Anxiety is defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease.Oxford Living Dictionaries. (2017). ‘Definition of anxiety in English’. [online] Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/anxiety [accessed 28 Sept. 2017].
It is normal to get nervous in some situations, such as before tests or when starting a new job.
However if anxious feelings are stronger than usual, last a long time, and hamper your everyday life, you may have an anxiety disorder.Marsh, L. (2015). Understanding Anxiety and Panic Attacks. [online] London: Mind. Available at: http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/anxiety-and-panic-attacks/about-anxiety/?o=6272#.V_ytzaOZM6g [accessed 28 Sept. 2017].NHS Choices. (2017). ‘Why do I feel anxious and panicky?’ [online] Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/understanding-panic.aspx [accessed 28 Sept. 2017].
Anxiety affects millions of people around the world — children, teens, adults and the elderly.
Anxiety can be acute, in response to a particular stressor, or generalised and chronic.
It can be more or less debilitating, depending on the form, the person, and the circumstances.
Symptoms of anxiety
There are many different physical and mental symptoms of anxiety. Some of these include:
- Tense muscles
- Fast breathing
- Difficulty sleeping
- Needing the toilet more or less than usual
- Feeling tense, nervous, unsettled or on edge
- Feeling a sense of dread
- Feeling like other people are looking at you
- Being unable to ‘switch off’ (having a ‘racing mind’)
- Recurring, often negative thoughts and rumination
As well as these, anxiety is often accompanied by other mental health issues, such as depression, mood swings or bipolar disorder.
Different types of anxiety
Anxiety can range from mild to severe, and its severity can change from day to day, week to week, month to month, and so on.
There are also some specific types, although you do not have to fit into any of these particular categories to be diagnosed with anxiety:
A panic attack is an intense rush of physical and mental anxiety symptoms.
You may experience:
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- A choking sensation
Some people think that they are having a heart attack, or even that they are going to die. But while it may feel that something is seriously wrong, panic attacks are not in themselves dangerous.
A panic attack usually lasts between 5 and 20 minutes.
- A panic attack usually lasts between 5 and 20 minutes.
- Panic disorder is a severe form of anxiety characterised by recurring panic attacks over a period of time.
A generalised sense of fear and anxiety, for no specific reason, experienced over a sustained period.
An intense fear of a specific thing, often something which is unlikely to be dangerous, such as crowds, spiders, or heights.
Recurrent symptoms of anxiety linked to specific traumatic events in our lives.
Recurrent and compulsive thoughts or behaviours in response to feelings of anxiety, which can adversely affect our daily lives. For instance, feeling the need to wash your hands repeatedly, or to check that a door has been locked.
Social anxiety can be characterised as a phobia around certain social situations, and a tendency towards introversion and solitude.
Anxiety and over-caring
Anxiety is often linked to an over-caring personality, which can create and foster feelings of anxiety or insecurity.
There are different manifestations of over-caring, such as:
- Performance anxiety
- Over-caring about how we perform
- Over-caring about making things perfect
- Over-caring about another person (also linked to codependence)
Over-caring can lead to behaviour which produce further anxiety, such as:
- Anxious thoughts and mental images of the future
- Having high expectations that aren’t met
- Unhealthy measurements of ourselves against others
- Constantly doubting our abilities
Root Causes of Anxiety
In order to successfully treat anxiety, we need to first understand what may be causing it.
Anxiety usually correlates with an imbalance in neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and GABA.
There are a multitude of root causes for neurotransmitter imbalances, and for anxiety, all of which need to be addressed if we are to feel calmer, more grounded and more peaceful in our lives.
Poor nutrition can cause nutritional imbalances which can lead to anxiety. Poor nutrition will either not provide the right nutrients, or will deplete the nutrients we need to make the right hormones and neurotransmitters to feel calm, grounded and happy.
A chronic diet high in processed foods, refined carbohydrates, bad fats, and missing macro or micro nutrients can cause anxiety.
Certain foods and beverages can be poorly tolerated, causing an inflammatory reaction which can damage the gut, hamper absorption of key nutrients, create imbalances in hormones and neurotransmitters, and cause an immune reaction and inflammation, all of which can lead to anxiety.
The 7 most common food intolerances are gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, fish, shellfish, nuts. These, or other, problem foods and beverages may be contributing to your anxiety.
