Anxiety - Excess Tension

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Finding a good herbalist

Most of what's written in this article is entirely suitable for a person to work through themselves but, especially if things are quite bad, or you just know that you need further help, then there may be a great deal of benefit to you to go to whatever lengths necessary to find a good herbalist or truly holistic practitioner to guide you on to a safe and strong treatment program. There's a short write-up to suggest how you might go about finding such a person here

What's going on?

The word anxiety is, at best, only a starting point to what's going on underneath. The truth is that, even though it is talked about as a psychological condition, anxiety creates profoundly uncomfortable physical symptoms. As only a person who had experienced, or is experiencing acute anxiety can confirm, it can be a truly horrible, disgusting way to feel.

Please take a moment to personalise what is being said here. Shortly there will be some practical suggestions that, if you work with them, will most certainly be of tremendous benefit to your regaining your lost peace and becoming well. Such a statement can only be made because this approach has been seen to work, time and again, for every person that takes it up. However, it is essential to grasp this initial point, because approaching anxiety via the workings of the mind appears to have no end to it, whereas understanding and treat the underlying physicality to the condition, sees immediate and positive progress being made.

Consider your own state for a moment, how the anxiety has been making you feel. Notice how it resides in your body, in your chest, back, neck, hands, shoulders, in your guts, in your very core.

Recognising, working with, and gradually unwinding this coiled up spring of physical tension is the key to the cure. Once this is understood, the way forward becomes clear.


Herbal Medicine

In September 2010, we experienced the first of three massive earthquakes in Christchurch. Many lives were lost and our inner city was decimated. In the days that followed I walked around my destroyed home town and thought deeply on how I could best help and it came to me to put together a certain combination of herbs that's simply called 'relaxing herbal formula', it's described further below.

Since being in practice in Christchurch since 1989, a large data-base of past patients had been gathered and so we sent out a message to everyone saying that, despite extensive damage to our clinic, we were still open and that they were all welcome to come and get this relaxing herbal formula and be shown how to use it for no charge other than the pure cost of the medicine itself.

Over the coming months we saw hundreds of people, many of them in extreme states of stress and anxiety. Some had lost loved ones, many had lost their homes and their livelihoods. Almost every day there were significant aftershocks, many thousands in total, our community was in collective shock.

Each time I saw someone who needed it I gave them a dose of the relaxing formula then and there in my rooms, showing them how to use it, and then giving them a bottle to use as freely and frequently as they required.

This time, and this hands-on process gave me an extraordinary and lifelong appreciation of how powerful and immediate the effects of herbal medicine can be, even for extreme levels of tension and anxiety.

Within a matter of moments of giving that first dose I would see the same process happen again and again. The patient's 'colour' would come back to their cheeks, you would see their chest begin to rise and fall as they began to breathe more deeply, and you would nearly always see a hint of a return of a smile.

Many people expressed a sense of wonder that this medicine could work so quickly but most of us in our modern world have forgotten that herbs were our first medicine and have always been with us for the simple reason that they worked and we only used and passed on that which reliably helped!

I would not dream of treating anxiety or tension without using herbs first and foremost and I likewise urge you to begin your own healing process with some good, strong help from nature.

Don Whelan, my father, had been the musical director of this Cathedral for nearly 50 years


Relaxing Herbal Formula

Lobelia leaf 5 mls
Cramp bark 10mls
Kava root 10 mls
Wild Yam root 10 mls
Skullcap leaf 10 mls
Licorice root 5 mls

The formula above is to make 50mls, note that we make our own ethanol and tinctures from dried herbs so this may vary with other products but the typical dose from this mixture that has the right effect is around 20 drops (1ml) as frequently as required. I encourage my patients to use this formula very freely in the early days of treatment with no upper limit on the number of times they can take it in a day and I have never seen it do any kind of harm to anyone when used in this way.

So long as the patient can feel a subtle, characteristic scratchy or slightly numb sensation in their throat followed by a kind of 'warm-glow' in their chest then you know you have achieved the therapeutic threshold.

If you watch yourself or someone who has had a dose of these herbs you will see how within about a minute they get more colour in their face, how their breathing deepens, how their shoulders drop and how they start to visibly relax.

