Vata Dosha, Fear, Anxiety, and ADDH
Vata dosha is the dosha whose nervous system responds to stressors with fear. Anxiety is the cascade of physical and mental responses, or symptoms, that occur when our sympathetic nervous system has been activated by the flight response associated with fear. Symptoms can range from frequent urination and diarrhea, to palpitations, flushing, and sweating, to a nervous inability to be still, whether it is restless mind, or tapping the feet or always having to be doing something, to tossing and turning with insomnia.
What all of these symptoms have in common is movement where there should be stillness. Hyperactivity where there should be quiet.
What is Dosha?
Ayurveda conceptualizes all aspects of our being, physical, emotional, mental, as fitting into a concept of types. And each of these types represents the manifestation of an element of the natural world—wind, fire, water, earth, and space, in our bodies.
The ancients observed, over a long period of time, that human beings are predictable—there is actually a limited range of behaviors and body types, for example in the case of bone structure and musculature people tend to either large boned, medium, or delicately boned. Their muscles are either wiry with prominent tendons, slack and weaker/thinner, or flabby and large with joints that barely show the tendons.
This is not to deny complexity one bit—I often see people that are a mixture of the above, then I have to ask myself, what does the major part of the person look like. What is the rule and what is the exception. How significant is the exception. Each case stands on its own merit and each symptom or feature tells you a story. Are there wiry muscles with prominent tendons and large regularly shaped bones (Pitta Kapha) , or are there wiry but skinny muscles with fine irregularly shaped, crooked bones (Vatta Pitta)?
Of course to understand your primary and secondary doshas is far more complex than the above. Muscles and bones are just one piece of the puzzle, although a significant one. Looking at the parts of your body that are unchangeable, for example bone size and shape, gives us an important and unarguable point of reference for the physical aspect of dosha, whereas things that change, like quality of sleep, tell us what is going on now. It is important to note, that one can have an imbalance in their least significant dosha, too; its actually quite common.
What is Vata Dosha?
Vata dosha is the aspect of being with qualities similar to wind, air, and space. In fact it is thought of as the manifestation of Air/Wind/Space in the body-mind. Vata dominants are drawn to mind expansion, philosophy, activities involving quick thinking and public speaking/communication.
When balanced, Vatas are obviously happy, as opposed to Kapha or Pitta who even when happy may be reserved or taciturn…and it is easier for Vata to be happy because it is their natural type to be light hearted and cheerful, and cheerful, in fact they can maintain cheerfulness even when less than happy, because just as wind naturally blows, Vata is naturally cheerful; it has movement in it. If you hear someone whistling while working, that is the quality of Vata manifesting.
Balanced Vata is energetic, enthusiastic, easily talkative, an open book, you don’t have to pull information out of them, if you ask them directions they will give it to you cheerfully, but without the great attention to detail Pitta gives. And when Vata is balanced our mind is calm, clear, and alert.
But the challenge for Vata is that, because it is sensitive like the air, it is easily thrown off. Vata is not naturally grounded like Kapha (which has the challenge of sluggishness and lethargy, amongst others).
It is very easy for the cheerful talkativeness of Vatta to convert to anxious mania. Vatas can exhaust themselves and others. Hard to get them to stop talking. Worse, if combined with Pitta, you get those people that very energetically just won’t stop giving you their opinion.
An Imbalanced Dosha is a Dosha That Has Increased Too Much
When a dosha is increased by too much that is similar, e.g. cold Vata increased by cold air and food, and unhealthy symptoms are exhibited, or we feel Vata derangement in the pulse, we can say that the dosha is elevated, aggravated, increased, or even deranged. Deranged sounds funny to us Americans, but it simply means collected in the wrong place. Joint pain is Vata collected in the joints. Vatas are prone to joint pain because Vatas by nature have too much movement, and that “wears out” joints so to speak.
Vata is easily increased by anything involving movement—so too much travel, actually any travel increases Vata, from driving back and forth to work each day to long travel on vacation.
