Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, with Beyond Blue suggesting that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men will experience anxiety at some point in their life. These numbers do not take into account non-binary Australians who are reported to have an even greater risk of experiencing anxiety. This suggests the odds are that either you or someone close to you has been or is currently dealing with symptoms of anxiety.
Anxiety is part of the body’s natural defence system to help us respond to danger or a threat. The brain will perceive a situation to be unsafe which will signal your nervous system to fire messages to your body so that it can best respond to the danger. The difficulty is that many of us are under “attack” from non-life threatening stresses such as deadlines, family, and busy schedules but our nervous system does not know the difference and so our body receives the same signals for an angry email as it would to a wild tiger in our lounge room.
Anxiety shows up differently for everyone and can include one, some or all of these symptoms:
Racing heart or palpitations
Tension in muscles
Insomnia or sleep disturbances
Feeling “off” or uneasy
Changes to digestion
Feeling nervous or agitated
Shaking or trembling
Some people will experience anxiety fleetingly or situationally, whereas other people experience symptoms on a daily basis and describe having an underlying feeling of anxiousness at all times. For other people, they may not have realised what they are experiencing is anxiety and may have put their symptoms down to poor diet, hormones or lack of sleep, all of which can be causes and symptoms of anxiety.
Other causes of anxiety include:
Iron levels: iron is an essential nutrient that allows oxygen to be transported around our body. Low levels of iron or anemia can lead to symptoms such as dizziness, light-headesness, shakiness and breathlessness which can mimic the physical feelings of anxiety.
Thyroid: overactive thyroids can lead to symptoms such as heart palpitations, increased sweating and shakiness. Those with underactive thyroids also often experience anxiety which may be due to the physical limitations of the condition or issues with medication dosages.
Blood sugar: there is a two way relationship between anxiety and blood sugar. Stress, often a trigger for anxiety, can increase blood sugar levels. Conversely, low blood sugar can initiate the release of adrenaline which results in feelings of anxiety.
Caffeine and stimulants: coffee, energy drinks and other caffeinated beverages stimulate the release of cortisol and adrenaline which puts our nervous system into a state of fight or flight.
Medications: a side effect often reported with a number of medications is anxiety. Some of the most common medications are those used for asthma, seizures and tremors, thyroid, and ADHD. There is also evidence suggesting certain oral contraceptive pills are associated with anxiety.
Asthma: some of the common experiences of an asthma attack such as shortness of breath, constriction in the chest, dizziness and trembling can also be signs of a panic attack and can be hard to differentiate between.
Managing anxiety is best done with a multi-pronged approach. The Black Dog Institute suggests that psychological therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and counselling are the most effective ways to treat and prevent most types of anxiety. Getting a mental health care plan from your GP means that you may be eligible for up to 10 free or reduced-fee psychological therapies.
Along with these, complementary therapies have also been shown to have great results in minimising and preventing anxiety.
Yoga: the purpose of asana (the physical postures of yoga) is to prepare the body and mind for meditation, meaning that it was designed thousands of years ago for the purpose of calming both our brain and nervous system as well as our physical body. In recent years, the scientific community has endeavoured to research the effects of yoga on those with anxiety. A 2016 review of 17 different studies with 501 participants found yoga to be an effective method for treating anxiety with results improving with the more hours practiced. One study compared a group of women allocated to two 90 minute yoga classes per week with another group of women who were placed on a waiting list for classes over a period of two months. Those in the yoga group reported significant decreases in anxiety.
Herbal Medicine: herbs can be used in a variety of forms such as tinctures, teas or inhaled via essential oils. Most of us understand or have experienced the beneficial effects of lavender essential oil in helping to calm the mind or having a cup of chamomile tea at the end of the day to get us ready for bed. These are gentle ways of using herbal medicine in your everyday life to reduce anxiety, however, as naturopaths we also have access to some “stronger” forms of herbal medicine. Some of the most effective and researched herbs for anxiety are passionflower, kava, withania, lemon balm and skullcap.
Infrared Sauna: mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression are associated with lower levels of serotonin, our “feel good hormone”. Heat can activate the increased production and release of serotonin which suggests that heat therapies such as infrared sauna may improve symptoms of anxiety. Heat has also been shown to improve circulation and blood pressure which may alleviate some of the physical symptoms associated with anxiety. In addition, the act of removing oneself from stimulation and relaxing for 30 minutes or more may also contribute to improving anxiousness.
Meditation & Mindfulness: meditation is the practice of considered concentration, recognising when we get lost in thought and bringing our awareness back to the present moment. Mindfulness is a technique which evolved from traditional meditation practices that asks the participant to focus their attention on something such as breath, sounds or sensations to reduce “clutter” in the mind. Both of these techniques have a lot of research that has shown improvements in anxiety, stress reactivity and coping with much of the evidence suggesting that consistency improves outcomes.
Breathwork: The lungs are covered in lots of nerves. Every inhale activates our sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze) and every exhale activates our parasympathetic nervous system (rest/digest). Taking even breaths means that we will have balance between the two. Research and traditional practices suggest that the perfect breath is 5.5 seconds in, 5.5 seconds out which equals 5.5 breaths per minute totalling 5.5 litres of air into the body. When anxiety arises, focusing on longer exhales to enhance the activation of the rest/digest system can be an instantaneous tool to help reduce symptoms.
If you are struggling with anxiety or a mental health crises please reach out to Lifeline on 13 11 24 or chat on their website: www.lifeline.org.au