Anxiety is a normal response to stressful situations. The “fight and flight” reaction to extreme stresses is part of human evolution and survival. However prolonged, generalized anxiety in response to everyday stresses is not normal and can be very damaging. When anxiety is a regular part of your existence it can strongly interfere with your ability to live a full life.
Anxiety can encompass many psychological conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It may alternate with depression or be mistaken as stress. As anxiety is deeply rooted in our survival response causing our body to release various hormones including the ones that trigger adrenaline, it makes our mind whirr and muscles tense. The problem with anxiety, fear and stress is that the trigger may be seemingly innocuous – catching a train or going on holiday, making our every day life all about “survival”.
In a nutshell, anxiety is about not feeling safe in our world. This may relate to an event in childhood or later trauma. Sometimes anxiety is a learned behaviour when one or more parents/carers were fearful or anxious.
Although anxiety is a physical condition in some cases it can be seen as a way the psyche tries to keep us safe by stopping us from moving forward.
As anxiety can mimic many things – a sore neck, irritable bowel syndrome, a headache, even a heart attack – sometimes it can be useful to answer a questionnaire to identify what is going on. The standard Depression Anxiety Stress Scale (DASS) (or a simplified online version), differentiates anxiety from depression and stress. Identifying your problem is often the first step to overcoming it.
Anxiety can be crippling at times. If your anxiety or fears are stopping you from enjoying regular social gatherings, causing you to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, interfering with study or work or stopping your from fully engaging with life, then it is important to get the help of a registered psychologist (Australians may be able to access this at low cost through Medicare).
Naturopathy can work in conjunction with psychology to nourish an over-adrenalised nervous system, improve digestion and improve sleep.
What’s your poison?
Caffeine, especially coffee and energy drinks, triggers the same hormone pathways as anxiety, further depleting the nutrients your nervous system requires to function normally. A single cup of coffee, even hours away from bedtime, can also interfere with sleep, further exacerbating anxiety. Coming off caffeine is an important step in taking control of anxiety. If you are prone to headaches 1-2 cups of green tea may help ease the transition, the small amount of caffeine being a stepping stone from the larger doses in other beverages.
Some people use alcohol to relax, to bolster our nerves in social situations or even knocks us out to go to sleep. Although our muscles may initially feel less tense after a drink and may begin to quieten our mind, in fact alcohol ultimately has the opposite reaction – making us more tired and anxious the next day.
There are healthier alternatives to coffee and alcohol. Try a shot of bitter herbs (or simple lemon juice in warm water) to wake up in the morning or a peppermint tea to help us feel alert without adrenalised. To relax at the end of the day take a bath, or even a hot foot bath, play music that makes you feel good, go for a walk or drink a cup of chamomile tea.
Sugar can have a similar effect on some people to caffeine and alcohol. After eating refined carbohydrates such as sugar and flour there is a quick rise in the blood sugar that can give you an energy burst, in an anxious person this may trigger an uncomfortable feeling. As the sugar levels drop it can cause a physiological stress on the body and also trigger anxiety. It’s important to regularly eat slow carbohydrate foods, such as beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains as well as protein, to keep your blood sugar levels stable.
Eat plenty of foods rich in magnesium and the B vitamins to replenish the nervous system such as beans, nuts, wholegrains, avocado and green vegetables. Stay hydrated with a minimum of 6-8 glasses of water every day.
Try following an anti-inflammatory diet to nourish your body.
What makes you feel safe? Every day choose one simple, healthy pleasure to reconnect with a sense of safety and relaxation. Everyone’s list is different but consider playing the type of music that calms your heart rate, regular walks in natural landscapes such as in green parks or beside the sea, exercise every day, write in a journal, sing, talk to a friend who has a positive outlook on life, buy yourself some fragrant flowers, make your living space as harmonious and calming as possible.
Give yourself a break from things that reinforce your underlying belief that the world is not safe. Be selective about what you watch on television – the news, even current affairs programs, many dramas and films carry the subtle or not so subtle messages that the economy is about to crash and you’ll loose your house/job or people are out to hurt you or rip you off. A horror or action movie can trigger palpitations and stress hormones, while a funny one may have the opposite effect and release chemicals that help us relax and feel good.
A common symptom of anxiety is to daydream about catastrophes or personal disasters. Give yourself some time every day or week to create pleasant daydreams instead, use your imagination to create positive scenarios instead of anxiety-reinforcing mayhem.
Changing your drinking habits by substituting anxiety provoking beverages with pleasant, calming herbal teas such as chamomile, peppermint, lemon balm or passionflower is a great way of accessing herbal medicines.
Most “nervine” herbs, such as the ones above, can make you feel relaxed. More targeted anxiolytic herbs include St Johns Wort and Kava, though neither should be taken with prescribed medication without consulting your health care provider.
For more information about naturopathic treatments for anxiety including herbs, flower essence and nutrition check out my earlier article on anxiety.