The Age of Anxiety?
A couple of years ago, if someone were to ask me to name the most common complaint that I treated in private practice, I’d have told them that fatigue and back pain were the two things that I saw most often. Then I’d begin preparing myself to field the question that naturally ensued (“So, does acupuncture actually work?”)
At the time, the majority of the patients I treated were insured, middle-income women and men between the ages of 40-70. Most of them had multiple children and were living the typical American lifestyle – they worked hard, played hard, slept little – and the insidious cultural expectation to be a smiling, agreeable Superperson despite their lifestyle had left many of them with a crappy back and some serious fatigue.
But I’ve since changed my answer. Now that I work in the community acupuncture clinic, where 100-150 people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds come through our doors every week, an assessment of what plagues the average person was bound to be more accurate, and holy mother of Bob, a definite pattern emerged in regards to what people are looking to heal.
Anxiety, hands down, is the most common complaint that I see in the clinic.
Ya’ got some?
When I first noticed that anxiety was spreading through my chart notes like kudzu, I wrongly assumed that it was mostly women who were experiencing it, since they were the ones to actually state aloud that they were seeking help to deal with it. However, upon closer inspection, I quickly realized that almost everyone, regardless of sex, was checking off “anxiety” and “feeling overwhelmed by life” on our intake form. This was perhaps one of the biggest aha! moments I’ve had since working as an acupuncturist. It was also a moment of great connection for me – I thought, WHOA NELLY, everyone has anxiety! It made me feel connected, in a slightly sweet but uncomfortable way, to know that at times, we are all vibrating at the same frenetic frequency.
So – within the past year, I’ve become highly interested (a.k.a. obsessed) with learning more about anxiety. If anxiety is a problem that plagues my patients (and at times, myself), then I want to treat it to the best of my ability.
When I started looking more closely into ways to treat anxiety, I found that there were lots of people talking about it (on the web, at least, where you can remain anonymous). In person, most people don’t like to say that they have anxiety – especially men – since many fall prey to the inane expectation to act tough, yo. The conversations I found on the web were both revealing and problematic – the exchanges were mostly concerned with identifying the symptoms of anxiety, as opposed to how to deal with it. It seemed that individuals were relieved to find out that there are other individuals out there in the world experiencing the same awful physical/mental symptoms – connection was instantly made over the sentiment of “Ohhhhh, yeah! I feel sh*tty in those ways, too!”
In short, what I discovered was this – people were happy to find that they were not the only ones out there who suddenly FEEL LIKE THEY ARE DYING. Dialogue about panic attacks was rampant in the anxiety forums.
I was glad to see connection happening. Even if people were breaking bread over how they suffered, at least they were breaking bread. What was disheartening was the second phenomenon I ran into, which could be summarized like this: Are you experiencing these uncomfortable symptoms (insert long list of everything from heart palpitations to irrational catastrophic thinking to extreme nausea and dizziness)? You are? Well then, you’ve tested high for anxiety. You also may have a panic disorder – contact your physician or a licensed therapist.
Okay. Contact your physician and then what? Get some pills? (Note: I am not anti-anxiolytic, but many people I meet don’t want to start taking a medication for an issue they barely understand themselves). And what about those people without health insurance? Or those with insanely high deductibles who only have catastrophic coverage? Or those single moms with 3 kids and a full-time job and not a flippin’ moment to spare? We’re back to square one, folks, which is that anxiety is everywhere and it sucks and there isn’t a ton of (free/accessible) support in regards to how to deal with it. Some lucky people might have the resources – coverage that includes mental health and the free time to see a therapist regularly. But let’s be honest. Most don’t. So… now what?
Faire et se taire? Translates into shut up and get on with it. Admittedly, this is not always bad advice for some situations. But for anxiety? That’s about as effective as telling the Hungry Mouse to board the Starving Cat to the Island of Cheese. Ya’ like that? (I just made it up.)
Anxiety Has Always Been Around, Right?
Yup. Anxiety ain’t new. And if anxiety is as old as the upright monkey, then perhaps we should start asking old people more questions about how they deal with it! Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist and director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, did exactly that. He created the Legacy Project, a study of almost 1,500 people ranging from their 70s to over 100. The focus of the study was to ‘pick the brains’ of our elders. One of the questions in the study asked participants to name their biggest regret; Pillemer was shocked by the answers. He had expected to hear about secret love affairs, shady money exchanges, bar fights, crashing grandma’s car – but the participants almost unanimously answered: “I wish I had not spent so much time worrying.” So… our elders had anxiety when they were younger, and as they aged, calmed down enough to reflect upon the fact that they wished they didn’t have so much of it. Hmmm….
So, read on, because I’ve learned some interesting things about anxiety. And I am happy to share everything I come across if it helps people start dealing with this issue in a productive, creative way. We’ll start with they ways in which Traditional Chinese Medicine conceptualizes anxiety – because guess what? The TCM perspective on anxiety is non-judgey, accepting of difference, and offers some outstanding suggestions about how to deal with it.
Now that seems somewhat grounding, no?