Also, if you feel the pulse before, during and after a dose you will also see for yourself how the herbs invariably slow, open and relax the heart-beat. If interested, on that note, a much more detailed discussion on the fascinating subject of 'pulse-testing' is found here.

Taking a bigger dose than the amount the person can palpably feel does not seem to work any better and may in fact be less helpful in the long run. That last point may sound counter-intuitive but these are not mind-altering drugs, they are physical relaxants and you want to work with the body, not over it. Larger or less frequent doses do not work nearly as well as small doses taken as freely and frequently as needed.

7-11 breathing exercise

Each time you take the relaxing formula, as soon as you can feel it in your body, you must do three deep breaths in a certain way that is guaranteed to bring about a further relaxation response.

In a nutshell, you breathe in through the nose to the count of 7, then out through the nose to the count of 11, and then leave a pause at the end before you breathe in again. During this pause, which is as long or as short as you feel comfortable, you centre your attention under your ribcage where your diaphragm is, and you simply wait for your body to take in the next breath.

The 7-11 relaxation exercise is a 100% effective method to stop hyperventilation and panic-attacks. I discuss this exercise further, and then talk you through actually doing it in a recording called '7-11 relaxation' right near the top of the page here.

Lobelia inflata


Notes on the herbs in the relaxing formula

I, and others, believe that one of the most relaxing of all medicinal herbs is Lobelia, a key remedy of the great Native American herbal tradition. Lobelia must certainly be used with care but it is extremely potent when used wisely. Anyone wanting to get further acquainted with it should learn about it before using it, more here.

Another fast acting herb in the formula is Cramp bark, which lives up to its name in how it rapidly eases muscle tension throughout the body. Cramp bark has an accumulative effect and is a large part of the reason why the formula deepens its effect when used in successive doses; more here.

The Pacific Island herb Kava is a true powerhouse of a medicine when it comes to tension and anxiety, it also must be used with great care but can be incredibly relaxing. If you can get Kava wherever you are then do use it but if not then I would suggest you double down on the Cramp bark as they are at least a little similar in how they help bring about physical relaxation through the body, more here.

Wild yam has an excellent effect on tension stored in the gut, which is clearly a huge issue for many people with chronic anxiety. The action of Wild Yam seems to unwind the 'knot' in the gut just a little bit further with each subsequent dose; more here.

The small amount of Licorice root is there to make the medicine much easier to take but also for its own gentle tonic action on stressed adrenal glands. Licorice root is an important remedy to many great herbal traditions, more here.

Lastly, the herb Skullcap is one of the best of all remedies from Nature for an overactive and racing mind. Skullcap's action is not at all like a sedative drug, so you can't compare them in that way, but when a person starts tuning into the action of Skullcap they will surely feel how things mentally cool down and ease up, more here.

Scutellaria lateriflora (Skullcap)



The more tense or anxious you are, the more essential it is to do at least some exercise as part of the cure. However, when people get into very bad states of anxiety, they may feel too exhausted to even contemplate exercise and it can just seem too hard to start.

Even if the only thing that can be managed is going for a daily walk, not only will this be enough, it will be perfectly acceptable. As you get better, by all means do more vigorous exercise if you are drawn to it but don't consider that as a compulsory next step. You just must move your body in some way every day.

Many people learn to control, or at least reduce, their anxiety through exercise and may have done it to excess when things got out of control internally. Too much is eventually as unhelpful as too little.

We must exercise because it helps to us shake loose a tension that would not leave us without movement, but each person needs to find the right level for this that best suits them.



Letting Nature help with herbal medicines and moving every day will help, a lot, and now we must come to the paradoxical subject of relaxation. I say paradoxical for two reasons, the first because the more stressed a person is the less they ever spend time relaxing and the second is that the more you 'try' to relax, the more you end up making yourself tenser!

The reason that the more stressed a person is the less they ever spend time relaxing is that we subconsciously believe that we cannot relax until we have solved the causes of our stress.

The reason that the more we try to relax the more we end up making ourselves tenser is that meditation, mindfulness etc, tend to make us more aware of our mental agitation without releasing physical tension from our bodies.

