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What if most doctors are wrong in believing that they need only address the thinking mind to heal anxiety?
What if recovering from anxiety is more about healing the alarm that lives in the body versus the worrisome thoughts that occupy the mind? What if a major source of anxiety sits ignored in the feeling realm of the body while the mind receives all the medical attention?
What if these questions are not posed by a new age guru, but instead a conventional medical doctor?
Look, I’m not saying that all psychiatrists and psychologists completely ignore the body, nor am I claiming that cognitive/talking therapies aren’t helpful and necessary. The mind is, in fact, a key player in anxiety; however, it is not the only part of this common disorder that should be addressed.
Traditional aspects of psychiatry and psychology virtually ignore the virtuous healing potential that lies in exploring the body itself. Because of my own personal and professional experience, I have determined that talk therapy alone is not sufficient to heal anxiety. You must incorporate the feeling sense of the body to fully heal the thinking state of the mind.
This won’t hurt a bit; trust me, I’m a doctor. That is, unless you rely on talk therapy alone. In that case, this might sting a little…
When I was a medical student in the 90s, conventional medical treatments had limited success in treating my anxiety. While traditional psychiatry and psychology did help, I had always felt that something was missing.
I’ve spent much of my medical career looking for that missing piece. Ironically, I’ve engaged my traditional medical training to find effective, nontraditional approaches to anxiety therapy. I would not discredit my medical training, but at the same time, I am acutely aware of its limitations, especially in psychological disorders. While I embrace my traditional medical roots, my experience as a conventional doctor with anxiety had me find greater relief from nontraditional sources.
Do not underestimate the lengths a desperate medical doctor will go to in order to internalize the phrase “Physician heal thyself.” In my disillusionment for my own profession and quest for relief from my mounting anxiety, I moved away from the scientific and leaned toward the nonconventional. In 2013, taken from the advice of a psychologist who had recently returned from India with a new lease on her psychic life, I went off to live at the same temple in the hope of my own miraculous recovery. I did experience a 90-minute period in which I felt truly enlightened and one with the universe. However, this paled in comparison to the enlightenment I was to experience with my return home to Vancouver.
A trusted friend, also a doctor, sensed my disappointment about the fact that my hour and a half epiphany on that Indian rooftop did not cure my anxiety. He took matters into his own hands and led me on an uncomfortable but deeply insightful journey with the help of some Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD.
This friend came to my condo in Vancouver on a bright and sunny fall day in 2014. He explained to me that any of the psychedelics I had would take on the energy of my surroundings, so the best place for my “experience” would be my own home. I was afraid of LSD, but I was also desperate. Around noon on October 5, 2013 (when I was 52) I began my first (and only) acid trip.
For about half an hour I didn’t feel much of anything, and then I literally began to lose my mind, or at least the familiar framework that I used to navigate the world up until that point. I began to see colors that were intensely bright as disoriented hallucinations moved around me. Soon, I lost all sense of time and place, and I simply existed. I could not hold onto any concept of the mind; only the experience which I also could not “explain” to myself. There was no “I” or “me” involved on this trip. It felt eerily similar (but more intense) to my “oneness” experience in India, where there was no boundary between myself and the environment around me.
I had no idea how much time passed, but he told me later it was about five o’clock when I started to come to. The experience was ineffable in its essence, but I’ll try my best to explain the parts that I can recount.
I remember my scattered thoughts beginning to form tangible ideas of time and place, and then feeling more like I had a distinct body and then a mind. The mind aspect of this made no sense, and then it did, and then it didn’t again. I sensed it was getting dark, and I vaguely remembered that I took the substance when it was bright outside. It had been five hours in normal time, but I had felt as if much longer had passed since I looked out at my sunny courtyard at high noon. It felt just like that awkward moment when you wake up in a dark room after an afternoon nap and you aren’t sure if a full night had passed. My thoughts were still fractured and confused, but as more time passed I had more of a sense that an “I” was thinking them.