Reactive hypoglycemia and other issues with blood sugar control can contribute to feelings of anxiety as well as mood swings.
A well-functioning gut is essential to the digestion and absorption of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, which are key cofactors in the production of neurotransmitters.
Furthermore, many of our key neurotransmitters are actually made in the gut — for instance, 95% of our serotonin is made in the gut.
Gut issues such as poor digestion and absorption, gut dysbiosis and leaky gut can lead to inflammation, lack of nutritional cofactors, and an imbalance in hormones and neurotransmitters, all of which can lead to anxiety.
Certain genetic mutations can predispose us to anxiety.Gottschalk, M. G., & Domschke, K. (2017). Genetics of generalized anxiety disorder and related traits. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 19(2), 159–168. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2017.19.2/kdomschke, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5573560/, [accessed 25th October 2020]
Toxins such as plastics (phalates, BPAs), heavy metals (mercury, lead), moulds, pesticides, herbicides can all contribute to anxiety.
An overloaded liver with poor bile production will likely contribute to hormonal imbalances, neurotransmitter imbalance and anxiety.
EMFs can also be very anxiety-producing to sensitive individuals.
Viral infections such as Epstein Bar (EBV), cytomegalovirus and even Covid-19, and bacterial infections such as Lyme, Babesia, Bartonella can all contribute to anxiety, usually caused by inflammation, neuroinflammation, and hormone and neurotransmitter disruption.
Many pharmaceuticals can cause or exacerbate anxiety, even the ones designed to alleviate it in the first place! For instance the birth control pill, benzodiazepines, SSRIs have been shown to cause anxiety.Scott, Trudy (2011), The Anti-Anxiety Food Solution: How the Foods You Eat Can Help You Calm Your Anxious Mind, Improve Your Mood and End Cravings. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications
Hormone imbalances are a major contributor to anxiety.
Whether thyroid, adrenal or sex hormones, all of them can trigger anxiety when out of balance, mainly because of their impact on neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that help regulate our mood, sense of calm, motivation, focus, appetite, sleep, etc.
There are many neurotransmitters and brain chemicals that play a role in anxiety — Serotonin, GABA, dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline, endorphins, histamines — and when these are out of balance, it can lead to anxiety.
Lifestyle factors, such as chronically getting too little sleep, too much or too little exercise, not getting enough natural light or nature, can all lead to anxiety.
Poor breathing habits can create chemical imbalances between O2 and CO2 which can cause increased anxiety levels.
High levels of chronic stress, and/or past trauma in our lives, will have a detrimental effect on our physiology, causing hormone and neurotransmitter imbalances, chronic inflammation, nervous system dysregulation and damage to our gut, all of which can lead to anxiety.
High levels of stress deplete B6, zinc and other nutrients which are essential cofactors for serotonin and GABA, our calming and happiness neurotransmitters.
High levels of stress also increase cortisol and can cause adrenal, thyroid and sex hormone imbalances which can all contribute to anxiety.
Difficult life circumstances such as difficult economic and environmental factors, living conditions, and relationship difficulties, can all create anxiety.
Furthermore, in our 24/7 connected society, there is little downtime from work, information and stimulation, and this can be exhausting to our system and cause anxiety.
Solutions for anxiety
Traditionally, anxiety has been dealt with in mainstream medicine with pharmaceuticals (tranquilisers, anti-depressants, hypnotics, sleeping pills) and talk therapy (CBT mainly).
Integrative medicine for mental health and functional medicine psychiatry try to look for the root causes — both biochemical (such as moulds and other toxins, Lyme and other infections, nutritional deficiencies, gut issues, inflammation, etc.) and psycho-spiritual (such as difficult life circumstances, psychological trauma)– and treat these.
There are many things you can do to improve your anxiety levels.
Eating a diet of whole foods, healthy fats, proteins (around 21 to 28 grams per meal), complex carbohydrates and high fibre foods, and reducing sugars and refined carbohydrates is key if you suffer from anxiety.
If you need extra support from supplemental nutrients, these are essential for anxiety:
- B vitamins
- especially B1, B6, folate and B12
- low B12 can lead to OCD among other forms of anxiety
- B6 and folate are important building blocks for serotonin
- B6 can be low if you have pyroluria
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin C
- Zinc, especially if you have high copper and low zinc, and especially if you have pyroluria
- Evening primrose oil, especially if you have pyroluria
Find out which foods you may be intolerant to, either by keeping a food/mood diary and practicing an elimination diet for three months before reintroducing slowly, and monitoring your response, or by getting tested.
