What is anxiety?
Anxiety and worry go together like peas and carrots! An anxiety disorder is a medical condition defined by persistent and excessive worry. The feeling of dread and constant questioning of “what if something goes wrong”, can create so much distress preventing a person from carrying out day to day tasks. Experiences as seemingly innocuous as going to the grocery store or going for a walk, can become so uncomfortable that anxiety sufferers can become diligent at avoiding such situations and miss out on life. Anxiety is excessive worry about what may or may not happen in the future, whereas depression tends to be a persistently low mood relating events in the past and things that can not be controlled or changed. The two mental health conditions can occur together, or independent of each other.
Anxiety can show up in many forms and affects men, women and children every day. It can range from short-lived episodes of hesitancy to do something, to severe debilitating anxiety and panic attacks which may require hospitalisation and medication.
Any person can experience anxiety at some stage in their life. In fact experts suggest that some level of anxiety is important to keep us motivated. For example, if we didn’t worry about the bills that were due, we may not be inclined to attend work. However a person with an anxiety disorder may experience debilitating distress most of the time for no apparent reason. You could have anxiety if you can relate to feeling:
- persistent, excessive or unrealistic worries (generalised anxiety disorder)
- compulsions and obsessions you can’t control (obsessive compulsive disorder)
- intense excessive worry about social situations (social anxiety disorder)
- panic attacks (panic disorder)
- an intense, irrational fear of everyday objects and situations (phobia)
Other symptoms of anxiety disorders may include a pounding heart; difficulty breathing; upset stomach; muscle tension; sweating or choking; feeling faint or shaky, finger nail biting or picking.
Are anxiety and excitement the same?
The experience of excitement may seem quite similar to what has been described as mild anxiety. The jittery feelings, butterflies in your stomach and restless behaviour can all feel a bit like anxiety. The difference lies in the choices you make in the moment. Do you continue to wait in line for the new roller coaster ride and enjoy the anticipation and then the ride, or, do you make choices that stop you from really getting the most out of life. For example, avoiding activities like joining a gym, or accepting the opportunity to make new friends by going out to a party on your own can be early signs of anxiety.
However, if you are able to sit with the discomfort, separate your thoughts and feelings from who you are and still choose to participate, then this is probably quite a healthy response and just excitement. The feeling of excitement is your body preparing you to try something new. If, on the other hand, the feelings become intense and the thoughts progress into a viscous cycle of negativity which drives you to opt out of life, then it’s important to seek help from a qualified health professional such as your doctor, counsellor, psychologist.
Are anxiety and depression related?
Depression is a mental health condition which affects how a person feels, thinks or acts. Depression, like anxiety, can vary from mild to severe. A person may feel sad or have low mood at times, but not have a mental health disorder. When mood is consistently low, and a person loses interest in activities they once enjoyed, loses their appetite, has an altered sleep pattern or feels constantly fatigued, these can be signs of a more serious condition. In severe cases, depression can cause a person to feel worthless, guilty and have thoughts of ending their life. If you or someone you know feels this way, or speaks of ending their life it is important to seek help sooner rather than later. In Australia, calling Lifeline on 13 11 44 is a great way to start.
As anxiety can cause constant worrying thoughts, feelings of dread, and concerns about the future, this often can lead to mental fatigue and depression. Living with anxiety can be exhausting and the risk of developing depression in addition to anxiety is high. People who are depressed can often feel anxious and worried and one can trigger the other.
What causes anxiety?
Many things can cause anxiety. One factor is a genetic link and family disposition to anxiety. Genes associated with mood disorders are involved in making enzymes in the body which can alter the levels of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and hormones in the body. If these genes are switched on or triggered by certain events such as extreme stress, toxic exposure, major life events, food intolerances, or inflammation, they can begin to affect the balance of mood related chemicals in the body. One of the most well known of these chemicals is serotonin.