As my thoughts gained more of a familiar (albeit disfigured) structure, my limited attention was drawn to a black, dense, and oval shaped pressure just to the right of my solar plexus. There is a difference between thinking and knowing something, and I had a distinct “knowing” that this density was the origin of my anxiety and that it had been there since my childhood. I had always assumed my anxiety was in my mind and brain, but this experience showed a very different image.
A deep insight had unveiled itself, leading to a new theory of anxiety I began to develop in the fall of 2013. Specifically, that what is traditionally called “anxiety of the mind” is really a sense of alarm in the body. What I was shown that October day was “anxiety” is trapped energy in the body that has its origin in unresolved childhood emotional trauma. I also believe that the “anxiety” we attribute to PTSD is unresolved trauma we acquire as an adult, and that too is held in the body.
This trapped energy creates a fight-or-flight reaction in the body that I call alarm. In my case, that alarming energy showed up as a tight gut feeling, tensing of muscles, shallow breathing, and tight constrictive feelings of pressure and pain to the right of my heart in the exact place I felt while on LSD.
In all my travels, the greatest lesson that I have learned is that I could not think my way out of anxiety (i.e. my thoughts alone were not enough to calm me). I clearly saw that thinking wouldn’t get me out of a feeling problem. Quite the contrary: thinking often made me more anxious (but that’s another article).
This is not to say the mind isn’t involved in anxiety. What I have theorized since my “out of my mind” experience, is the mind is a (not-so-silent) partner in anxiety and not a sole proprietor. Both the mind and the body are involved in a self-propagating feedback loop that I call the “Alarm-Anxiety Cycle.” Just as the mind is addressed in traditional (and necessary) talk therapy in order to cure anxiety and break the vicious alarm-anxiety cycle, special attention must also be paid to the alarm energy stored in the body itself. My contention is that the cycle cannot be broken by merely addressing the mind.
The Alarm-Anxiety Cycle
I have a longer version of this theory, but it will suffice to say that the alarm in the body triggers the anxious thoughts of the mind which, in turn, exacerbate the alarm in the body. The mind and body work in a feedback loop to create the condition we call anxiety, and both the anxieties of the mind and the alarm in the body must be addressed properly to heal. (If you find this theory intriguing see this video.)
I’ll write more on how to use the body to break the Alarm-Anxiety Cycle in the future, but for now: breathe, dance, move, chant, sing, do yoga, or whatever works for you. Matching your breath in synchrony with your movement is an amazingly effective means of calming alarm. That is why yoga and qigong are so effective.
However, you don’t need to exercise an official practice. You can freestyle matching your breath with your movement at any time. Synchronizing movement and breath will ground you in the present moment of your sensing/feeling body and away from the future imaginations of your worrying/thinking mind. Feeling your body grounds you in the now. This grounding is critical as there can be no anxiety in the moment because all anxious thoughts are future-based and therefore have no life in the present moment.
So, I say to my more conventional colleagues: talk therapy eased the anxieties of my mind, but what was missing in my recovery was an intervention directed specifically toward the clear and present alarm trapped in my body. Traditional therapy acknowledges the alarm reaction of the body but misinterprets it as merely an effect of the omnipotent mind and not the cause that I know it to be. Perhaps the biggest mistake traditional psychiatrists and psychologists make is believing that merely conversing with the mind will free the imprisoned alarm in the body.
Before my acid trip, I did 20-plus years of traditional talk therapy and was profoundly frustrated with my lack of progress. Once I saw the problem wasn’t solely in my mind, I scaled back talk therapy and put myself in control of my own recovery, firmly fixing on the alarm in my body, and that has made all the difference.
I finally found mental and physical peace by limiting reliance on psychotherapists, focusing instead on my own power to heal. It wasn’t until I chose the nontraditional path of body-based therapies like Somatic Experiencing and Hakomi, along with creating a daily ritual of yoga, qigong, chanting, and breath work that I ultimately escaped the pain of chronic anxiety.
Or should I say, “alarm.”
For more information on how to heal your alarm watch this video.