Anxiety is a marriage between body and mind. An unhappy marriage. The more anxious you feel, the more symptoms your body exhibits. From diarrhoea and nausea to heart gripping chest pains. Defined as a ‘generalised pervasive fear’, some people suffer anxiety all day, every day. Feeling frightened all the time is not a pleasant way to live. An anxiety or panic attack is an episode of anxiety ramped up dramatically. The pain and fear are so extreme, panic attacks are often mistaken for a heart attack.
- Muscle tension, especially around neck, shoulders and jaw.
- Trembling or shaking.
- Sweating, particularly on the palms and underarms.
- Feelings of apprehension, helplessness and uncertainty.
- Chest pain.
- Hyperventilation, fast and shallow breathing.
What causes it?
- The biochemical driver of anxiety is the hormone, adrenaline (and it’s silent but equally dangerous side-kick, cortisol, also created by the adrenal glands) is released in response to a stressor. A stressor may be the irrational demands of a sociopathic business partner, but it can also be can be something as blame-free as an infection, sports injury or even an excessively hot day.
- Genes may be a factor. Anxious parents beget anxious children, though whether this is nature or nurture is open for debate.
- Lack of sleep, whether due to insomnia, shift-work or burning the candle at both ends, can cause or exacerbate anxiety.
- Anxiety may be a symptom of a physical or mental illness or a side-effect of medication.
- Trauma such as a car accident or death of a close friend or family member can instigate anxiety.
- Hormonal changes including pre-menstrual tension and menopause may increase feelings of anxiety.
- Anxiety is often experienced by people who are withdrawing from drugs of addiction, including alcohol and tobacco.
What To Do
While it is important to manage the diet to reduce stimulants and settle the nerves, the most important thing of all is to find a way for your body to calm. When your physical body is calm, your mind will follow suit. This is fundamental to helping ease the awfulness that is anxiety. Find a technique or method that works for you, and faithfully and consistently use it.
- Avoid eating when emotionally upset. During a bout of anxiety, the body is placed on red alert, with stress hormones flooding the body. Non-essential activities such as digesting food are shut down. Obviously, if the anxiety continues for days you need to eat. In this case, it is best to eat small meals that are easy on the stomach, such as soup, smoothies or even baby food.
- Avoid caffeine. Caffeine increases the release of adrenaline, the hormone already in abundance.
- Reduce or avoid alcohol. Alcohol may quell the feelings of anxiety momentarily, but the next day you will be back on the roller coaster. A glass or two may be fine, more will make things worse.
- Sweet foods will help at the time of an anxiety attack, particularly a hot cup of herbal tea with honey. Stop press. This is the only time this particular little black duck is ever likely to recommend something sweet. However, of course, there is a proviso. For the longer term anxiety sufferer, the highs and lows of blood sugar levels only serve to make matters worse as they impact on the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, so reserve sweet drinks for crisis times only.
- Choose calming foods like brown rice, porridge, miso soup, stews, casseroles, soups, and baked root vegetables, including carrots, parsnips, turnips and potatoes.
- Herbs are outstanding for anxiety. They really take the edge off feelings of panic and fear. Choose from the following: kava, zizyphus, withania, passionflower, magnolia, valerian, hops, and lemon balm. If you are prone to anxiety, take herbs daily as a preventative measure. Although not sedative (except valerian), these herbs will help you to sleep, as anxiety is most likely the cause of your sleeplessness.
- The two minerals calcium and magnesium are a good combination. Calcium is vital for steady nerves and magnesium helps take the tension out of anxious muscles. Take a tablet or powder combining both twice daily.
- If your muscles take the brunt of your anxiety, more magnesium is required. Take 400mg 2 to 3 times daily.
- The tissue salts Mag. phos. (magnesium phosphate) and Kali phos. (potassium phosphate) taken together are another excellent combination, being particularly good for children, the extra-sensitive and easily startled. These can be taken every hour or so in anxious times.
- The Bach Flower Rescue Remedy is tailor-made for quelling anxiety. Whenever you feel anxious, add a few drops to water and sip frequently. A couple of drops of Rescue Remedy can also be taken under the tongue or rub a drop onto your temple or inside wrist where it will be absorbed by the body. If you suffer from anxiety attacks, have a vial of Rescue Remedy handy at all times.
Anxiety is a state of mind and body, but begins in the mind. The best and sometimes only way to quieten the anxious mind is to access it via the body. Choose one or more techniques suggested below. If you are a constant worry-wort, try to incorporate the method daily so that your body slowly adjusts to a steadier, less anxious state. After a prolonged period of anxiety the adrenal glands become ‘trigger happy’, releasing stress hormones well after the initial cause of anxiety has disappeared. For instance, becoming excessively and inappropriately stressed or anxious at loud noises or the annoying habits of your partner or children. The Buddhist phrase, ‘Body is Slow Mind’ fits this scenario. Although your mind has consciously processed the stressful situation, your body is still reacting.
