can be equally shared or tend toward either Spleen or Heart. In all cases supporting Spleen function in addition to tonifying Blood is essential so the Spleen can continue to manufacture Blood. The anxiety in this pattern can be associated with thrombocytopenia and anemia (Blood deficiencies).

Associated with this pattern there is also the Zang Zuo syndrome, a type of emotional disorder associated with Heart and Spleen deficiency that can be characterized by anxiety and other shen disturbances. It is most common in women and frequently associated with hormonal changes. However, it can be applied to any situation where emotional or physical trauma has led to emotional instability.

Clinical Features

  • Anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, palpitations
  • Insomnia with difficulty falling asleep or dream disturbed sleep
  • Forgetfulness, poor memory and concentration
  • Postural dizziness, blurring vision, spots in the visual field
  • Fatigue, weakness and poor appetite, abdominal distention after eating
  • Sallow complexion, easy bruising or heavy or prolonged menstrual periods
  • T: Pale with a thin white coat
  • P: Thready and weak

Treatment Principles

  • Strengthen and nourish Heart and Spleen
  • Tonify Qi and Blood and calm the shen
  • As with all patterns avoid violent images and stimulants such as coffee
  • Stress the importance of a strictly regular bedtime routine
  • Women who lose blood through heavy periods should supplements with Blood tonics and Blood replenishing foods after each period.

Heart & Kidney Yin Deficiency

The relationship between the Heart and Kidney is one of the fundamental relationships of the body and mind. The relationship functions on both a physical and mental level. At the physical level Kidney Water (yin) keeps Heart Fire in check, preventing a runaway blaze and overheating. On the other hand, Heart Fire catalyzes Kidney Water, preventing stagnation and accumulation of fluids. On the mental level, the Fire of the shen arises from a stable base of Kidney Jing. Jing and shen rely on each other for a clear expression of mental consciousness.

If Kidney yin is damaged (overwork, excess sexual activity, insufficient rest and sleep, aging, etc) there may be a breakdown in relationships between the Heart and Kidney (via the 5 elements controlling cycle) whereby Kidney Water no longer keeps Heart Fire in check. The uncontrolled blazing of Heart Fire causes agitation of the shen and the resulting anxiety can be severe. If Heart Fire remains unchecked it damages  Heart Yin. The shen then has no anchor because of Heart yin depletion and becomes ungrounded and agitated into an anxiety state that can become chronic. Heart yin may also be damaged by stimulant and recreational drugs (including coffee) or excessive mental stress.

From a biomedicine standpoint, the anxiety of this pattern coexist with hyperthyroidism, menopausal, post-traumatic shock syndrome, anxiety neurosis, post febrile disease and the pattern often emerges during the withdrawal phase of long term sedative or anxiolytic drug use.

Clinical Features

  • Anxiety or panic attacks with palpitations
  • Insomnia, often waking to anxiety or panic or sleep with nightmares
  • Restlessness, irritability, “Five Palms Heat” and night sweats
  • Dry mouth and throat, dizziness and lightheadedness, tinnitus, forgetfulness
  • Lower backache
  • T: Red and dry with little or no coat
  • P: thready and rapid

Treatment Principles

  • Nourish Heart yin, calm the shen
  • Clear Heat
  • Important also to avoid violent images and drugs and stick to a regular bedtime routine.
  • Also avoid excessive sexual activity, excessive lifting and standing, and dehydration
  • As in other patterns active relaxation is vital (tai chi, meditation, swimming, walking, etc)

Heart & Gallbladder Deficiency

Heart and Gallbladder Qi deficiency describes a personality type which may be congenital or acquired. When congenital it may be due to a significant shock that damaged the developing fetal shen during the mother’s pregnancy. The pattern occurs easily in children (the shen is unstable when young) who grow up in an abusive or fearful environment, or in adults or children who experience a violent or extreme shock or fright. It may also sometimes follow other debilitating illnesses that consume Qi.

The involvement of the Gallbladder refers to the timidity and “lack of gall” (fearfulness) which characterizes people with this pattern. In the Chinese language and also in English there is an implicit understanding of the relationship between the Gallbladder and courage. To be bold and courageous is to have a big gallbladder (China). In French, people who worry are described as “making bile” (“Se faire de la bile”) which is the western function of the Gallbladder.

Acute anxiety and frequent panic attacks are a key feature of Heart and Gallbladder Qi deficiency. This pattern represents a deep-seated or constitutional shen instability combined with Heart Qi deficiency. Severe shock and trauma can also precipitate the pattern / condition. Finally, this type of anxiety co-occurs with mental disorders, neurosis and postnatal depression.