Serotonin is believed to influence mood, social behaviour, sense of well being, sleep, memory, sexual desire and function. If serotonin levels drop, a person may experience anxiety or depression. It is estimated that 90-95% of serotonin is made in the gut, and influenced by the types of bacteria and micro-organisms present in the digestive tract. In fact, altered levels of serotonin have been linked to irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease and osteoporosis. Serotonin can also be found in blood platelets and throughout the central nervous system. In a nutshell, serotonin is a natural mood stabiliser. Studies on people with depression show that they have lower levels of serotonin compared to people not experiencing depression, and that this also occurs in people with anxiety and insomnia.
Gut feeling is the key…
You may have experienced anxiety as a “gut feeling”, a general uneasiness about a certain situation. The interesting thing about gut feeling is that science has now started to qualify this sensation and describe it in relation to the gut-brain connection. With the understanding that a most of the serotonin in the body is made in the digestive tract, changes can be made to diet and lifestyle which will directly influence anxiety levels. The good news is that even if you have a genetic predisposition to anxiety, a lot can be done to alter how these genes are expressed and which hormones and neurotransmitters are influenced.
Treating anxiety and depression with medication alone would be missing the point. To truly reach the underlying causes of mental health disorders, it is important to optimise diet, lifestyle, environmental and spiritual health at the same time. You must become a detective, trust your intuition, explore all the different areas of your life, and seek help to correct the underlying imbalances that are causing you to feel anxious or depressed. Taking control of your future choices means you can shift the mental energy from worrying what might happen, to creating positive outcomes and visioning a healthier happier future.
How to reduce anxiety naturally.
- Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages as caffeine is a known trigger for anxiety. Caffeine has a stimulating action on both the gut and nervous system. If you have anxiety you need a calming action like chamomile or passionflower tea for example.
- Aim to achieve a minimum of 7 and a maximum of 9 hours of sleep per night. This is the magic range for optimal health and well-being.
- Turn off wi-fi, mobile phones, and electronic screens, including the TV for at least one hour before going to bed. Limit your screen time during the day where possible.
- Address any food intolerance or digestive disturbances. It is critical to have good digestive health to absorb the vitamins, minerals and nutrients that are involved in the manufacture of serotonin and other critical compounds in the body. It is also crucial to ensure there is a healthy diversity of micro-organisms that can live and populate the digestive tract and drive the production of serotonin.
- Eat a rainbow every day. That is, include a variety of living, whole, unprocessed foods in your diet to make sure you are getting the full spectrum of vitamins, minerals and nutrients that are required to keep your nervous system healthy. To help work out what foods are right for you talk to your naturopath, nutritionist or dietician, who are trained to modify diets for individual needs.
- Enjoy quality time with friends and family without devices on and the TV going.
- Walk barefoot on the grass – earth yourself
- Treat yourself to fresh air and sunlight every day. Vitamin D is deficiency is know to contribute to anxiety and depression. Skin exposure to the sun is a great source of Vitamin D. Enjoy 10-15 minutes of sun exposure to the largest and whitest areas of your skin during the least UV intense times of day. eg. early morning or late afternoon.
- Avoid feeding the mind with traumatic or negative inputs such as watching the news, viewing crime or destructive and violent fantasy shows on TV or listening to death metal music.
- Avoid spending time with toxic people. The type that have something negative to respond to everything you say, or drag you down.
- Choose to surround yourself with people who are positive, uplifting and supportive of you.
- Practice mindfulness, you can see a practitioner trained in mindfulness training for support, or get started with some home practice here.
- There are an abundance of herbal and natural medicines with evidence for being helpful in treating mild to moderate anxiety and depression. See a qualified naturopath
- Exercise daily, even if it’s just a short walk during your lunch break.
- Practise deep abdominal breathing in and out through the nose, whenever you can.
Sometimes healing the mind will heal the gut and vice versa. Eat nutrient dense foods, whole foods as nature intended, and manage your stress, and you will be surprised at just how far those two little things can take you. To help you put all the pieces together, and get the best treatment plan for your needs, get in touch.