We've all experienced some form of anxiety at one point or another. Apprehension, nervousness, fear, stress - these can all be very normal feelings. They can help us study for a test, get to work on time and meet certain deadlines, but when those feelings begin to take over our lives and impact our jobs, relationships and other important aspects, it's worth taking a look at the causes and finding the right solutions.
As I write this I'm actually feeling quite anxious. Jeremy's watching a movie called Backcountry, where this couple goes camping and they've just heard something outside their tent. My heart's beating fast, my stomach is tight and my breathing is really shallow - typical fight or flight response. I'm having a pretty intense physical reaction even though I'm not even in the situation. Oh great, now there's thunder and lightening, even creepier... (Do not watch this movie if you ever want to go camping again. Seriously).
How many of us have equally intense reactions to things that aren't even real or might never happen? We live a large part of our lives in fight or flight for things that don't require that type of reaction at all, which drains our energy, lowers our immunity and overall diminishes our quality of life.
So... is anxiety something that can be managed without medication*? I think for many it can. But first let's look at some common triggers.
Please know that I'm not anti-medication, and I realize that prescription drugs have helped many people cope with their anxiety. I was actually on the drug Fluvoxamine for a year or so around age 10. But for the sake of this blog, I'll be focusing on ways to manage anxiety and its related symptoms without medication - something many of my clients have actually been able to reduce the dose of or wean themselves off of completely because of certain lifestyle changes and coping strategies.
So what are some things that can make anxiety worse and what are the solutions?
Not Enough Sleep/Poor Quality Sleep
We all know how we feel when we've had a poor night's sleep. We're irritable, we can't focus and we may feel as though we can't tackle the day's tasks, causing us to be anxious. Many people don't sleep well, and while they've accepted that it's "just the way it is", it's not normal and can be improved, but it might not happen overnight. While the occasional sleepless night might not cause any harm, long-term sleep deprivation can lead to certain mood disorders like anxiety and depression, not to mention weight gain and other health problems. The solution(s)? Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day (even on weekends), shutting down phones, tablets and TV's an hour or so before bed, having a nice bedtime routine (reading a book, taking a bath or shower, and really just slowing down before hopping in the sack), using aromatherapy (essential oils like lavender and the white noise the diffuser produces) can all be very helpful. I'll be writing a separate post on sleep soon I promise!
Too Much Coffee
For some, coffee can cause anxiety with just one cup, for others, that accumulation over time can lead to the jitters. Last May I noticed I was pretty darn anxious and I couldn't figure out why. Everything was fine, the days were getting longer, brighter and warmer, but for some reason I felt super anxious. One night after having what I think was a panic attack, I dug out my phone and started researching coffee and anxiety (I drank a lot of coffee last winter). Turns out that our body produces this calming neurotransmitter called GABA and caffeine can greatly reduce GABA's effectiveness over time. While everyone might not be as sensitive to this, people who are prone to anxiety will likely feel the shift. And of course, coffee can disrupt sleep, especially if it's consumed after lunch. The solution? Limiting coffee intake (cutting back from 2 or 3 cups to 1, or only having a cup a few times a week). Finding coffee alternatives like dandelion root tea or herbal tea can be very effective "weaning" techniques too.
Especially one that's high in sugar and carbohydrates. Why? Spikes and drops in insulin levels.
Picture this: you're out shopping, you've had a filling breakfast a few hours prior and all of a sudden you start feeling flushed. Your heart's racing, you might feel a bit dizzy and nauseated and you realize you're starving. You were so busy shopping that you didn't realize how hungry you were. Those feelings can mimic anxiety, even though they're just your body's reaction to hunger. This used to be one of my problems in middle school (and I feared going to school because I feared vomiting or passing out at school, so I faked illness to stay home). The solution? Eating a balanced diet and eating every couple of hours can keep blood sugars stable, preventing these spikes and dips in insulin. Good nutrition will also lead to a healthier gut microbiome (think probiotics) and there is definitely a connection between gut health and mental health.
Not enough to do (aka too much time to think)
I remember seeing a therapist when Bennett was about a year and a half. The sleepless nights and time off from work when I was on mat leave gave me wayyyyy too much time to think - about past events and the future. When I went in to see her she asked me "are you busy enough?" and I thought that was really interesting because, well, I obviously wasn't. I was bored and my brain was creating problems for me to solve! The solution? Fill your days, keep active (exercise is fantastic for anxiety), take on something new, but don't overdo it, because as we'll see in this next section, going to the other extreme can cause just as many problems.
