Anger and Fear: How Our Nervous Systems Make Us Sick
Chinese Medicine attributes a minimum one third of disease as due to the effects of excessive amounts of emotions like anger and fear, but also sadness, grief, worry, on our bodies via the nervous system. This also includes the effects of chronic, habitual low levels of anger and fear, another words how our nervous systems make us sick, because the minute you have an emotional state you also have a nervous system response and a cascade of phsyiological responses to that nervous system response.
In both Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda disease is seen as often the perfect storm of a combination of disease causing factors. The factors out of our control are our genetic inheritance, infectious agents we cannot avoid, even the noise and light pollution our societies have created, without regard for natural biorhythms.
What we can control are our diets and lifestyles, and here, lifestyle include what Buddhism calls Mental Culture, which includes everything we do to promote mental health, ease, and wisdom.
Modern culture, especially in the USA is very focused on success, material pleasure, consumerism, and the acquisation of wealth necessary to enjoy such things.
In various culture of the East, the development of wisdom and ease were also prioritized and valued, alongside the need for money to survive, or to be wealthy. In fact, in Tamil, the language spoken in the part of India in which I spent the better part of there years, the way you ask someone “how are you” or “how have you been” is “Soukyama?” which translates literally as, “Are you at ease?” And this word for ease, or comfort, Soukya, in Sansrkit refers to a state of harmony in your mind, spirit, and body, such as occurs with a state of inner peace.
The problem for many of us in the west is that we dont put the energy into achieving such a state, and, thanks to the way our bodyminds work, how our nervous systems and endocrine systems work, we are designed to not be at ease, but rather to be alert to signs of danger, just as dogs are. Dogs bark at an unexpected sound. Cats run at the sight of danger. This is the fight or flight response that we share with all animals.
The problem for humans is that in civilized society we often have to repress our consciousness of our physical emotional state. The dog barks, his hair stands on end, and then after the danger passes she goes back to sniffing bushes and trees and thinking about food or getting affection. The cat runs away in terror from the sight of a dog, but once free and safe, goes back to her meditations on catness.
But O! us human beings. Our problem is that in polite civilized society we can’t bark back at our unfair mean boss if we have one, we can’t just suddenly jump up and down in the soap aisle at whole foods yelling, “I’m excited!….” and all too many of us feel the need to “keep it together” when our Mom dies rather than spend a week grieving. Another words we don’t experience emotions in our bodies even though our bodies keep score for us.
IBS, Interstitial Cystitis, Bedwetting, Frequent Urination: Fear Makes the Qi Descend
It says in Chinese medicine that “Fear Makes the Qi Descend.” What is Qi in this case? Its the physiological processes of the body, one of which is urination, the other defecation. If someone, God forbid, put a gun to your head, you might pee in your pants, or even poo in your pants. Its how our nervous systems are hard-wired. If a mountain lion suddenly appeared in the room and you were on the ground floor you might jump through the window to escape. When I saw a rattle snake staring me in the face with its rattle shaking at the Grand Canyon I jumped backwards literally 10 feet. I can’t normally do that. Intense survival instinct based on fear communicated by my eyes and ears to my endocrine system caused a rush of adrenalin secretion that mobilized my Qi downwards into my legs to save my life. Fear makes the Qi descend.
But what happens when Fear is much more psychologically complex. My mother constantly told me I would be a failure, both implicitly and explicitly. Now I am a famous stage actor with such terrible stage fright I get diarrhea every night before going on. Or my boss is a bully and I am worried I will be fired, but cant admit it to myself that i am worried. And on top of it I am a naturally nervous anxious type, called Vatta in Ayurveda. A million scenarios exist. Especially when the fear is there and we don’t allow ourselves to feel it because it is so habitual. Or when, for example, you are the children of divorced parents and you feel insecure and have weak “Kidney Qi” to start with and start wetting the bed, but instead of your parents being emotionally intelligent enough to look at emotional factors, just get an alarm clock device triggered by the wet bed.
This is the mechanism by which people develop chronic functional disorders of the urinary tract such as interstitial cystitis, frequent urination, bedwetting, and even certain chronic prostate inflammation, and also IBS and chronic non-infectious diarrhea. These disorders are most often seen in people who suffer from anxious personality types, and sometimes full-on anxiety disorders. I dont mean to oversimplify, and could write a whole long article on the intricacies of each of these disorders which, as I said above, represent perfect storms of negative factors form innate bodymind type, to life experience, to many things we can’t control. There are other emotional factors, too, that are important, including anger, which can often be a natural response to fear, but fear and anxiety are frequent.
Migraines, Tension Headaches, TMJ, Chronic Constipation, IBS, Diverticulitis: Anger Makes the Qi Rise and Bind
Chinese Medicine says that “Anger Makes the Qi Rise.” This corresponds to the fight aspect of the fight or flight response. In order to fight we have to mobilize our resources to our faces, neck, shoulders, arms. We make fists. Our faces scrunch up when we are angry. We clench our jaws. The problem again is, that while the dog goes back to sniffing after the fight is over, we don’t. We carry grudges. We think about stuff at age 50 that happened when we were 10 years old and are still angry and are often left in a situation where small things trigger big anger response. Or the anger is totally repressed and we let people push us to do things we dont want to do because we are people pleasers, but underneath are angry and frustrated and end up with headaches. Chronic headaches almost always have anger and intensity as a chief causative factor. Anger drives us to drink because alcohol is sweet and a muscle relaxer. Three martini lunch. Side affects. Not as good as meditation. And the problem again, here, is that for many of us its not even anger, per se, so much as “over intensity” associated with what Ayurveda describes as the Pitta dosha. Plenty of drive for success without the ability to naturally unwind. People who play to win even when they are just playing. Fire. “I work hard and I play hard.” Wow. I challenge those people to let go, to learn how to be NOT in control, right? How to lose a soccer game gracefully, like a grown up who is a good sport.
Many of us end up suffering from somatic expressions of our emotional experiences, in which our body speaks for our mental-emotional state. Our bodies keep the score. The body and mind are not on a continuim, rather, they are one and the same. Everything we think see or feel affects our nervous system and endocrine system immediately via the fight flight freeze response.
Mindfulness Meditation: How to Balance the Nervous System Response
The best remedy for this problem, the best way to learn control of this natural physiological process is through Mindfulness meditation and Dr. Jeffrey Brantly’s books, Calming Your Angry Mind , and Calming Your Anxious Mind are the books I recommend very very highly to all of my patients who I treat for Anxiety, Fear, Anger, and Depression with Acupuncture, Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda in my San Diego Acupuncture and Ayurveda practice.
Dr. B is by far the best explainer in print of Mindfulness Meditation stripped of any of the Buddist dogma that follows other teachers. Which means anyone, regardless of religious belief system can use these books. Good Luck!