If diagnosed with celiac, you will need to avoid gluten for the rest of your life.
Eliminate problem beverages such as caffeine and alcohol.
Having a balanced blood sugar is essential to avoid anxiety and stabilise your mood.
Eat three meals a day each containing protein, with no refined carbohydrates at any meal.
- helps to control blood sugar
- depleted in high sugar diets (because it’s used for insulin)
- raises serotonin levels
Eating the right amount of protein can be helpful to obtain the amino acids you need to build key neurotransmitters.
However, if your neurotransmitters are out of balance, Trudy Scott, certified nutritionist, advises using amino acid therapy (using amino acids as precursors to key neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA) which can give instant relief for anxiety, and be very helpful to help taper off anti-depressants and tranquilizers, as well as give you relief while you work on finding the root causes of your anxiety and neurotransmitter imbalances.
She advises to test with various amino acid precursors, starting at a low dose and building up gradually until you get the required effect.Scott, Trudy (2011), The Anti-Anxiety Food Solution: How the Foods You Eat Can Help You Calm Your Anxious Mind, Improve Your Mood and End Cravings. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications
- 5HTP (50mg or more), but can raise cortisol and make you feel slightly edgy
- Tryptophan (100mg to 500mg to more) for relief from anxiety from low serotonin
- See if you feel any better. Within 5 minutes you should feel better if your issue is low serotonin.
- Do not take if you are on an SSRI, or take only under the supervision of a health care specialist, as too much serotonin can cause serotonin syndrome
If you are low on GABA, several amino acids could work to help you feel better:
- GABA itself, which is an amino acid as well as a neurotransmitter
- take a sublingual form
- 100 to 200mg and increase if you need to
- can help with detoxification of the glymphatic system
- L theaniine
- to rebuild the gut lining and eliminate cravings (it fuels the brain and improves glucose metabolism)
- 500mg to 1500mg two to three times a day between meals
- can convert to GABA
- avoid if you have bipolar disorder
- precursor to dopamine
- 500mg to 1500mg three times a day
- can be over-stimulating however, so use with caution
Healing your gut if you suffer from poor digestion and absorption, leaky gut, gut dysbiosis, SIBO, is essential if you want to tackle your anxiety.
A combination of probiotics, gut supplements such as glutamine and hydrochloric acid, and vagus nerve support can all be helpful in healing the gut.
Avoiding toxins and optimising your detoxification system can be very helpful in balancing hormones and neurotransmitters, and reducing inflammation, to tackle anxiety.
Consuming organic foods, avoiding toxic household and healthcare products, making sure your water is clean, and avoiding plastics are just some of the ways that you can support your detoxification systems.
It is essential to address viral and bacterial infections in order to heal anxiety. Work with a qualified practitioner to test for, and eradicate Lyme, Bartonella, Babesia, Epstein Barr, Herpes, and other bacterial and viral infections.
Make sure you get appropriate exercise, sleep well, and get enough exposure to nature and natural light, all of which will contribute to balancing your nervous system and reducing anxiety.
Practicing better breathing is a great way to improve anxiety levels.
Mind-body therapies work on our mind through our bodies to affect our nervous system, hormones, neurotransmitters, and energy, and are excellent ways of addressing anxiety.
There are many different mind-body therapies, but here are some of the main ones:
- Binaural beats
- Biofeedback therapy
- Craniosacral therapy
- Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprograming (EMDR)
- Heart math
- Sensorimotor therapy
- Somatic experiencing
- Tai chi
- Trauma release exercises (TRE)
A regular meditation practice can be one of the most beneficial tools for anxiety, and it is free and can be practiced anywhere.
Meditation balances our neurotransmitters and hormones, reduces inflammation, and improves focus and provides a sense of peace.
There are many different types of meditation, including:
- Transcendental meditation
- Mindfulness meditation
- Open monitoring
- Focused attention meditation
- Visualisation meditation
- Zen meditation
- Chanting meditation
- Walking meditation
Managing chronic, daily stressors, as well as past stressors and trauma which may be dysregulating your nervous system, is essential to addressing anxiety.
Learn to cope with difficult life circumstances such as difficult economic and environmental factors, difficult relationships, and technology and the pressures of modern life, all of which will help you manage your anxiety.