I felt compelled to dedicate a post to anxiety because I needlessly surrendered my life to it for ten long years. I now feel I have gained enough hands on experience of the subject to be awarded some kind of doctorate.
I have also noted during my research the shocking prevalence of anxiety in those with autoimmune conditions. When you consider many of our chronic diseases stem from poor digestion and impaired gut health, it makes sense to look at this as a potential trigger for anxiety also. The nutritional deficiencies you suffer as a result of autoimmunity will inevitably have a knock on effect for your mental and emotional health. If we are deficient in vital nutrients to function optimally, this will apply to our brains as well as our bodies. In fact studies are now starting to link unbalanced gut flora with anxiety.
If you suffer from anxiety, the world is a very scary, lonely and at times surreal place. You almost lose touch with reality as you become more and more insular and all the negativity you see in the world is a magnified projection of the goings on in your mind.
At its core anxiety is a very selfish, self centered condition. Not because you aren’t a caring or considerate person, but because it is so mentally all encompassing and draining that there is simply no space in your head for anything else. It takes everything you've got and transforms you into a person you no are no longer able to recognise.
I could write pages and pages on my own experiences with anxiety but I don’t believe it would be a beneficial process if you are suffering already. It would just become an exercise in identifying with my symptoms, internalizing them and dwelling on your own. What I would like to talk about however is how to identify if you are suffering from anxiety and how you can take back control of your life. Because you really can.
What are the signs and symptoms?
This is very much a ‘how long is a piece of string’ situation. Anxiety manifests itself in so many ways and is as individual as you are. Your symptoms will vary dependent on what you consider to be your triggers, whether you suffer from generalised anxiety, panic attacks in specific environments, irrational phobias and fears or even if you have undiagnosed food in intolerance's or sensitivities.
As a rule, these are some of the more common symptoms you may experience in both generalised anxiety or situational panic attacks:
Changes in heartbeat – rapid heartbeat and palpitations.
Shortness of breath – A feeling of tightness in your chest as if you cant catch your breath.
Sweating – clammy and cold hands and feet
Shaking or shivering
Tension headaches – also manifests as neck and jaw pain that can spread down to the shoulders
Fear of losing control and going mad
Diarrhea and frequent urination
Bodily aches and pains
Pins and needles in hands and feet
Irregular menstrual cycle
Decreased sex drive
De-personalisation and de-realisation – the sensation that either yourself or your surroundings don’t feel real or grounded. Your mind feels like its floating outside your body.
Why does my body react this way?
Anxiety is a completely normal response that occurs when you are confronted by something genuinely scary, like encountering a lion. Your body enters a heightened state of awareness as your primal instincts kick in and you prepare to either fight to the death, or scarper as fast as you can in the opposite direction. Either way, your body needs to prime itself for action. Your blood diverts away from your organs to your muscles, you empty your bowels to make yourself lighter and your body is flooded with stress hormones. In the unlikely event that you have come face to face with a lion, these responses will prove useful as you quickly debate your exit strategy. In someone who suffers from anxiety, these responses are triggered inappropriately. The lion is replaced by seemingly simple everyday events like getting the bus to work, or walking to the corner shop. Suddenly you fear dinner with friends as much as jumping into shark infested waters.
The problem then comes when this anxiety is prolonged and your body is permanently on high alert. A vicious cycle of irrational fear and suffering commences, making everyday life unbearable.
In the UK at least, when confronted with an anxious patient a GP will print off a prescription for an anti-depressant. This only serves to mask the symptoms without addressing the root cause and is totally illogical. And in most cases, the side effects are worse than the symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety is actually quite simple to combat, you just need the right resources, support and a recovery plan tailored to your own needs. Pills are not the answer.
I have used a range of techniques to combat my anxiety. What was once debilitating and life limiting, is now virtually non existent. My anxiety only makes an appearance at times that are much more acceptable, such as an interview or public speaking. I couldn’t even tell you the last I had a panic attack.
My top anxiety busting tips:
This stuff is amazing and you'll find it available on line or in many high street chemists.. It works as a quick fix if you are about to enter into a situation where you may feel anxious or stressed, such as a meeting or a plane journey. But equally it works throughout the day to maintain a sense of calm.
Breathing has a lot to answer for when it comes to symptoms of anxiety. Shallow breathing can rapidly induce panic and feelings of anxiety, but controlled deep breathing can just as quickly alleviate your symptoms.
For instant calm, lie on your back with your hands on your tummy. Focus solely on your breath entering your body and inhale fully into your abdomen. You should feel your tummy push your hands up as you inhale and sink bank down as you exhale. Settle into this practice of deep abdominal breathing and exhaling. You will find you feel more relaxed as you let your body sink into the floor. The more you relax the deeper and longer the breaths. You can practice this for 5 minutes or as long as needed to calm the body and mind.
