Tackling anxiety the natural way
Q: Due to a few ‘‘life’’ challenges, I’ve been struggling with anxiety over the last few months. I’d like to avoid medication. Any tips on addressing it naturally? Thanks, Lorraine
A: Anxiety is incredibly common today, often as a result of relationship challenges, financial stress, a poor diet and its consequences, worries about health or weight, or whether you have upset someone. Many people knowingly or unknowingly worry very much about what others think of them.
Everything in our internal and external environments, including the food we eat, the exercise we do (or not do), and the thoughts we think, influences our nervous system and it is this body system that is intrinsically tied to feelings of anxiety – specifically the balance between our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The SNS is our ‘‘stress response’’ and communicates to our body that we need to ‘‘fight, flight or freeze’’, and the PNS is the ‘‘rest, digest and repair’’ which is the calm arm of the nervous system. Unfortunately, these days many people get stuck in a SNS response and may rarely or never switch over to PNS activation.
In general, the SNS and the PNS have opposite functions. When we are under stress, the SNS raises our heart rate, increases our respiratory rate, releases stress hormones and shunts blood away from the digestive tract to the muscles so that we can run away from or fight whatever is threatening us. If organ systems in the body are unhealthy and therefore stressed themselves, or if we are mentally or emotionally stressed, that increases the sympathetic load as well.
Once the ‘‘threat’’ is dealt with (is it ever dealt with in the modern world?), the PNS slows our heart rate and respiration, and it brings the blood back to the digestive tract so that we can digest our food well. It also works on repairing any tissues that have been damaged in our ‘‘battle’’ and allows libido to be restored.
The PNS is able to do its wonderful work overnight, provided we go to bed early enough, because cortisol – a hormone linked to energy, body fat and inflammation – naturally starts to rise around 2am. The SNS and the PNS are designed to balance each other out. Adrenalin – one of the hormones behind SNS dominance – is one of the major hormones that drives humans to feel anxious, and decreasing its production is key to shifting this.
What activates the SNS? Caffeine, stress (emotional/ mental as well as physical) and our perception of pressure and urgency. What activates the PNS? Lengthening the exhalation of breath. So, any practice that helps to lengthen the exhalation of breath can help us to moderate the nervous system response that builds anxiety. Think practices like meditation, gentle yoga, tai chi, qi gong and simple breathing exercises. Commit to doing one of these practices daily for a period of eight to 12 weeks to get the most benefit.
It’s also helpful to explore your perception of pressure and urgency because in our modern world it can feel as though everything needs to be done in a pressing rush. There will inevitably be stress in our lives, but are we increasing our stress response by also adding a sense of urgency to things that may not really require it, such as getting through all our emails every day? Save your perception of pressure and urgency for when you really need it, rather than what you need to do each day.
Dr Libby is a nutritional biochemist, best-selling author and speaker. The advice contained in this column is not intended to be a substitute for direct, personalised advice from a health professional. See drlibby.com
Any practice that helps to lengthen the exhalation of breath, such as tai chi, can help us to moderate the nervous system response that builds anxiety.