You are not alone. The Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada has reported that one in four Canadians will suffer from an anxiety disorder at least once during their lives (1). For many patients, the only treatment previously sought has been anxiolytic prescription drugs. Unfortunately, these medications often carry severe side effects and some of them (such as benzodiazepines like Valium, Xanax, etc.), can be addictive.
The Root of Anxiety
The root of anxiety lays in “fight or flight” (or stress response); an evolutionary trait highly useful to animals, (as it was to our ancestors) — and, still present in humans today. This response is natural, common, and without taking special measures, almost entirely involuntary. In other words, anxiety is not due to a shortcoming or defect from within.
The stress response kicks in when there is a perceived danger or threat. Regions in the brain known as the amygdala rapidly interpret certain stimuli as a threat. These stimuli can vary greatly –the growl of a lion, a light switching off in a dark alleyway, or a scowl on your manager’s face. Triggering memories, including those responsible for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are stored in the amygdala. No matter the stimulus, the result is the same – activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
The action of the HPA axis starts with the hypothalamus (another brain area that is actually a small gland). The hypothalamus then signals another tiny gland; the pituitary via chemical messengers. Finally, the pituitary sends messages to the adrenal glands that sit atop your kidneys, causing them to produce adrenaline. Adrenaline is the hormone that’s responsible for the physical aspects of the stress response – including: a rise in heart rate, increased energy, pupil dilation, and slowed digestion (2).
The Stress Response in Modern Life
The stress response associated with anxiety was wonderful for our ancestors. It helped keep them alert and aware of their surroundings and capable of fleeing immediate physical dangers.
The problem with the stress response in contemporary life is that the response is autonomic, meaning it is almost wholly involuntarily. The response cannot distinguish between the threat of immediate physical harm and something like the longer term dangers of a low savings account balance. Work stress, family quarrels, or even a traffic jam are just as likely to trigger the stress response as finding an angry bear in your living room.
Furthermore, the stress response is supposed to function as an acute or short term process. In a life-threatening situation you typically would only need a few minutes to flee or fight. The “rush” you get is short-lived, similar to the thrill of riding a roller coaster. Unfortunately, our modern lives often cause an extended stress response as we continually struggle with everyday demands and frustrations.
In short, the human body has not caught up with our modern circumstances. This near-constant state of stress wears our bodies down with chronic conditions (like high blood pressure). It’s like driving a car at top speed for hundreds of kilometres. You damage the engine and take years off the car’s life.
Dealing with the Stress Response
There is hope to deal with the stress response (and in turn, anxiety) using natural methods.With some effort, education, and the guidance of a Functional Medicine physician like Dr. Lynne Murfin, you can achieve control of your anxiety and the underlying stress.
First – become more mindful of when you’re actually feeling stressed out. Both in brief situations, (eg when a flight is delayed), as well as during long term stressful situations (such as working to meet a deadline at work).
Be mindful of the physical signs of stress – rapid heartbeat, perspiration, clenching of your jaw – and start to address your stress right away (deep slow breath, relax jaw, calming thoughts).
There are also non-physical manifestations of stress – like a tendency to worry and dwell, or a short temper. Take time to reflect on any non-physical manifestations
Finally, attune yourself to any symptoms you may have of long term stress – such as difficulty sleeping, heartburn, and digestive issues.
After noting the reactions you have to stress, it is time to take action.
There are several techniques that can help to immediately reduce your stress and prevent anxiety. These include: deep ordered breathing, meditation, and HeartMath. HeartMath is an electronic training system that focuses and relaxes the nervous system. HeartMath classes are offered to Dr. Murfin’s patients. Use of HeartMath, especially in conjunction with a trained instructor, has shown positive effects on emotional stability (3).
Continued success for stress management requires an ongoing plan in addition to the relaxation techniques. Lifestyle changes, in the form of frequent meditation, journaling, and mindful positive thinking are necessary. Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of these actions. A 2013 controlled study found a correlation between positive emotions and better physical health in a research group (4). This same study also found evidence supporting an increase in vagal tone (regulation of the body at rest) with positive emotions.
As one of the cranial nerves, the vagus nerve is responsible for many automatic functions in your major organs -including the heart and lungs. Tone, or tension, of this nerve is a good indicator of the level of your emotional control and the effect of that control on your body’s critical functions. One of the best ways to increase your vagal tone is through mind-body practices like controlled breathing, centered humming, and meditation. The Journal of Investigative Medicine published a study showing mind-body techniques have a positive effect on PTSD (5). Good vagal tone also has benefits beyond emotional control, such as playing a part in reduced inflammation and good digestion (6).
Nutrition and physical activity also play integral roles in anxiety reduction and stress management. Under the care of Dr. Murfin – the use of natural herbs and supplements, as well as exercise, helps replace and enhance your body’s missing nutrients while restoring proper function. This, in turn helps reduce stress and anxiety. It’s a cycle – when you feel better, you’re less stressed and vice versa.
Functional Medicine treatment, especially in conjunction with guidance from a professional lifestyle educator at Dr. Murfin’s practice, aids in the change of thinking patterns. When you’re stuck in a cycle of negative emotions, your stress levels increase and cause harmful effects on your health. This can aggravate existing conditions such as fibromyalgia and other chronic pain syndromes. Emotional control, mindfulness of your body, and positive thinking are vital for good health (7).
While there’s no way to fully shut off your stress response – nor would you want to do such a thing – it’s absolutely controllable. Consulting with an experienced Functional Medicine physician is the next step. With adherence to your doctor’s advice, commitment, and some dedication, you can get a handle on the stress in your life and the resulting anxiety you feel.
2 https://www.researchgate.net/profile/George_Chrousos/publication/11083444_Tsigos_C_Chrousos_GPHypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal_axis_neuroendocrine_factors_and_stress_J_Psychosom_Res_53865-871/links/09e4150f0899c57d20000000/Tsigos-C-Chrousos-GPHypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis-neuroendocrine-factors-and-stress-J-Psychosom-Res-53865-871.pdf 3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24808984 4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23649562 5 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23609463 6 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27010234 7 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25324802