Undoubtedly, if you are suffering from anxiety you will be googling every symptom and sensation under the sun, searching for answers, and reassurance. I absolutely promise you this will not help. Have you ever noticed how short lived the reassurance is? It may provide relief for all of 30 seconds before you move on to the next symptom. I urge you to stop googling your symptoms. Accept that yes, you are presently suffering with anxiety, but you do not need anybody to reiterate this for you. Don’t repeat it to yourself in your mind, don’t think about your condition, don’t even talk about it. Yes I know you cant help it, but seriously, shhhhhh. zippit. Every time you research your symptoms or discuss them on a forum with equally anxious people, you are literally feeding your anxiety and keeping it alive. Starve it. Take it out of your conscious mind and divert your attention fully and completely. Learn to crochet, listen to music, dance in your p.j's, go llama trekking. Occupy your mind with healthy diversions and stop living inside your head.
My undiagnosed coeliac disease and multiple food intolerance's contributed heavily to my feelings of anxiety and episodes of depression. The removal of the offending foods from my diet reduced my anxiety dramatically, and I now know my previous diet was responsible for the majority of my anxiety symptoms. It has literally been miraculous what switching to a Paleo diet has done for my mental health. If you suspect food could contribute towards your anxiety, I would keep a food diary noting when your symptoms are at their worst. You can then systematically trail eliminating the potential triggers. Better still consider transitioning to a Paleo diet or the autoimmune protocol. These diets are so clean that they will naturally eliminate any dietary stressors for you.
Exercise is a powerful tool for combating anxiety as it engages both mind and body fully in activity. Your exercise regime is going to depend entirely on the status of your health and what you feel your capabilities are, but movement is vital. I know how hard it is to find the motivation to do this when you are in the depths of anxiety, but taking small steps will really pay off. Yoga is a fantastic anxiety buster as it combines movement with breathing practices. It’s a great way to release tension and stress. If you don’t feel confident enough to join a class then there’s nothing to stop you getting a DVD and practicing at home. You only need to start with 15 minutes a day to start noticing the benefits.
Mindfulness has become incredibly popular in recent years and with good reason.
If you can learn to cultivate mindfulness in your everyday life your anxiety will fade very quickly. Mindfulness is the practice of bringing all your awareness into the present moment. With anxiety we are not present, we are fixated entirely on the thoughts in our head and not grounded in reality. In mindfulness you acknowledge your anxious thoughts as they occur without judging or giving any value to them. This prevents yours thoughts spiraling out of control and descending into further panic. When an anxious thought arises its OK to acknowledge that yes, you’ve just had a thought relating to your anxiety, and then move on and leave it there. Don’t give it any more time, just bring yourself into the present moment and the task at hand. There are many resources available on mindfulness to get you started in this practice.
As an anxious person you will have a very vivid imagination, so positive visualisations are a good way to put that to use. Your brain is full of neural pathways formed from experience and habitual behaviour. When we learn something new like riding a bike, repetition of the process reinforces our knowledge of how to do it in our brains. Anxiety is exactly the same. Anxiety is a learnt behaviour that you reinforce and repeat hundreds of times over in your head. It becomes a fully ingrained habit.
I like to visualise two paths leading down to a beach. One path leads directly to the beach. It has been trodden a thousand times, its well worn and covered in footprints. At the end of this path is your anxious self. The other path is barely visible and needs defining. Every time an anxious thought occurs, you need to picture that beach and decide to take the un-trodden route, creating a new clear pathway. Do not follow your anxious thought like you have done a thousand times, replace it with a healthy thought. Following that usual path with only give you the usual results - panic. Create a new path, where you will find your non anxious self waiting at the end. Sunbathing and drinking sangria. In all seriousness, re-build your neural pathways, replace them with positive thoughts. Following the same path will not get you anywhere.
Whenever you experience sensations arising from fear or panic, just acknowledge that they are only sensations. They are an inappropriate reaction to an event or a situation and nothing more. They are not going to hurt you in any way, they are simply your bodies response to fear, happening at inopportune times. It wont hurt you, it certainly wont kill you, you will still keep breathing, and you wont go crazy.
My anxiety dissipated as soon as I fully understood the basics and put all the above into practice. It took me a long time to grasp it though. I honestly thought that I had some kind of malfunctioning brain that caused me to experience anxiety, when all the while I was creating and perpetuating it myself. Once I learned to observe my passing thoughts and not identify or attach importance to them I was able to disable the process before it began. I became aware of my thoughts and not consumed by them. You are not your mind and as such what you think should not dictate the person you are - your true self. You have the power to decide which thoughts are relevant and helpful and which ones you can let slide. Your mind is not an identity in which to live through. Once you cultivate the ability to separate yourself from your mind and acknowledge your thoughts for what they are, your anxiety truly will become a thing of the past. This will take time, as does kicking any habit. But persevere and it will pay off - I assure you.
This blog tells an ongoing story about me and my journey back to health and happiness. A boho soul always looking for my next European adventure. I am a Coeliac, Yogi, paleo advocate, dreamer, Bon jovi connoisseur, sun worshipper, snuggly jumper wearer and wife to my lovely Paulie.