Did you know that anxiety is more common in women than men? I’m seeing it much more often among the women with whom I work, and it’s something with which I’m intimately familiar. I struggled with panic attacks in my 20s and anxiety that would seemingly strike without warning (I would later learn the triggers). It’s a complicated topic with many causes, but once you understand the source(s) of your anxiety, you can take steps to overcome it naturally.
What is Anxiety?
Over 19 million children and adults struggle with anxiety disorders, which can be classified as Panic Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, phobias, or generalized anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. A recent client described it to me as feeling as if she had a gun pointed at her face all day. For me, it felt at times like I was facing a life threatening event, but I wasn’t sure when it would strike. It was a low grade feeling that would come and go, sometimes so severe that I was afraid to get out of bed.
Feelings of anxiety can be caused by anticipation of an upcoming event, such as a test, a stressful situation, or a job interview. This is a normal reaction everyone experiences, but chronic anxiety is usually more like an intense fear with no obvious cause. It can vary widely from person to person. A person can have anxiety in certain situations, like driving a car or at a party, while another may live with constant or occasional tension, unable to control troubling thoughts.
Emotional symptoms of anxiety include the following:
- Feelings of apprehension or dread
- Constantly tense, worrying, on edge
- Plagued by irrational fears
- Sudden and intense heart-pounding panic with no cause
- Trouble concentrating
- Feeling tense and jumpy
- Anticipating the worst
- Watching for signs of danger
Common physical symptoms of anxiety:
- Pounding heart, chest pain
- Stomach upset or dizziness
- Frequent urination or diarrhea
- Shortness of breath
- Tremors and twitches
- Muscle tension
What Causes Anxiety?
The root cause of anxiety can be emotional or physical. Oftentimes, if anxiety starts off as an emotional state, the stress it causes may lead to imbalances in stress hormone and neurotransmitter levels, making it a vicious cycle.
- Alcohol and/or drugs: Alcohol affects stress hormone levels and brain chemistry. Many anxious or depressed people are drawn to alcohol for relief, as it temporarily releases calming chemicals like GABA and serotonin. It’s a vicious cycle, because alcohol further depletes the body of nutrients, hormones, and neurotransmitters, driving the person to continue drinking for relief. Hangovers can trigger major anxiety. Pot can have this same effect: though it provides temporary relief, the higher THC strains of marijuana can deplete GABA, the neurotransmitter we need to stay calm. I have often encountered people who experience panic attacks from smoking (or eating) too much pot. Kick the booze or pot–just start with 30 days–and I’ll bet you feel improvement.
- Caffeine: too much coffee can raise the excitatory neurotransmitters and bring on anxiety or panic attacks. That was certainly a trigger for me. I strongly encourage anyone struggling with anxiety or panic attacks to ditch the coffee. 50% of the population lacks the enzyme needed to properly break down caffeine, and these people are much more likely to experience negative health effects from coffee. Swap it out for herbal or green tea, which contains the calming amino acid L-theanine.
- Hyper or hypothyroid: imbalances in your thyroid hormone level (too much or too little) can trigger anxiety and heart palpitations. Have your thyroid checked and ask for your test results! I see so many underdiagnosed thyroid issues in my practice.
- Hypoglycemia: those with unstable blood sugar, or trouble regulating blood sugar, are more likely to experience anxiety. Interestingly, 95% of binge drinkers or alcoholics are hypoglycemic, as alcohol is metabolized as a sugar and provides relief from the symptoms low blood sugar causes. Others may notice irritability, anxiety, or shakiness and moodiness if they go too long without eating, OR if they eat too much sugar (another vicious cycle). Hypoglycemics do very well on a grain free, low sugar, paleo type diet, and they must eat in regular intervals. Read more here.
- High cortisol levels: cortisol is your main stress hormone and is produced and secreted by your adrenal glands in response to stress. If you are chronically stressed, your adrenals churn out more and more cortisol, and elevated cortisol levels contribute to anxiety, insomnia, and weight gain. Chronic stress can be emotional in nature, poor diet, not getting enough sleep, drinking too much coffee, or a result of chronic pain and inflammation.
- Stress: see above. Stress means your fight or flight response is constantly triggered and your sympathetic nervous system is overactivated. Most chronic stress I see in my practice is emotional in nature. If this is you, I recommend really taking a look at your life. Are your stressors a job you hate? A bad relationship? Look at the factors you can change. We all have to deal with stress and trauma in life, but you can survive stress with your heath intact. Consider consulting a therapist or counselor.