- Next time you feel anxious, notice where you are breathing. Most likely it is the upper chest. Hyperventilation (over-breathing) associated with anxiety and panic attacks leads to a decrease in blood carbon dioxide levels, which in turn causes symptoms of dizziness, fatigue, and nervousness. Decreased carbon dioxide levels in turn trigger the release of stress hormones. This is known as a vicious circle. The old- fashioned remedy was to breathe into a paper bag, thereby restoring carbon dioxide levels. The following Buteyko breathing technique, known as ‘small breath holds’, has the same effect and will help restore calm any time you feel anxious, and may prevent a panic attack. Sit comfortably,
both feet flat on the ground. Take a small breath in, followed by a small breath out. Close your mouth throughout the exercise. Hold your nose for a slow count of 5. Release your nose, breathing normally for a count of 10, repeat holding your nose for 5 and relax for 10. Continue for 4 to 5 minutes or until calm is restored. The slight increase in carbon dioxide activates the relaxing parasympathetic nervous system, good for calm and peace.
- Belly, abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing is the way we were meant to breathe. Over time, and especially for anxious people, breathing travels further up the body. Look at a dog or young child at rest. Belly breathing. Initially, lie on your bed with a pillow beneath your head and knees. Place your hands palm down on your lower belly. Breathe in through your nose, counting slowly to three or four. Feel your tummy rise with the breath. Breathe out just as slowly, allowing the belly to drop. Once you feel comfortable with this, progress to doing this seated, and eventually you will feel so calm, you can belly breathe as you fight your boss for a pay rise.
- Aerobic exercise, swimming, walking, jogging, cycling all increase serotonin levels, which is good medicine for anxiety. Incorporate exercise 3 or more times in your week.
- Yoga will calm your body and mind. In the height of anxiety it is impossible to settle down enough to learn the techniques. When you are in a calmer state of mind, make it a priority to sign up for a course. The following yoga pose can be used immediately. A classic yoga posture (asana) known as Child’s pose (Balasana) is excellent for anxiety. Kneeling on the floor, sit on your heels, knees as wide as your hips. Exhale and lay your tummy over your thighs. Rest your head on the floor or pillow. Arms along side each leg, palms facing up. Relax in this pose for at least 3 minutes daily.
- For the long-term sufferer of anxiety, counselling or therapy might be useful to explore and treat deeper causes.
- Massage. The healing power of another’s caring touch may be what is required. Now is not the time for a bruising deep tissue muscle massage, seek out a gentle-souled masseuse with the hands of an angel.
- Hypnotherapy has a good track record for treating those who suffer from anxiety.
- Avoid movies, books, computer games that increase adrenaline, even the nightly news may cause you to feel stressed.
- ‘Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.’ (William Congreve). Think Bach not Black Sabbath
- Add a few drops of lavender or chamomile oil to an oil diffuser to create a calm atmosphere.
- Affirmations can be an effective way to calm your thoughts when anxious. Repeat to yourself ‘All is well’ or ‘Calm’ over and over until the feelings of anxiety subside.
- Cocooning. Feelings of vulnerability and being exposed often accompany anxiety. Cocooning is a technique that creates a sense of much needed peace. Gently place both hands either side of your face. Close eyes and mouth. Rest both little and ring fingers on eye lids, forefingers closing ears, thumbs cradling your jaw. Be still and breathe
- Avoid FACEBOOK, TWITTER and social media for a while. You don’t need to be connected all the time.
- Think like Spock. Fans of Star Trek (mea culpa) know that Spock and all Vulcans (a race of pointy eared humanoids) control their emotions by the mastery of logic. Logic is the enemy of anxiety. Anxiety sufferers are prone to ‘catastrophising’ that is exaggerating a small worry into a catastrophe. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a school of psychology, suggests one questions one’s thoughts in a logical and pragmatic way. For example, if running late triggers anxiety, question what is the worst that can happen if you are late? Will you die? Will the sky fall in? Or could you ring the baby sitter, and ask them to stay an extra half hour?
- 3 drops of frankincense – has the ability to slow and deepen the breath, carminative, tonic, sedative.
- 1 drop of ylang ylang – sedative, soothing and calming.
- 2 drops of vetivert – calming soothing sedating and a great tonic to the nervous system.
- 4 drops of roman chamomile– soothing, balancing, calming, restorative and sedating.
- 5 drops of bergamot – revitalising, uplifting, regulating, balancing, antidepressant.
Once mixed together, 6 to 8 drops of this wonderfully relaxing, soothing and uplifting blend can be used in a room vaporiser. Mixed with jojoba oil it can be worn as a personal perfume. Placed in a 30 ml spray bottle with an essential oil dispersant and rose or orange blossom water – it can be used as a personal spray. Mixed into 125 g Epsom salts make for the most relaxing bath. Use as a massage blend in sweet almond oil for a full body, relaxing Swedish massage.
At a glance
- Eat sparingly if you are very anxious. Eat small meals regularly to maintain blood sugar levels.
- Stick to easy to digest foods such as soups, stews, even baby food.
- Avoid caffeine as it stimulates adrenaline, the hormone you are trying to diminish.
- Herbs are very effective for reducing anxiety. Choose from kava, passionflower, magnolia, valerian and lemon balm.
- Take magnesium for your tense muscles.
- Rescue Remedy, the most famous of the Bach Flowers, works a treat. Take a few drops under your tongue whenever you are feeling anxious.
Calming your body is the quickest and most effective way to calm an anxious mind. – Small breath holds. Keeping your mouth closed throughout the exercise, hold your nose closed for 5 seconds, release and breath gently for another 10 seconds. Repeat for 4 minutes. – Have a gentle massage, preferably followed by a warm bath. – Repeat calming affirmations to yourself, to override the anxious thoughts. Simple phrases such as ‘all will be well’ or ‘calm’ can be very settling.