Anxiety is something familiar to most of us. Humans worry. Anxiety is a response to threat. You know the story: see Lion. Run. One glimpse of the teeth flashing in that big (not cute) golden hairy face, and the brain releases all the chemicals it has to save your life. And it works. But, then humans being humans, instead of congratulating ourselves once we are out of danger, we create imaginary problems and increase the stress. What if I had tripped? What if there had been nowhere to hide? What if there had been two of them? What would have happened to the children/cat/dog if I had been killed? Even though the threat has passed, we frighten ourselves further by re-running the scenario over and over, each with a worse outcome than the one before. Using the lion metaphor, anxiety starts with an actual threat. However, in day-to-day life, for the majority of us, there are no lions. Our stressors are not usually so dramatic but they are relentless. It is important to remember that the brain doesn’t spend precious time figuring out whether or not the threat is real. The reaction to threat is instant. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system is turned on. It is a quick as that. On! This stimulates the release of hormones; glucocoritcoids and cortisol. The nervous system joins in and releases catecholamines, eg, Adrenaline. Next, the brain has an emotional response, which in the case of the lion will be fear. Your body will be primed for flight or fight and your brain connects lions and fear.
We are all familiar with the feelings of stress. Increased heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing to increase the oxygen needed by the muscles, lungs and brain. The immune system is put on red-alert. Body fluid is diverted away from non-essential organs, which is why we might experience a dry mouth and throat. The blood moves away from the skin so it is available to the muscles. This can make us feel cold and clammy. The scalp can tighten making our hair stand on end. The digestive system is interrupted and shut down. Being eyed-up as dinner certainly puts you off your own. In the normal course of things, after the threat has gone, the body relaxes and everything returns to normal. Phew. Now should be the time for recovery, a massive sigh of relief. But, in modern life we rarely feel safe. Threats come from the mind, either re-running past events, or anticipating problems to come, or from our inherently stressful modern life, and most of the time the body is simply awash with stress chemicals. These chemicals quite literally alter your thoughts and emotions. Brain chemistry affects your mental health. In turn, your mental health also affects your chemistry. It can be hard to break the cycle when the threat is so vague. It would be easier if it was a lion. You could move. However, anxiety and stress make you ill and so it is important to treat it, preferably before other symptoms appear.
Your tool box for coping must include healthy living, exercise, a nutritious diet, and – this is important – sleep, lots of beneficial refreshing sleep. Herbal medicine has many anti-anxiety remedies to help you to feel calmer and relaxed and to help you to sleep. Herbal medicine taken as prescribed will not produce side effects or become addictive.
Your diet is crucial as there are many foods that increase anxiety. In effect we have two brains. The one in your head and the one in your gut. Your digestive system has its own nervous system. Many foods increase anxiety which also undermine the health of your gut. This matters because without a healthy gut, you simply cannot absorb the nutrients you need. The main culprits are sugar, refined grains and all processed food. Research has also shown dramatic 20% reduction of anxiety in a diet rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids in medical students.
Anxiety can be debilitating, undermining and self-limiting. Focusing on medication for the symptom, ie the anxiety itself, might assist in the short term, however this is a complex condition involving your body and your mind, and long-term strategies are necessary. NLP and hypnotherapy are fantastic therapies for identifying causes of and strategies for reducing anxiety, and together with herbal medicine and dietary changes if necessary, you can feel in control.