Clinical Features

  • Frequent severe anxiety, panic attacks, apprehension, fearfulness, inappropriate worry, easily frightened, timidity and phobias
  • Insomnia, nightmares, waking terrified, restlessness, forgetfulness
  • T: normal or with a pale body and a thin white coat – in congenital or long-standing  cases there may be a deep narrow crack to the tip
  • P: weak, thready and rapid. Or thready and wiry

Treatment Principles

  • Calm the shen
  • Nourish and tranquilize the Heart
  • Prolonged therapy is usually necessary. If the pattern is congenital a combination of TCM treatment and psychotherapy of some sort can be beneficial.

Phlegm Heat

Phlegm Heat occurs in several ways. First, the presence of Phlegm or Dampness due to Spleen weakness or overconsumption of Phlegm producing foods causes stagnation and Heat. Second, overconsumption of Phlegm Heat foods (rich, greasy, sweet, spicy food and alcohol) can directly cause Phlegm heat build-up. Finally, any pre-existing Heat in the body, due to Liver Qi stagnation with stagnant Heat or Fire, yin deficiency or external invasion can congeal fluids into Phlegm and subsequently Phlegm Heat. This pattern can also occur in the aftermath of a serious disease or febrile illness that has concentrated Fluids into Phlegm Heat.

The Heart is subject to mists of unsubstantial phlegm that obscure reason and consciousness. The Heart associated with this pattern can agitate the shen causing anxiety. Phlegm type anxiety can be a chronic response to Phlegm Heat in the body (usually from diet) but can also be more acute, occurring in the convalescent stage of a febrile disease that has congealed Fluids into Phlegm.

Clinical Features

  • Anxiety, nervousness, irritability, and restlessness
  • Palpitations, dizziness, and vertigo
  • Insomnia, with waking in the early hours of the morning (typically around 4 am) unable to fall back asleep
  • Nausea, vomiting or indeterminate gnawing hunger, belching, acid reflux, bitter taste in the mouth, abdominal distention
  • T: yellow greasy coat
  • P: rapid and slippery or wiry

Treatment Principles

  • Clear Heat and transform phlegm
  • Harmonize the Stomach, calm the shen
  • Important also to avoid violent images and drugs and stick to a regular bedtime routine.
  • As in other patterns, active relaxation is vital (tai chi, meditation, swimming, walking, etc)

Combined Pattern – Heart Qi & Yin Deficiency

Here the cause of anxiety is a combination of Qi deficiency and Yin (Blood) deficiency. The shen is both vulnerable and ungrounded and may, in addition, be agitated by deficient Fire. The most distinctive feature of this pattern is the pulse – typically irregular. From a biomedicine standpoint disorders such as neurasthenia, hyperthyroidism, cardiac arrhythmia, and sick sinus syndrome cause the anxiety in this pattern.

Clinical Features

  • Anxiety accompanied by palpitations, insomnia, and irritability, shortness of breath
  • Dry stools or constipation, dry mouth, and throat
  • T: depending on the balance of Qi or yin deficiency: pale pink or red and swollen with surface cracks and little or no coat.
  • P: knotted, intermittent or irregular pulse, particularly if Qi deficiency is prominent

Treatment Principles

  • Nourish yin and Blood
  • Tonify Qi
  • Calm the shen
  • As in all anxiety patterns, it is important to avoid violent and disturbing images as well as stimulants like coffee. A strictly regular bedtime routine is important.
  • Also, a relaxation practice should be encouraged  (tai chi, walking, swimming, meditation, etc.)

Note About Anxiolytic Drugs

Conventional drugs used to treat anxiety disorders are widely used (also for other disorders) and they often create dependence and become a source of the problem they are designed to solve. Anxiety is often overmedicated or mistreated by practitioners who don’t have the time or skills to address the root feelings, traumas or emotions behind the anxiety (the root of the problem). Overprescribing and abuse of tranquilizers and anxiolytic agents (mostly benzodiazepines) have created its own problems. Prolonged use brings dependence and withdrawal syndromes. Their bitter cool nature damages Heart and Kidney yin, weakens the spleen, congests the Liver and further destabilizes the shen. Depending on the clinical presentation, herbal formulas, supplements and acupuncture can alleviate the withdrawal syndromes from these drugs.


While modern drug therapy and to some extent psychotherapies have been somewhat successful in treating patients suffering from anxiety disorders they often fail to address the roots of the anxiety and eventually just become a band-aid or a quick fix for the disorder. TCM and herbal medicine in particular (in combination with or without other treatments such as psychotherapy and mindfulness practices) can offer a natural path toward anxiety and worry-free life for many patients. Finally we are likely to encounter patients with patterns more complex and intertwined than the ones presented here which could lead to combining more patent medicines or writing custom formulas.

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Dr Arno Kroner