Ayurveda Life: Managing and Preventing Anxiety with Ayurveda
We are excited to bring you another post in a comprehensive series on the practice of Ayurveda. ‘Ayurveda Life’ is a weekly series of posts from some of the most influential Ayurvedic authors and organizations. We are proud to partner with Banyan Botanicals and hope that you enjoy and share these posts with your communities.
Managing and Preventing Anxiety with Ayurveda
Anxiety is one of the top reasons people seek out the services of an Ayurvedic Practitioner. It is on the rise throughout the country and the world with the advent of high-speed. From faster cars to faster Wi-Fi to faster food- with modernity there is a price we are collectively paying. We are constantly being bombarded with sensory overload, forcing our nervous systems to work in overdrive. And to top it off living in NYC, the City that never sleeps, this is aggravated even more. I have often heard the phrase “A Vata deranged planet” and the more I experience and relate the world to Ayurveda, the more I can clearly see this.
My client was a 24 year-old female student, working on obtaining her Master’s degree. She had absolutely no routine, except for attending scheduled classes. The majority of her meals were eaten on the go, and aside from the occasional pasta she did not prepare her meals at home. As I spoke to her, she was visibly jittery. Her responses to simple questions, such as her usual waking time, were long winded and went off on unrelated tangents. I spent a large part of our consultation gently reeling her back to the topic at hand. As a child, she had suffered sexual abuse, and soon after developed an eating disorder.
Her skin was visibly dry and flaky, her nail beds were peeling and her nails were clearly bit down. Having moved around her entire life, she was currently residing in Manhattan with her new boyfriend. She was nervous about her relationship, and where it was going. She was stressed about her grades, since she was unable to focus on any of her schoolwork. She was constantly worried about everything from what she ate to whether she’d be able to secure employment post graduation. She described symptoms of anxiety that became especially pronounced at 4am, when she would awaken and be unable to fall back asleep. My informal diagnosis? Her Vata was COMPLETELY out of whack!
What does is mean to have your Vata out of whack? According to Ayurvedic belief, the universe is comprised of five elements: space, air, fire, water and earth. The same holds true for people: we all make up a unique constitution based on ratios of these five elements present in our body, mind and spirit. Depending on what degree of each of the elements your body is made up of, you will fall into a specific dosha or constitution: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Vata is the principle of movement. It is made up of the elements of space and air and responsible for every movement and communication that occurs in our selves. It is Vata that governs the nervous system, the pumping of our hearts, the breathing of our lungs, and the elimination of wastes and much more.
When Vata is balanced, it is beautiful. It’s the power of intuition, flexibility, spontaneity, creativity and joy. However when it is out of balance it manifests as feelings of ungroundedness, indecisiveness, doubt, fear and anxiety.
When Vata is imbalanced, you can feel it in so many ways. You may feel your heart beat faster than usual, or you will catch yourself talking faster, you may lose your keys for the second time in one day or forget an important appointment. Your mind may feel scattered and like there are a family of hyperactive monkeys running around and wreaking havoc in your brain. Or you may become obsessed with an outcome and the same worrying thoughts may be cycling on and on.
There are certain qualities that are associated with Vata which include: cold, light, dry, rough, mobile, subtle and clear. Some common symptoms that come with an increase in Vata are dry skin and hair, constipation, cracking and popping joints, insomnia, twitching muscles, an inability to focus, and of course, anxiety.
For the client that I described above, certain lifestyle changes and food selection adjustments were necessary. The first and by far most important thing we did was come up with a healthy daily routine. We also explored which foods would aggravate the imbalance and which were better choices. Heavy, stewed root vegetables; a spiced porridge of lentils and rice made with ghee, and the avoidance of light, airy, dry foods such as raw vegetables and crackers or chips of any kind. I incorporated an oil massage into her evening routine, to help her sleep and further balance her out.
Within just a week, she was sleeping soundly, able to concentrate and could assess when she felt her Vata was too high and use tools given to her to ground herself. She was able to focus more on the tasks at hand rather than worrying about future outcomes and other things beyond her control. Even with her busy schedule, a simple purchase of a crockpot allowed her to prepare the correct food at home while she went about her busy day. In this case, her symptoms of anxiety and Vata imbalance spanned over most of her lifetime, therefore I counseled her to keep up with practices in order to see the full benefits and avoid any relapses.
The essential difference between Allopathic, or ‘Western’ medicine and Ayurveda is the approach taken, or what is addressed first- the mind or the body. In our society, the accepted paradigm is that we treat anxiety with medication or with talk therapy. While both can be helpful at times, both these methods are essentially treating anxiety through the mind. In contrast, in Ayurveda we tend to treat through the physical body. For example, the colon is the home or seat of Vata, and therefore the quickest way to calm an excess Vata imbalance would be through an enema. We adhere to the belief that the physical affects the mental. For example, if one consumes a chili pepper it may cause internal inflammation and consequently anger, which is a mental state. By addressing the physical, a wide range of mental states can be calmed, balanced and dealt with successfully. Ayurveda is a science of self-healing and offers valuable insights and tools for understanding our imbalances. By being able to recognize symptoms and incorporate simple daily and seasonal routines and food guidelines, we can live more in attune with nature and at peace within ourselves. Learn more about your unique Ayurvedic constitution by taking an Ayurvedic Constitution Quiz.
In the words of Charles H. Spurgeon, “Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths.”
Saadia Shaza Khan deepest desire and dharma is to help people live to the their fullest potentials. She has been involved in the healing arts for many years. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Religion and a Masters degree in Childhood Education. Saadia is a DONA trained Birth and Postpartum Doula, an Ayur-Yoga Instructor. She is an Ayurvedic Health Practitioner trained at the Ayurvedic Institute under the renowned leader in the field, Dr. Vasant Lad.