Vata is also easily increased by anything cold or dry—cold air;cold food, both from the fridge, but also all things raw; cold rain; but cold dry air is worse than cold rain, since Vata is dry, it is balanced by moisture; dry air as in the desert or indoors in the winter from heating, dry food like granola bars.
Vata craves the moisture of human connection. So dry families and dry taciturn emotionally hidden people are tough for Vatas, as they crave interaction and warmth.
Since Vata is the manifestation of Air/Space/Wind in the body Vata governs the brain, nervous system, breathing, circulation, and the aspect of the digestion relating to the transit of digestate. So when we see something wrong in the areas of thoughts, nerve impulses, circulation, elimination, and respiration we have to look to Vata.
Indeed Vata governs all mental activities: energy, creativity, perception, consciousness, and the ability for self-realization and psychological growth. It also governs the three types of mental ability: acquisition, retention, and recall.
Again, the problem for Vata is that because it is the Wind element, and because it lives in the nervous system, it is easily disturbed by stressors and by fear. It is easily scattered. Vatas can be day dreamers, have trouble paying attention to the things they are not interested, they are more like the grasshopper than the ant, very creative, but bad at structure and routine. In fact Vata hates routine, but needs it more than the other two doshas.
One of the great things about Vata though, is that because it is mobile and not fixed like Kapha, (which as water and earth can become like mud or bricks) it is easily influenced. Of course that can be a bad thing, but it is actually easy to pacify Vata through breathing exercises (pranayam) and through Mindfulness meditation, because both techniques work through the respiration and the nervous system, so they directly affect Vata.
And just as Vata is the dosha that carries disease to the other doshas, it is also the one that carries health. When the breathing and nervous systems are calm, there is a cascade of benefits to the endocrine system of Pitta and the muscles and flesh of Kapha.
Vata, Fear, Anxiety
In the treatment of anxiety the question is ultimately fear. Vata tends to fear and nervousness. When you see a young woman in the mountains in a place where there are no bears carrying a whistle to scare away bears, that is an unreasonable fear that is a mark of Vata. Psychologically yes, it may be tied to something deeper, which is itself going to be under Vata—thoughts, the nervous system, etc.
If you bump into a Pitta by mistake, they may respond with irritation. If you bump into a Kapha, they might not even notice. Bump into a Vata, and they may apologize or be nervous.
Vatas in our society tend to have excessive nervous energy. People that always have to be active and busy, who seem to compensate for something inside by constant activity, this is a kind of Vata derangement that is often a fear or anxiety driven. Anxiety is the reaction we have when we are scared. It goes back to the flight or fight mechanism that we share with all other animals. There is a perceived danger. (And it may be a stick that looked like a snake). Our heart races, blood pressure goes up, digestive system shuts down, muscles become tight. We are ready to fight (pitta..anger) or run (vatta…fear). Actually each of these two responses have slightly different physical manifestations in humans.
Anyway, when there is chronic unresolved fear, whether it is the existential fear of being old, alone, and poor, or simply of death itself (if we did not have this fear we would not look both ways before crossing the street), or whether it is a habit developed in the wake of some kind of loss (death of a parent or child) or from abuse suffered at the hands of an older sibling or parent; if this fear gets locked in, un-faced and un-processed, then the cascade of nervous system and endocrine reactions create a state of generalize disquiet—hard to sit still, bit the nails, nervous habits, etc. In the case of ADDH, often the wind of Vata has fanned the flame of Pitta. There is irritation, irritability, impatience.
Healthy Living for Vata
There are many ways to aggravate and pacify Vata. All doshas need to meditate, but Vata and Pitta especially. Mental stress disturbs Prana Vata, which governs all mental activities. This in turn creates anxiety. So Vatas really really need a daily meditative practice such as Mindfulness meditation, Tai Qi, Hatha Yoga. Pranayam breathing excercises are superb for Vata.
Adequate rest and vacation time is also very important. Stepping back from the winds of activity, the way an artist steps back from her painting can give Vata types renewed perspective. Adjusting exercise choices to your dosha is really important. Too much aerobic exercise increases Vata, which already has too much internal movement, since it is wind, and since it is air, all that extra breathing. This does not mean no aerobic, but fast walking rather than running, for example. Mild slope rather than climbing Mt. Everest.