For relaxation to work, it must be natural, easy and enjoyable, and it must begin with doing things that you already know and trust. Ask yourself these questions;

What do I know always used to relax me?
What might I trust will relax me so long as I just do it?

Common responses to this question include

  • Doing some exercise
  • Reading a book
  • Taking a bath
  • Going for a walk
  • Being with friends
  • Listening to music
  • Watching TV, You-Tube, Movies etc...

Choose at least one way that you know has always relaxed you and commit to bringing it back into your daily life.

That is the easy part because you must expect, at least at first, that what you know and trust used to relax you will not be as enjoyable or as relaxing as it used to be. I'm sorry, that's just how it is.

When this happens, and it will, remember that it is only because of your increased anxiety and the feeling this brings that you should always be doing something to fix your problems, that you can't relax and that you just don't have time to relax!

If you know to anticipate this, and resist the temptation to over-analyse it, then you will find that your world did not collapse because you took some time out but rather, little by little, the urgent, incessant drive to be always on, always doing or worrying, will start to lose its stranglehold on your peace.

Only after you have restarted doing those things that used to relax you, and eventually will again, is it recommended to try some new steps, such as the guided commentary called 'relaxation when there is anxiety', found here.


Worry time

What follows is at first going to sound like odd advice but this technique has been shared with a great many people and it can be factually stated that 'if you do it, it will work!'

This approach comes from recognising that it is in the nature of our minds to worry and, rather than see anxiety as some kind of character failing, you accept it as a part of human nature, even something that can convey its own benefits. With this understanding, you then consciously create a time in the day when you allow yourself to worry fully and freely about any and all of your problems.

This can be called your 'worry time'. It is very important that you do your worry time when you are physically moving in a way that doesn't require concentration. It's ideal to link the worry-time in with a routine walk, or some other household chore that happens at a similar time of day.

Even after just doing it once or twice you should start finding that knowing that the 'worry time' is coming up at a certain point in the day, far from creating any sense of foreboding, helps you to better stay in the present and feel some peace of mind. This happens because the subconscious understands that you will be attending to some necessary material in your mental 'inbox' and is able to give you some space until the allotted time comes along!

The technique is to a) pick a worrying subject, and generally it is best to start with the number one worry in your life and then go down the list from there, and then b) ask yourself 'what is the worst thing that could happen?' then c) go over 'what you could do about that?'

Whatever you come up with, you keep asking yourself 'and then what?' until you get to the end of it.

In effect, you are imagining the worst-case scenarios about anything and everything that is currently worrying you or could conceivably worry you in the future. Believe me when I say I know how counter-intuitive this seems because I see the look on my patients faces when I first suggest it to them! They are already feeling terrible with anxiety and I am telling them to do something that just seems like it could only make it worse!

What I then do, because all of us learn best by doing, is to go through the exercise with them then and there in my rooms. I ask them to pick the thing they are most worried about and then ask them 'what is the worst thing that could happen?' then what would they do about it if it did? Whatever they come up with I will say something to the effect of ... 'and then what?'

You just keep doing this, imagining the worst and what you could do about it, until you are at the end of it. Maybe the end will be some sort of solution but plenty of times you will find that you are worrying about things that ultimately you really can't do anything about. That's ok, once we truly realise this, then there is a release there too. However, you still need to go through the process of worrying it over first, it can't be abstract, you must look at it, think about it, and see what could happen as if it were a fact, no matter how much you might prefer it otherwise.

When people do this, there may be some initial increase in the physical discomfort of anxiety, and this is one of the reasons why it is important to be moving while you do this exercise, and then, invariably, the mind and body both relax, often quite tangibly and quickly too, In other words you temporarily and briefly get worse, and then you get better, which is often the case in a true healing process.

There is no doubt that this is a tough treatment in some ways, and don't be surprised if you find yourself making excuses not to do it at first. However, all that matters is that it works, and that if you practice it you will get better at it.

If you practice worry time you will also see how your mind and your subconscious start to release that constant nagging sense of worry that is always present to an increased degree in a person with anxiety. The reason this happens is because you are truly attending to a basic need within, we do need to worry!

At least some anxiety is a part of our inherent nature, it is part of being human, however sometimes we need to learn how to channel this instinct a little more carefully!

