Feb, 2 2002
Many people who are actually diagnosed as being depressed are actually suffering from anxiety. The human body is built to deal with stress in the short term and stress only becomes a problem when one has forgotten how to deal with it and is unable to switch off. Anxiety can express itself through a number of different symptoms including panic attacks, fast pulse, shallow breathing, headaches, insomnia, irritability, uncontrollable muscle twitches, trembling, tightness in throat, dry mouth and problems with speech etc.
Most people have suffered some form of panic at some time. Definitions of a panic attack vary. Learning to use abdominal breathing as first aid for panic sensations is invaluable.
In order to cope with anxiety and the feelings that go with it, it is vital to understand the flight and flight response and then to learn how to keep it under control so that it is kept for situations where and when the flight or flight response is really required.
It is important to understand that the body still functions in a very prehistoric way with regard to anxiety. The way the reaction works is as if we were still being chased by tigers or wolves and needed to constantly run for our lives. However, today, most of our problems are about finance, relationships and jobs. None of these problems are solved by running for one's life or by standing and fighting. Quite simply, the brain can not differentiate between a life threatening danger and a much lessor stress. The flight or flight response is based on adrenalin, the hormone of fear.
Adrenalin works by prioritising the blood supply, making sure that oxygenated blood is available in the arms and legs, for a quick getaway and also through the brain to help make split second decisions. The blood supply is taken from areas where it is not needed in times of danger such as the stomach and sexual organs, because if one is in a life threatening situation, they are not going to stop and eat a meal or have sex. This is why when someone is continually stressed, they may feel sick, unable to eat and may go off sex.
The body tends to act inappropriately to everyday stresses and adrenalin production may be unnecessarily initiated in response to a minor stress. A chain reaction is then set in motion - one starts to sweat, feel sick and suffer palpitations and the whole stress response takes over. One then starts worrying about the way they are feeling and this then exaggerates their anxiety and a chain reaction then begins.
When tranquillisers are taken, their effect is to surpress the body's natural response. This can lead to severe problems, apart from the adverse/side effects of the drugs themselves. Firstly, the stress response can be useful at times when we are presented with real danger but tranquillisers make those taking them lose this response. Secondly, the speed of reactions to everyday stimuli can be reduced as can the reactions necessary for driving and operating machinery safely. Thirdly, long term use of tranquillisers causes the surpressed adrenalin reflex to start to activate again and this results in rebound anxiety.
Ideally the stress response should switch on and off when necessary. In simplistic terms the sympathetic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system work in conjunction with one's feelings, ie. fear and the parasympathetic response turns it off and allows the individual to return to peacefulness again. However, often the sympathetic symptoms get out of control leaving the individual in a state of red alert all the time. This situation is very unhealthy and puts strain on the mind and body and when it continues constantly can lead to depression. A continual stress response puts a strain on the heart and raises the blood pressure largely due to hormones and chemical reactions which do not let up as they would in a reacting situation. It is therefore important to break the vicious circle and learn to manage one's anxiety successfully.
It is not possible in everyday life to avoid situations which can cause one to feel anxious. However, there are a number of sources from which relief can be obtained and help the individual to control it, for example, acupuncture, counselling, stress management, regular exercise etc.
Anxiety management is relatively easy to do and can be carried out by everyone. One of the simplest things to do is to learn to breathe correctly as this helps to reduce adrenalin production. Generally speaking, we all breathe very shallowly which is a natural habit that everyone falls into. This shallow breathing can lead to the wrong levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in one's blood. When this happens, the brain interprets this shallow breathing as an indication of danger. One needs to learn to breathe more deeply and to get air right down to the bottom of one's lungs. When air reaches this part of one's lungs, correct gas exchange occurs.
Correct breathing can be achieved by expanding one's abdomen, then drawing air into one's lungs. One should then hold this for about three seconds. Once the three seconds have passed, one should release their breath slowly. One should not feel concerned if they feel slightly light headed when carrying out this exercise as this is an indication that the gases are at the right levels in the body. These breathing exercises should be practiced at least three times an hour. They can not only act as a preventative measure but also as a cure when anxiety strikes. It is shallow breathing which brings on panic attacks in many different forms and abdominal breathing will help to control them.
If an anxiety state becomes common in an individual, the cumulative effect of mood swings, irritability and loss of appetite can soon create nutritional deficiencies as a result of altered eating habits. These deficiencies relate mainly to the B-group vitamins and can adversely affect the central nervous system which, in turn, can make the sufferer's anxiety even worse. Thus, a downward spiral is created.
Food can also play a major role in controlling one's anxiety and one should eat more green vegetables, nuts, low-fat cheese, bananas, and seaweed for their B vitamins; live yogurt for the bacteria that synthesize B vitamins; blackcurrants, blueberries, bilberries, cherries and cranberries for their vitamin C and bioflavonoids; complex carbohydrates such as pasta, rice and potatoes; honey and dried fruit for their tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid component of protein. Dried skimmed milk is also rich in tryptophan and one can stir a couple of teaspoons into yogurt, or add it to soups, sauces, milk shakes and desserts.
A person who is suffering with anxiety should eat less refined sugar and fewer carbohydrates, drink less alcohol, avoid items containing caffeine such as tea, coffee, fizzy drinks and chocolate etc. One should also try not to smoke too much as nicotine is a stimulant and causes the heart to beat faster. The inhalation of smoke can also affect the gas exchange in the lungs but it would not be realistic to expect someone to give up smoking as this would be even more difficult when someone is suffering from anxiety. However, it may be worth trying to cut down or smoking a lower tar and nicotine brand. It is also important to take regular exercise. A ten minute walk may be sufficient although more vigourous exercise may help to use up excess adrenalin.