Smile, breathe, and go slowly
It’s been an extremely challenging past five months. We thought our lives would change in the short-term, but with each passing day, it’s becoming increasingly clear, that we should be prepared to accept our lives will fundamentally change for the foreseeable future.
Not surprisingly, the number of people reporting high levels of anxiety has risen sharply during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (1). At the end of June, 49% of the overall population reported anxiety (2). Sadly, it's even taken its toll on other mammal populations, with London Zoo reporting that the lockdown negatively impacted the behaviour & moods of all their animals.
Anxiety can be experienced in a number of difference ways. For some, it feels like a ‘gut-churning’ sensation with accompanying nausea. For others, it manifests ‘in the head’ – a mind throbbing with incessant fear-based thoughts, coupled with headaches or migraines. Sometimes symptoms are a little more vague. I often hear clients say they just wake up with 'generalised, uncomfortable physical sensations’ and 'an overall sense of impending doom'.
With any condition, knowing what’s taking place on a physiological can be really helpful – if you know why your body is behaving a certain way, you can understand how to seize some control on a physical level. So here's what's taking place in the body when anxiety is experienced.
If we're faced with a genuinely dangerous situation, or circumstances that make us 'feel' threatened, it triggers a rush of fear-based thoughts (or other negative emotions, such as: anger, sadness, irritability, etc). The sympathetic nervous system – the ‘fight or flight’ response, automatically kicks in to action, causing our adrenal ‘stress’ glands to release a flood of 'adrenaline' and 'cortisol' stress hormones. These two chemical messengers divert blood (& glucose) to our muscles and to all our vital organs (i.e. the heart, the lungs & the brain) to prepare us for action & provide fuel to ‘run away from the tiger’. The surge in glucose to all our cells help us feel alert, and give us a feeling of prowess and abundant energy (the superhero sensation!).
This response is invaluable for helping us deal with serious danger or stressful situations. But if we operate in ‘fight or flight’ mode for extended periods of time (i.e. negative thoughts or challenging experiences plague us 12-15 hrs a day, 7 days a week), the surges in adrenaline interfere with neurotransmitter function, leading to an imbalance in dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin & GABA - brain chemicals that normally make us to feel happy, calm and focused. When levels are disrupted, a sense of unease & anxiety, an inability to concentrate, poor memory recall and low mood emerge. Adrenaline also acts as an amphetamine (a central nervous system stimulant, like Ecstasy). This is why insomnia and weight gain so commonly come hand- in-hand with anxiety. A 2020 study revealed a 37% increase in rates of clinical insomnia - 14.6% to 20% from before to the peak of the COVID pandemic (3)
Although we may not be able to change many of the things that are going on in the world today, there are some very simple dietary and lifestyle habits that can effectively bring anxiety down by calming hypersensitive nerves and supporting the adrenal glands (lowering adrenaline levels, preserving neurotransmitters). It’s always a good idea to experiment with these holistic changes before diving straight into pharmaceutical drug use (which sadly come with many side-effects):-
CRITICAL ACTION - EAT REGULARLY! – skipping meals, intermittent fasting, low carb diets, or low-calorie diets are an absolute disaster for anyone suffering from anxiety. We're all told to significantly cut back on our calorie intake these days - but why are we being encourage to restrict the amount of fuel we provide our cells with? You wouldn't dream of trying to drive your car on no petrol, so why try to run your body on no food? Studies show a significant association between low blood sugar levels and mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression (4). Eating three moderate-sized meals a day, with the addition of a mid-morning and mid-afternoon FRUIT snack, helps to keep blood sugar levels balanced, thereby providing your brain with its main source of fuel – healthy ‘natural’ glucose & fructose. If fruit doesn’t appeal, then tuck in to a small bowl of OLIVES, CRUDITE WITH HUMMUS, GUACAMOLE ON RICE CAKES, DELICIOUSLY ELLA OAT BARS, OR PROTEIN BALLS (view my instagram for more details).
GRADUALLY REDUCE YOUR COFFEE; GREEN, WHITE & BLACK TEA; CAFFEINATED SOFT DRINKS; ‘ENERGY’ DRINKS; AND ALCOHOL INTAKE – it’s really tempting to grab a caffeinated beverage (sugar filled) hot or cold beverage or Redbull to boost energy levels, especially when adrenaline suppresses our appetite and we don't have any desire to eat. It’s even harder not to reach for a glass of vino when we want to switch off and unwind, but all these drinks are ‘stimulants’, meaning they trigger the adrenal stress glands to secrete adrenaline and cortisol, hampering neurotransmitter function, worsening anxiety (or even triggering an anxiety attack). Doses of caffeine higher than 200mg (approx. 1 double shot or 2 cups of tea), have been shown to increase the likelihood of anxiety & upset stomach (5). Avoid the jittery effects of these beverages, and instead opt for herbal teas that include licorice (an ‘adaptogenic’ herb that helps the adrenals adapt to stress) and lemon balm (a ‘nervine’ herb that calms nerves in the central nervous system). Excellent anti-anxiety medicinal herbal teas are: PUKKA HERBS PEPPERMINT & LICORICE ROOT TEA, PUKKA HERBS LEMON BALM & LICORICE TEA, OR SALUS FLORADIX LEMON BALM TEA. NB: These brands contain NO ‘natural’ flavourings – which are far from natural, and are derived from Monosodium glutamate/MSG (a toxin that inflames and destroy nerves and brain cells – so one chemical you DO NOT want to be exposed to if you suffer from anxiety!). NB: These teas can all be purchased from The Natural Dispensary with a 15% discount using the code: HNB15
EAT AND JUICE YOUR GREENS – whole, juiced, or blended fruits and vegetables each benefit the body in unique ways. Juices contain a highly bioavailable source of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, electrolytes, enzymes and energised water, that are immediately absorbed across the stomach, into the bloodstream and taken up by cells, providing a powerful rejuvenating effect on the brain and adrenal glands. Green juices in particular, are excellent for quelling anxiety due to their high magnesium & calcium content - two minerals that support nerve transmission, relax tense muscles, and enhance the production & utilisation of GABA and serotonin ‘feel good’ brain chemicals. CELERY, CUCUMBER, KALE, BABY SPINACH, APPLE, PEAR, FENNEL, CORIANDER, PARSLEY, GINGER, MINT AND TURMERIC are ideal ingredients for taking the edge off anxiety. Other Magnesium and calcium rich greens to eat on a daily basis include: KALE, CAVOLO NERO, SWISS CHARD, WATERCRESS, ROCKET, PARSLEY, BRUSSELS SPROUTS and BROCCOLI.
