Anxiety is certainly part of the human condition. We are, after all, animals with very few physical defences, so we need an alarm system to keep us safe. The physical responses to fear make us ready to run from predators, fight back, or in some cases freeze and “play dead”. When that normal fear response becomes a regular pattern of anxiety, it can be overwhelming. In my practice, I regularly talk with patients who are experiencing a level of anxiety that is distressing to them. Once people experience anxiety, they often become afraid of experiencing it again, and go to great lengths to avoid trigger situations. The good news is that there are very effective tools for breaking free of the cycle of anxiety without having to limit your life.
As a physician, my first inclination is to rule out physical causes of anxiety, such as certain medications or health conditions. The most obvious physical trigger is caffeine intake. People who are prone to anxiety are wise to avoid caffeine as its effect on the body magnifies nervous tension. Another very common trigger, especially in young people, is low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. Skipping meals or eating refined flour and sugars can cause a sudden drop in blood sugar. When that happens, the brain tells the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, which causes rapid heart rate, sweating, and anxiety. Thyroid conditions, both hyper and hypo, can contribute to anxiety. Patients love that I am able to run up to six blood tests to rule out thyroid conditions as opposed to the one test that is generally covered by MSP. Blood tests can also help to identify anemia, B vitamin or vitamin D deficiencies, all of which can affect brain chemistry profoundly. I often hear from patients that the hormone balancing work we do helps their mood and anxiety levels.
Relaxation techniques are an important part of learning to deal with anxiety. Meditation is simply learning to observe your mind and make choices about where it is focusing. Mindfullness Based Stress Reduction is a program that has been rigorously studied to show superior benefits to anxiety over medication. Adding an element of self- compassion into your daily self-talk practice takes the process deeper and is very effective. Dr. Kirsten Neff’s Ted Talk is a good place to start to explore the practice of self-compassion.
Learning strategies for dealing with life stresses such as relationship issues, future uncertainties, past trauma, addiction and more can help to reduce anxiety. Counselling and personal development work isn’t just for people with mental illness, it’s for anyone who wants to live life more fully and be the best they can be. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a set of incredibly practical life skills for anyone wanting to be more clear and calm in their lives. The website anxietybc.com is one of the best on the subject.
As a naturopathic physician, I also offer my patients natural medicines that help to heal the nervous system, balance brain chemistry, and normalize the adrenal stress response. These herbs, vitamins and amino acids can be the leg up that people need to get a handle on stress.
Often a person with anxiety can feel overwhelmed by how their mind and body reacts to stress, and with help, they can develop confidence in their ability to be resilient in the face of life challenges.