Vata resides in the joints and Vatas are prone to joint pain. Another reason not to run. Resting adequately between exercise sessions is important for Vata. (Kaphas on the other hand need to push themselves hard). Tai Qi and Hatha Yoga are excellent, but again Vata injures joints easily, so resist the temptation to over do it. Don’t begin by standing on your head and don’t let any Pitta type teachers try to force you do things that are unwise. Swimming in a warm pool is excellent if you can avoid getting a chill.
There are physical factors that imbalance Vata by increasing it. Dry, cold and windy weather, and this includes desert climates, cold climates, especially cold dry ones like Boulder, Colorado in winter, (vs. New York or Chicago) too much air conditioning, too much fans, driving in a car with the top open, etc. will all damage Vata.
Sometimes such situations are unavoidable. So we have to try and remedy as much as possible with the other things we can control. Dressing warmly, drinking hot ginger or other warming spice tea as soon as you get in out of the cold, taking oil massage in dry climates, using the humidifier in winter with warm sweet essential oils like cinnamon, using warming, moistening spices in tea and food such as Ginger, Licorice, Cardamom, and Cinnamon, eating regular meals that are fundamentally warming, moistening, and rich in the tastes that are sweet, sour, salty, unctuous, and heavy, like many Mediterranean diets, for example, or like Persian or Moroccan food, rich in stews and sauces and cooked fruits.
And Vata has to avoid too much bitter taste (coffee), stimulating spicy like chilies, which act in the same way as stimulating drugs like methamphetamine, an extreme example, and excess astringent taste, which is found in many of the gas producing foods like beans. Air plus air equals too much air. Vata excess.
Freshly cooked food is critical for all doshas, but Vata is especially damaged by frozen foods and ready made foods like airplane meals or Trader Joe’s style ready mades. One remedy at least is to use the Vata churna spice mixtures, with spices like Ajwain, black pepper, clove, coriander, fennel, ginger, cumin, black cumin, fenugreek, black salt, black cardamom, allspice, and pippali. You can buy these ready made, or make them your self. Experiment. Let a thousand flowers bloom!
Vata is light, airy, dry, and irregular. All of which is increased by fasting. Fasting is imperative for Kapha, tolerated by Pitta, and generally not recommended for Vata. In my profession one sees many Vata deranged people obsessed with fasting or with food in general. Eat a healthy diet, but don’t damage your digestion by worrying about it. Relax around food. Its food, not a religion. In fasting, the most the Vata can do is an occasional mono-diet fast of Kitcheree with yogurt.
Vata pacifying tea can be as simple as ginger powder, ginger root, and some sweetener. Or you can use some combination cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, ginger, licorice, and ajwain. Ajwain does not taste great to westerners, but its very beneficial.
Vata is movement, so excessive amounts of travel, whether daily or by plane, will aggravate. Women, especially, due to the primacy of the menstrual cycle, have Vata aggravated by constant travel for work. This often combines with aggravated Pitta.
The menstrual cycle, a monthly movement, and menopause, a profound movement, is a time when Vata easily gets unbalanced. That is why you see so much anxiety around these times. So extra care must be taken to follow the injunctions for Vata at this time. Ignore modern tampon marketing. A woman should not exercise vigorously during her monthly bleed, should stay warm and do stretching and light yoga, avoiding inverted poses. Most critical is to stay warm and avoid exposure to cold drinks, food, water. No swimming. Both Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine say the same thing here. I trust this wisdom more than Madison Ave. marketing people.
Health Tips for Vatta
*establish a regular routine of food, exercise, rest, and sleep
*do an Ayurvedic self-massage with warm sesame oil or herbalized sesame oil 1x a week
*get plenty of rest—early to bed early to rise for Vata.
*avoid stimulants like coffee, tobacco, alcohol, firearms
*eat warm, nourishing meals on a regular basis. Minimize dry and cold foods like cold cereal.
