Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the United States, and it is on the rise. A 2013 survey showed that 57 percent of female college students experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. So what gives? Why are we all feeling crushing anxiousness, and what can be done about it?
Anxiety is caused by our body’s natural “fight or flight” response. When your body thinks it is under attack, a tiny almond shaped structure in your brain, the amygdala, sends out signals that tell your body to RUN! This was helpful when our ancestor’s greatest stressor was being chased by a saber tooth tiger, but modern stressors are not quite as life threatening. Our stressors have evolved to be looming deadlines and unpaid bills, but our brains haven’t caught up and still think these things are life or death. This leads our brains to run on a constant loop of stress. The hormone associated with stress, cortisol, is released in huge quantities allowing us to prepare for the fight coming. We retain weight (for out running those tigers, naturally), stop digesting properly, and have difficulty sleeping. Rationally we understand that this is an over reaction, but we can’t stop our bodies from responding the way evolution has designed them to. In 2001 21% of women were using antidepressants and 11% were using anti anxiety treatments. What if you don’t want a pharmaceutical intervention, though? How can we use natural remedies to treat anxiety?
1) Schedule Relaxation
Mindfulness has been shown time and time again to be one of the most effective treatments for anxiety. Your brain cannot be in two places at once, so by intensely focusing on the task at hand - be it meditation, weeding the garden, yoga, or whatever you prefer - you can teach your brain to begin blocking out many of the anxious thoughts. The app “Headspace” is a great way to start a meditation practice. As little as 5 minutes a day has been shown by this Harvard study to have enormous benefit.
2) Deep Belly Breathing
Similar to mindfulness, deep belly breathing has been shown to reduce blood levels of cortisol. If you have taken a yoga class you should already be familiar with this technique. Sit with one hand over your belly button and one over your chest. Breathe deeply into your abdomen feeling your belly move your belly button hand out, while the hand on your chest remains still. Slowly release the breath focusing on the back of your throat. If done correctly, you should hear a gentle “snore” sound. This breathing activates the vagus nerve in the back of your throat which will reduce the levels of stress hormones in your blood. Belly breathing activates the “rest and ruminate” nervous system which helps your body to relax and reduce anxious hormonal responses.
3) Soothe Your GI Tract
The GI tract has long been known in Chinese medicine as a “second brain.” If you have ever been nervous and felt butterflies (and subsequent….eh hem….GI upset) you know that your gut is very keenly tuned into your mental state. Current research is showing that the enteric nervous system, the nerves of your gut, are one of the strongest reactors to fear and the “fight or flight” syndrome. This can result in nausea, diarrhea, and heartburn as additional side effects of anxiety. Incorporating a probiotic into your daily routine as well as fermented foods such as yogurt, kimbucha, and kimchi can help to heal your digestive tract and allow your body to be more resilient to anxiety.
4) Anti-Anxiety Shots
Ginger is a potent chinese herb that helps to calm the stomach and aid in digestive health. Lemon juice has repeatedly been shown to lower blood pressure and strengthen blood flow, and honey can help to stabilize blood sugar. Create a daily morning “Wellness shot” of equal parts lemon juice and ginger (we recommend 1 tsp each) with just enough honey to make it palatable.
5) Quit Smoking and Coffee
Smoking and coffee often provide people with a temporary feeling of peace, but are stimulants that further activate your body’s “fight or flight” response. Cutting these out of your life may be temporarily difficult, but will reduce the stimulus on your fight or flight nervous system that leads to feelings of anxiety