- Mental Health
A simple guide to living with anxiety
What is anxiety and how does it become a disorder?
Anxiety is a survival mechanism our brain calls into action when it recognizes we are in danger. Often referred to as the "Fight or Flight" response, the brain releases hormones and adrenaline to keep us alert to external threats. Our heart rate increases along with our breathing, we become jumpy and our mind starts to race to accommodate our need to make a split second decision. This is an experience we all have at times, and has been instrumental to human survival for thousands of years. However, the problem arises when we have this experience when there is insufficient need for such a response. Instead, in an anxiety disorder, there are milder triggers thus resulting in more frequent episodes. These "attacks" of anxiety can be draining, both physically and emotionally. Anxiety attacks are among the most common mental health disorders and can be considered a disorder on their own, or they can be a symptom of a deeper underlying disorder. This is something millions of people must deal with worldwide, but thankfully there are tips to help minimize the frequency and severity of these attacks.
Keep an eye on your diet
There are few words that hold as much dread as the word diet, but like it or not, even a few small changes in your diet can result in huge changes for your your health and lifestyle. Luckily, the following suggestions are minor tweaks and adjustments to your diet, more than a complete diet overhaul. Firstly, we will look at a few simple things to keep anxiety in check.
- Water - Water is not only central to survival, but it is also central to any successful healthy diet. Water has a number of values, including the removal of toxins from your body, and keeping you hydrated. When your body is not hydrated, it does not function properly. Your brain is roughly 75% water, and when it does not get sufficient hydration it can become stressed increasing the probability of an anxiety attack.
- Omega 3 and other fatty acids - There have been a lot of recent studies done on the benefits of omega 3 for the human body. These benefits range from improving cardiovascular health, lowering cholesterol and improving bran function. A study published in "The journal of Clinical Psychiatry" in 2010, found that omega 3 fatty acids increased the levels of serotonin in the brain and improved functionality in the region of the brain associated with motivation. Omega 3 can be found in simple supermarket supplements or in foods such as fish, spinach and eggs
- Increase protein - Protein helps in the production of both dopamine and norepinephrine. These are brain chemicals that, similarly to serotonin, improve brain functionality and carry impulses between brain cells. This results in a clearer thought process and greater mental energy.
- More whole grains and low G.I foods - When we find ourselves low on carbs, we often find ourselves grouchy and irritable as a result. When we decide to boost our mood with carbohydrates, we should opt for whole grain choices such as brown bread, pasta or rice instead of the processed kinds such as sugar, white bread or white rice. Low G.I foods are digested at a slow and steady pace and allow the body to efficiently process the energy as well as increasing serotonin in the brain and improving your mood. Low G.I foods include; Brown rice/pasta/bread, most fruits/veg, legumes and nuts.
Things to cut back on or avoid in your diet include;
- Caffeine - This can be a tricky one as caffeine is not simply contained to coffee, but it is found in many popular beverages such as cola and sports drinks. Even a small amount can have a negative impact on anxiety sufferers. Caffeine promotes alertness, and though this is not necessarily a bad thing, it can also dehydrate your body and reduces serotonin levels. This can put your body under levels of stress and induce an anxiety attack, or at least leave you jumpy and irritable.
- Sugar - Similar to the effects of caffeine, sugar can also cause havoc with your blood sugar levels and cause mood swings. Sugar raises your energy levels for short periods of time before crashing, leaving you tired and low. This can lead to a dependency on a cycle of sugar highs and lows.
- Alcohol - While alcohol can result in a calm, relaxed mood for some people, these effects are also temporary and with prolonged use, can have negative effects on brain functionality and a persons mood. Alcohol is often connected to a number of mental health issues and it dehydrates the body putting your brain under stress, which as we have seen, is not helpful when dealing with anxiety.
Develop a healthy pattern of exercise and sleep
A problem anxiety sufferers can relate to is a lack of motivation, but once that is overcome, exercise can make a huge difference. As well as the obvious health benefits, exercise can have many positive impacts on the mind. It can be an outlet for stored energy that could otherwise leave you stressed and restless. Exercise also releases certain "feel good chemicals" such as endorphins, and reduce the ""stress hormone" known as cortisol. Exercise is also necessary to regulate the immune system, easing stress n the mind and body. Regular exercise wll also boost your confidence. As you see your health and physique improve, so will your attitude towards yourself improve, giving you a more positive outlook.
Sleep too can play a role in managing anxiety. A lack of sleep is something that troubles the majority of adults, whether they know it or not. This is yet another factor that can place huge strain on the mind and body. A study performed by Matthew Walker at University of California Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory showed that with insufficient sleep, a humans brain functioned at only the most simplistic levels, unable to effectively deal with daily obstacles, challenges and emotions. A link to this study and the corresponding article will be posted below. Sleep is used to rest and repair the mind and body. Obviously, if a person is deprived of this, they will have no opportunity to recover from stressful situations and pressure will continue to build. Those who suffer from anxiety will surely know however, that sleep is not always easy to come by. There are times where worry simply will not allow you to rest, and there are times when your mind just refuses to switch off. Diet and exercise can also help with these issues.
Sleep deprivation study
- Sleep Your Anxiety Away, Part I: You’ve Tried the Rest, Now Get Some Rest
Becki A. Hein, MS, LPC - Sleep plays an important role in emotional regulation. If you've been experiencing anxiety or panic, try these tips to get better sleep
Calming techniques and stress management
In cases where, despite your best efforts in diet and exercise, you simply cannot switch off at night, there are a number of things you can try in addition that can help. Keeping a daily journal of your thoughts and worries is always a good idea whether you suffer with anxiety or not. It can prevent them from freely swirling around your head at night and can put order to things. It is hard to tackle a problem when there is no shape or process to it, and by giving it form and putting it down on paper it can become a more realistic target for you to concentrate on. This is a technique I have found very helpful in many situations from studying, to planning a trip. Taking a hot bath, and listening to calming music before bed can also get you into a relaxed state. Yoga and meditation are also good ideas if you wish to promote a clear and positive thought process.
If you find yourself in a stressful situation, there are certain emergency calming techniques that can help diffuse the situation. As mentioned in the description, when suffering from an anxiety attack, your breathing can suffer heavily. Therefore, regaining a normal breathing pattern is essential to recovery. It can steady your heart rate and help calm you down. When your breathing begins to become erratic, take a deep breath and hold it for approximately five seconds, then exhale. repeat this as many times as necessary until your breathing returns to normal. When you find yourself stressing over certain "worst case scenarios", Try to ground yourself in the present. Focus on the sensation of your feet touching the ground, count your breaths or perform some other task that requires you to concentrate only on the here and now.
Lead with optimism
While it may sound negative to say that anxiety is something that afflicts millions of people worldwide, there is actually a positive side to this. The positive side is that these people can lead perfectly normal lives on a day to day basis. Anxiety, just like so many other ailments can be managed on a number of levels. The stigma attached to such things is often worse than the condition itself. Anxiety is not something to be feared, and like other challenges you are bound to face, do not be afraid to challenge it.
© 2015 Sean Gorman