- Abnormal neurotransmitter levels: Lower levels and imbalances of serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and your inhibitory neurotransmitters can cause anxiety. High levels of excitatory neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and epinephrine also contribute. The health of your gut is also connected to anxiety; 90 percent of your serotonin is produced in your gut, so exploring the gut-brain connection and healing the gut is a must.
- Hormone imbalances: dropping hormone levels during PMS and menopause may cause anxiety. Estrogen and progesterone levels are influenced by adrenal function and cortisol levels, so imbalances in the endocrine system amplify anxiety. Here are 4 easy ways to start balancing your hormones right away.
- Sugar and processed foods disrupt your blood glucose levels and contribute to hypoglycemia. Blood sugar swings may cause anxiety. Sugar also releases feel good chemicals in the brain, and anxious people may be drawn to sugar for comfort. Chemicals in processed foods can trigger overstimulation and low mood. Here is a list of foods that contribute to anxiety.
- Lack of sleep can drive up cortisol levels, as you’re “running on fumes” without proper restorative sleep. Higher cortisol can cause anxiety, weight gain, and carb/sugar cravings. Here are some tips to get good rest.
- Other causes include gut infections, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease, and even toxic mold poisoning. (source)
How to Overcome Anxiety
- Diet is the best place to start. Remove refined sugars and eliminate coffee and booze. If it seems daunting, just make a pact with yourself to try it for 30 days. You might be surprised at how great you feel, which is motivation to continue.
Avoid refined carbohydrates (cookies, cake, cereal, white flour, candy, pasta, bread) and chemical-filled processed foods. Adding in foods rich in B vitamins such as eggs, liver, beef, leafy greens, and salmon help the body’s stress response. Vitamin C supports adrenal function. Make sure you get enough protein at each meal; it breaks down into the amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters. Good fats such as butter, coconut oil, avocado, and olive oil are the raw materials your body uses to make hormones, so make sure an include these fats. I also recommend a high quality fish oil supplement.
Remember to eat in regular intervals to keep your blood sugar stable. Include probiotic foods such as raw kraut, kefir (I love this one), or probiotic drinks to support healthy digestion and gut health. And above all, eat a plant-based diet with plenty of vegetables of all kinds! They’re essential for the minerals your adrenals need to balance stress response.
- Get out in the sunlight! It boosts serotonin and vitamin D.
- Exercise can help burn off stress hormones and boost endorphins.
- Get 8 hours of sleep for healthy hormone levels. Lack of sleep is a big anxiety trigger!
- Many people have found relief using the emotional freedom technique (EFT) ,which involves acupressure and tapping along with positive affirmations.
- Consider doing a detox at least once yearly. Toxins cross the blood-brain barrier and contribute to neuron bundle damage in the brain, which affects neurotransmitter levels.
- Essential oils may help, too. Lavender is very soothing and can be added to a calming bath with magnesium-rich epsom salts. Magnesium calms the sympathetic nervous system.
- Herbal teas with passion flower, skullcap, chamomile or valerian work well to calm acute anxiety, and you can drink them in the evenings before bed for restful sleep. I like this one and this one.
- Acupuncture and massage therapy are also very calming.
- I recommend saliva testing for cortisol and sex hormone levels (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA). High cortisol and low sex hormone levels can easily be treated using adaptogenic herbs such as ashwaganda, rhodiola, wild yam, and schizandra. 5HTP, L-theanine, pharmaGABA, and tyrosine can be used to balance neurotransmitters, but I working with a practitioner who is knowledgable about hormones and brain chemistry.
- BREATHING. A few simple deep breaths or alternate nostril breathing is so useful for stopping physical anxiety immediately. I highly recommend a meditation practice too. Both will balance your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
- Know your triggers! This is huge. To overcome any health issue, you must understand the underlying cause, If you know that driving or public speaking are triggers for you, work on a sustainable solution while you also examine physiological imbalances. If your anxiety seems to occur randomly, get curious about causes you may be overlooking. They can be as subtle as too much sugar the day before, alcohol, too much caffeine hours earlier. Rather than battling your anxiety, make friends with it. What is it serving to teach you? Recognize and embrace it.
Supplements for Anxiety
- pharmaGABA (use this form, as others don’t cross blood-brain barrier) chewables can be used as needed. Passion flower tincture increases GABA in the brain and works better for some than the supplements. This supplement provides GABA precursors and works very well! I take it myself.
- Blood sugar support for the hypoglycemic.
- Liquid minerals are very helpful. Also take supplemental magnesium throughout the day and before bed.
- I like this formula that contains relaxing herbs and amino acids.
- A B vitamin complex and vitamin C reduce stress on the body.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. In addition to her coaching practice, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and kick nagging digestive issues for good. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.