*eat meals with friends or alone quietly, but not in front of the TV or while reading.
*favor foods that are warm, heavier, oily/unctuous, sweet, sour, and salty.
*reduce cold, dry, light, spicy hot, bitter, astringent foods and meals
*no iced beverages, cold or carbonated ones.
*favor warm liquids. In India, old folks drink hot water. They are in the Vata stage.
*stay warm during cold, windy weather
*remedy dry weather with a humidifier and with self oil massage with sesame oil
*create a calm quiet home environment with meditation and simple non-cluttered decorating
*take vacations to warm moist calm places like rural areas in the tropics
*have fun, but avoid excessive stimulation like at casinos, Las Vegas, noisy restaurants. Try museums and cathedrals instead.
*reduce unnecessary travel. When you can walk or take the train rather than drive.
*deal with issues creating anxiety. Talk it over. Work with a psychologist if you need to. Meditate.
*treat insomnia if you have it. You need to sleep. Use herbs and deal with issues keeping you up
*have good sleep culture. Nothing electronic in the bedroom. Do body scanning/progressive relaxation at night before bed.
Herbs for Vatta
You cannot cure with drugs what you have created with a lifestyle. This holds true, too, for herbs. The use of herbs is valuable and important, but they won’t help if the lifestyle is not corrected. Having said that, I certainly use herbs in the treatment of anxiety, ADDH, and generalized Vata imbalance in Ayurveda.
One has to look also at the area where the Vatta is disturbed. Constipation and gas due to increased Vatta is different than ADDH. However, what you often see in lifelong chronic dry type constipation with gas is an underlying Vata type anxious personality. The more that is dealt with by meditative processes, and the person learns to relax and become less fearful, the quicker that issue is resolved.
For those cases, I am a huge fan of Triphala. You cannot go wrong with Triphala. It pacifies all three doshas, and does not harm. It is a natural stool softener. So its is my starting point for chronic constipation of a Vatta type, along with critical changes in diet.
In mental emotional areas, from ADDH to mental exhaustion from being a student or working too hard mentally, like a college professor or attorney, for example, Brahmi (Bacopa Monniera) is one of the best herbs to pacify Vatta and rejuvenate the mind in Ayurveda. It can be used for any kind of Vatta excess. Guduchi and Jatamansi are both excellent. Licorice is very useful. The medicinal mushrooms of Chinese and Japanese medicine are very valuable here, like Reishi/Ling Zhi and Cordyceps, for example.
I also like to use Chinese herbal medicine for pacifying Vata. Here I use formulas depending on the pattern of Vatta disharmony I see. If it is Pitta fire creating hot wind I may use Tien Wan Bu Xin Dan or Dan Zhi Xiao Yao Wan or even Long Dan Xie Gan Tang depending on the ratio of Pitta to Vata. Ditto if it is the Wind of Vata fanning the flames of Pitta.
If it is psychological Kapha excess holding on to fear and sadness, I like to use Xue Fu Zhu Yu Tang, which is for what Chinese medicine calls “heart blood stasis with liver depression qi stagnation.” This corresponds to a Vatta imbalance created by a dual Kapha Pitta imbalance. We see this kind of case frequently when there is old emotional pain of a violational nature.
When Anxiety due to Vata and Pitta elevation is disturbing sleep, than I often have great results with ProBotanixx formula An Shen Wan, which is more effective than Ambien and safe, also.
Acupuncture to treat Vata aggravation
Anything that relaxes you helps Vata and Pitta. Having said that, Vata is especially benefited by massage with warm oil done by someone who is sweet, kind, and grounded, as well as skilled and experienced.
Acupuncture is excellent for draining the fire of Pitta, for stimulating the lethargy of Kapha, and for calming the nervous system of Vata. For Vata you must adjust your treatment style and point selection to especially calm the nervous system and clear the mind. I find moxabustion and other sources of warmth beneficial. Above all I try to create a calm warm space for Vata patients.
copyright eyton j. shalom, m.s. l.ac. san diego, ca, october 2012, all rights reserved, use with permission