AIM TO SLEEP AT LEAST 8 HOURS EVERY NIGHT, AND TRY TO GO TO SLEEP AND WAKE UP AT THE SAME TIME EACH DAY - A study in 2017 showed more than a 60% amplification of emotional reactivity in participants who were sleep deprived (6). Insufficient sleep makes it so much harder to have a rational perspective on life – to think clearly and keep your emotions on an even keel. The tricky thing is, a viscous negative cycle can set in - excess worry and fear (anxiety) make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night, but lack of sleep can perpetuate anxiety. The easiest place to start, is to conquer insomnia through the implementation of good bedtime rituals. Actions that signal your body that it’s time to wind down and prepare for sleep (lower adrenaline and increase 'melatonin' sleep hormone secretions) include: AVOIDING CAFFEINE AFTER 2PM; AVOIDING ALCOHOL AFTER 6PM; SWITCHING OFF ALL TECHNOLOGY AT LEAST 1HR BEFORE BED; TAKING A WARM SHOWER OR EPSOM SALT BATH BEFORE BED; MAKING SURE YOU’RE NOT HUNGRY WHEN RETIRING TO BED (IF SO, HAVE A LIGHT FRUIT SNACK); READING A NOVEL IN DIM LIGHT; MAKING SURE YOUR BED & ROOM TEMPERATURE ARE COMFORTABLE ; AND USING A LAVENDER ESSENTIAL OIL OR SLEEP SPRAY. NB: Reading for 30 minutes each night can seemingly provide you with BIG benefits – a study found it was associated with lower blood pressure and heart rate, and significant reductions in stress (7). Researchers have also reported that reading a book for as few as six minutes before going to bed reduced stress by an impressive 68% (8).
EXERCISE DURING THE DAY – Scientists have found that regular participation (just 1-2 times per week) in aerobic exercise decreases overall levels of tension, elevates and stabilises mood (by releasing endogenous cannabinoids / ‘feel good’ endorphins), improves sleep, and improves self-esteem. About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects (9). However, you shouldn’t indulge in any high intensity forms of exercise late at night – activities such as HIIT, running or other aerobic exercises tend to drive up adrenaline. Stress hormones are antagonistic to melatonin sleep hormone, so they keep us ‘wired’ and prevent us from easing in to slumber. If you’re going to exercise at night, take a gentle evening stroll. Notice the beauty around you whilst you’re out walking, or chat with your partner about all the positives in your life. This can prevent negative, fear-based thoughts from creeping in and hijacking your mind just before sleep. Walter Anderson stated “Nothing diminishes anxiety faster than action.” I totally agree. When anxiety sets in, the very best thing you can do is distract yourself with gentle exercise, a hobby, mindfulness colouring....whatever keeps your body busy and your mind idle.
AND BREATHE! – Most people tend to shallow (upper chest) breathe as it's part of the typical stress response, but deep breathing (in to the diaphragm) can help to increase the supply of oxygen to the brain and switch us over from the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ response to the parasympathetic ‘Rest & digest’ or ‘Regenerate & repair’ calming mode.. Abdominal breathing for 20 to 30 minutes each day has been shown to reduce anxiety and reduce stress. So sit comfortably, and close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds filling your abdomen first you’re your upper chest., then release your breath slowly through pursed lips for 4 seconds. Repeat until you feel a sense of calm wash over you. If anxiety is sweeping over you, try taking deep breathes in sync with this video.
1. Lamb D et al (2020 Mixed Signals about Mental Health of the NHS Workforce The Lancet DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30379-5
3. Morin CM (2020) The acute effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on insomnia and psychological symptoms Sleep Med doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2020.06.005 [Epub ahead of print]
5. Sajadi-Ernazarova KR et al (2020) Caffeine Withdrawal StatPearls (Internet)
Krause AJ et al (2017) The sleep-deprived human brain Nat Rev Neurosci 18(7): 404–418.
7. Rizzolo D (2009) Stress Management strategies for students: The immediate effects of yoga, humor and reading on stress