The Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada reports 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.
If you suffer from anxiety, you are not alone. Functional medicine offers positive treatments but first, we must not only deal with anxiety but have continued success. Starting with being aware of our anxiety will help us take the proper action with more clarity. Let’s start by exploring the root causes of anxiety and the stress response humans exhibit when they experience it.
The Root of Anxiety
The root of anxiety lays in ‘fight or flight,’ or stress response. It is an evolutionary trait highly useful to animals, as it was to our ancestors and is 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).
Anxiety & 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.
The Stress Response as a Short Term Process
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 kilometers. You damage the engine and take years off the car’s life.
How to Deal with Anxiety & the Stress Response
There is hopein dealing with anxiety and stress response using natural methods. With some effort, education, and the guidance of a Functional Medicine physicians at Linden & Arc Vitality Institute, you can achieve control of your anxiety and the underlying stress. We encourage you to take the following steps to deal with anxiety.
Be Aware of Signs of Anxiety
First, become more mindful and be aware of when you’re actually feeling stressed out. This is important 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).
Physical Signs of Anxiety
Be mindful of the physical signs of stress which include rapid heartbeat, perspiration and jaw clenching. Then, begin to address your stress immediately by practicing exercises for stress reduction. Some stress reducing activities include taking deep slow breaths, relaxing the jaw, and thinking calming thoughts.
Non-Physical Signs of Anxiety
There are also non-physical manifestations of stress and anxiety-like a tendency to worry, dwell, or exhibiting a short temper. Take time to reflect on any non-physical manifestations and take a mindful approach to reduce those as well.
Finally, attune yourself to any symptoms you may have of long term stress – such as difficulty sleeping, heartburn, and digestive issues. Prolonging these types of symptoms in life can wear on the body and eventually lead to chronic illnesses.
Take Action Against Anxiety
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.
The Benefit of HeartMath
HeartMath is an electronic training system that focuses on and relaxes the nervous system. Classes are offered to Dr. Murfin’s patients. The use of HeartMath, especially in conjunction with a trained instructor, has shown positive effects on emotional stability (3).
Relaxation Techniques in Stress Management
To ensure continued success in reducing anxiety and managing stress requires an ongoing plan. Lifestyle changes are required. These come in the form of frequent meditation, relaxation techniques, journaling, and mindful positive thinking. 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 (the regulation of the body at rest with positive emotions).
Increase Your Vagal Tone
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).
Improving Nutrition and Increasing Activity
Nutrition and physical activity also play integral roles in anxiety reduction and stress management. Under the care of our physicians, 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.
Guidance from a Funtional Medicine Practitioner
Functional Medicine treatment, especially in conjunction with guidance from a Vitality Advisor at our clinic, 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.
About the author:
Dr. Murfin is wholeheartedly focused on her life’s mission to help people heal and achieve extraordinary outcomes. She believes that health is more than merely the absence of disease. It is a total state of physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social wellbeing through the creation of a whole and meaningful life. Dr. Murfin leaves no stone unturned to determine the root cause of illness or imbalance.