Too much to do (aka not enough time to relax)
How easily can you say no? Whether someone invites you out, or your co-worker asks you for help, do you say yes to avoid hurting their feelings even though you want to say no? Taking on too much can leave us feeling anxious because we feel as though we don't have enough time for the things we actually want to do. And if we feel as though we don't have the control (aka we feel as though we can't say no), that in and of itself can cause anxiety. The solution? Try not to be a people pleaser and learn to say no once in a while. And don't be afraid to ask for help! If you've got three kids and they're driving you wild, ask a friend to watch them for an hour while you go to the gym, or get some fresh air. You'll be a better parent and your kids will be better off for it too.
Living too far into the future
In my January blog post (read it here), I wrote the following:
"There's a saying that goes something like this: if you are living in the past you will feel guilt. If you are living in the future you will feel anxious. But if you are living in the moment you will feel peace."
The present moment is the only moment we have. And that concept is lost on so many people. We're either too busy worrying about what we said, or what that person thinks or thinking about what's coming next that we waste a large part of our lives caught between thinking about the past or looking to the future. Looking ahead is necessary, we need to schedule appointments, trips, meetings, etc. but don't let your thoughts drift too far into the future. The solution? Learn to live in the moment by practicing yoga, meditation and deep breathing exercises. 4-7-8 breathing is a very relaxing breathing technique that can be done almost anywhere at any time. It's also a natural sedative but unlike sedative drugs that often lose their effectiveness over time, this style of breathing actually gains strength the more you practice it. Aim to do it at least twice per day (only four rounds of breath for the first couple of weeks). Here's a great step-by-step video from Dr. Weil.
I probably don't need to elaborate, but if you're a woman and you have a period, the time leading up to said period can make you feel like a complete lunatic. Luckily, my cycle is very regular so I know when to expect a little extra anxiety. (I track it with this great app called Period Tracker Lite (get it here for iPhone or here for android - Side note this app actually helped us get pregnant because it tells you when you're ovulating and most fertile). Anyhoos! Yes! The time between ovulation and the actual start of your period presents a lot of hormone fluctuations which can disturb sleep and mental well-being. The solution? If you track your cycle, take extra care of yourself the 2 weeks leading up to your period (especially the week before). I like to increase my fat intake, cut back on my commitments and go to bed earlier during that time. I also find that increasing my intake of B vitamins (we sell one called Stress Formula) is very helpful. Many clients of mine also use this with great success, though some need a bit of extra help. Something like an Adrenal Formula that can help nourish those adrenal glands can help keep anxiety under control, especially if it tends to get a little out of control just before TOM arrives.
Not appreciating the smaller things in life
I've focused a lot on gratitude over the last couple of years and if you've read some of my other blog posts you're likely already aware that being grateful for the smallest things has likely caused the biggest shift in my life. Why? Because it's shown me how much I truly have, and how much happiness even the smallest things can bring. I can see how not being grateful could cause anxiety for fear of not having enough, doing enough, or being enough. The solution? Start practicing gratitude for even the smallest things. Better yet, start a gratitude journal, where you write three things (at least) that you're grateful for each and every day, either before bed or when you just wake up.
In closing, I'll leave you with this excerpt from Patricia Pearson, author of A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours & Mine) during her appearance on CBC's Doc Zone Age of Anxiety (watch it here):
"Because we expect to be more happy and fulfilled than the average human life is going to be, we start to become open to the idea that our unhappiness is somehow pathological or a disorder and that it deserves to be treated and that's a real modern phenomenon; to take the complexity and enormity of human emotion and turn it into a treatable illness."
Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to read this post. While I certainly didn't go too in depth with the causes of anxiety and possible solutions, I hope the information listed above can help in some way. If you are currently taking anti-depressants or medication for anxiety or other mental disorders, please chat with your doctor or wellness practitioner before adding any of the supplements listed above as they could affect your current medication's effectiveness.
If you would like more information on these and other topics, or would like to arrange a chat with me, feel free to contact me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org or give me a call at 506-433-5911. I'd be happy to chat with you.