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Rediscover Ancient Therapies for Anxiety

Last Updated: December 12, 2023

We know many things work in our daily lives but don’t know why. For example, why do we soothe a crying baby through a rocking motion? Why do we comfort a distressed friend by stroking his/her back for 30 seconds?

I didn’t fully understand it until I experienced the effects through repetitive and rhythmic movements while practicing Kundalini Yoga and Qigong, also called Chinese Yoga by some people. These ancient self-soothing practices work on the nervous system as part of therapy for anxiety.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 40 million Americans live with an anxiety disorder. Most people associate anxiety with heart palpitations, hyperventilation, restlessness, heavy sweating, trembling, and insomnia. But, you may be surprised that weakness and lethargy, constipation, diarrhea, OCD, difficulty focusing or thinking clearly about anything other than the thing you’re worried about, or a strong desire to avoid the things that trigger your anxiety are also symptoms of anxiety.

When you are facing stressful situations your body activates your “fight” or “flight” responses.

Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School coined “Relaxation Response” as the body’s physiological reaction that is the exact opposite of the stress (fight-or-flight) response. He talked about how ancient techniques are done through repetition of a word, sound, prayer, or movement that can invoke this innate capacity within us.

This “Relaxation Response” is nothing new Dr. Benson said; it is in fact being used by millions of people for over 5000 years. The “Relaxation Response” is fundamental to these ancient therapies such as Qigong (pronounced Chee-gong). While we relax our body and mind in repetitive and rhythmic movements, breathwork, or chanting, we increase our biomagnetic energy moving through particular nerve pathways which brings out the parasympathetic response from our parasympathetic nervous system. This is great therapy for anxiety.

Our autonomic nervous system, including the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, is associated with our capacity for emergency (fight-or-flight) response; when it dysfunctions it causes anxiety disorder.
The sympathetic system is like a “gas pedal” that sends the heart racing, speeds up the breath, and moves blood out to the muscles and away from the core of the body (e.g. digestive system); the same involuntary symptoms occur when you are anxious or nervous.

The parasympathetic nervous system is like a “break” that slows the breath, relaxes the nerves, and shifts the circulation toward the core of the body. It regulates the rebuilding functions of the body and is vital for handling stress. Now you can clearly see why Research shows that Qigong (pronounced Chee-gong) directly impacts anxiety since it is most famous for the slow, easy, gentle, and dance-like “meditative movements.”

So how does this repetition technique actually work? Imagine you are moving your body according to your own biorhythm matched with your breaths. You need to concentrate on keeping up the rhythm and matching your breath to the movement. There is a lot going on (at the parasympathetic level) at every present moment so if a thought comes in, like sticking a screwdriver into a running machine, it can interrupt your motion fluidity. So in order to avoid interruptions and maintain your rhythmic movement flow, you will need to learn how to ignore the thoughts (like watching the fast passing clouds) and bring yourself back to the repetition quickly.

The key is you acknowledge the thoughts and you don’t dwell on them. It’s easier said than done; it requires practice which is exactly the meaning of “Gong” in “Qigong.” “Qi” (like prana in yoga) is breath or the vital life force. It flows through every cell in your body and your meridians (energy channels according to TCM). Just like you gain muscle by lifting weights, you gain tranquility and vitality by practicing Qigong. Many of my students find this practice very calming and great therapy for anxiety because the repetition and rhythm help them achieve equilibrium in their whole being: body, mind, and spirit.

You will also find yourself more aware of the thoughts trying to squeeze into your head when you are in a meditative state. Thousands of thoughts rush into your head (e.g. Did I leave the stove on? Did I forget to lock the door? Did I forget to buy milk when I was in the supermarket? Oh, shoot, I forgot to call my mom…) while you meditate and make you feel antsy and want to jump into action. Without special techniques like repetition, you can easily get lost in your thoughts and fail to stay in meditation. This is the reason why many people, especially meditation beginners (like myself 27 years ago), found “Stillness Meditation” (silent, motionless, and thoughtless) very difficult. The repetition of words or movements helps you stay focused at one point mentally (a meditative mind) because if you lose focus your movement or chanting will come to a halt. So it’s a lot easier to detect your mind “slipped” when you are engaged in repetition.

There are hundreds of different meditation techniques to aid all types of people suffering from anxiety since we are all unique and have different bio constitutions. I personally found moving meditation (Qigong) and mantra chanting (Naad Yoga) suit meditation beginners best for that reason, unless you are an exception like my niece who was able to do Stillness Meditation for 3 hours (according to her it felt like 3 minutes) in one sitting the first time she meditated. If you haven’t experienced this type of therapy for anxiety, maybe it’s time to try?