By the way, aside from its therapeutic benefits, don't be surprised if you come up with some good ideas to improve your life from doing this practice too! Every person who achieves success in their life, whatever form that might take, shares a quality of caring, and worrying, about those things that are important to them.

That said, remember that there will be plenty of times that what you have to worry about does not have any good answers to the 'and then what' question, and remember that this really is ok.

Even if you cannot solve the problems of today or tomorrow, somehow the mind and subconscious recognise that the anxieties have been acknowledged and discussed and so can be put aside for a time.

If and when you pick up those same problems the next time you practice your 'worry time' you may notice how they sting just a little bit less, how you can carry them just a little bit easier...


Drug therapies

Enormous numbers of people take pharmaceutical drugs for anxiety and most of them come to feel quite dependent and stuck in a kind of 'holding pattern' with their medications. There is an argument that reducing the suffering of anxiety is good enough grounds for some degree of sedation and a life-long dependency but no-one should ever assume that a person cannot find a way to improve their mental health to the point of not needing any kind of medication.

In my own practice, I almost always suggest to people to wait until they start feeling tangibly better from the herbs and other steps before coming off their drugs. People really do improve with the natural approach described here, often rather quickly, and once they are sure they are feeling better it is a much easier prospect to face another great step along the way, such as getting drug-free.

Stop only when ready

I do realise that what I say here goes against the mainstream medical opinion but, after working with a great many people with this issue, my experience has been that many medications that affect the mind are better to stop completely simply when the person is ready rather than via the very slow process of gradual withdrawal that is recommended by prescribing doctors and their support staff.

Mind altering drugs, which certainly includes anxiety medications and anti-depressants, bring about both physical and psychological dependency. This is not much talked about or acknowledged but if you have been on these medications for any length of time and accidentally missed a few day's doses, or maybe just stopped taking them before you were ready, you will have been left in no doubt to the reality of that dependency!

Most people feel weird as they go through a process of readjustment when they stop a mind-altering substance that they've been using for any length of time. The brain is the most sensitive organ in the body and it certainly notices when things that have been affecting its core chemistry are changed or withdrawn.

There is a period of time, usually about 5-7 days long, and usually starting on about day 3 of stopping a mind-altering drug, where people can typically feel quite 'altered'. The process is experienced and described differently but a common ground is in just how physical it is. Their head, their nerves, their brain feels different, 'out of sorts', 'weird', it's not painful per se, just 'different'...

If a person didn't know that this was happening because of a drug withdrawal they would likely worry that it was signifying a return of their symptoms of anxiety or depression and this is why many people fail when they first try to stop their medications. They freak out that the 'weirdness' they are feeling is a sign that they are going back into a bad place and never imagine that it could be from any kind of withdrawal.

What has been seen, time and again is, so long as the person is already doing tangibly better with a natural approach, and that they know to expect a short period of increased weirdness and that, crucially, they feel ready to stop, that nearly everyone can move through this phase quite smoothly, because it does soon pass...

The other big change that then happens is that the person simply 'feels more'. The drugs that reduced anxiety also reduced other emotions. People talk about feeling like a kind of 'fog' or 'blanket' has been lifted off their nerves after they go through this process.

They do feel more raw and vulnerable to the world and this is certainly tough to get used to again but they also at least sometimes feel more joy and happiness and they do pretty much all the time feel a lot more alive! I've also had a lot of people tell me how strangely glad they feel that they can finally cry again, something that may have dried up more or less completely for however many years they were on medications...

Believe me when I say that I do know how this approach can look like a tough prospect to a person and you should know that I never put pressure on my patients to stop their medications before they are ready, never.

If they aren't ready then we just call this topic an 'open conversation' that they are welcome to come back and revisit whenever they are ready. It seems that nearly everyone gets there eventually, and it is extremely rare that they ever want to or need to go back to taking drugs again.

Viburnum opulus (Cramp bark)


Constitutional Health Note

Finally, you might benefit from learning about your constitution to know what kind of foods, herbs, exercises etc. will work especially well for your health in general.

Constitutional health is an old and fascinating way of understanding our differences. There's a brief introduction here and a more detailed section on working out which constitution you are here

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd