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Understanding and Managing Anxiety

In the United States, we have been on an 80-year trend toward increased anxiety, and it’s no wonder why.[1] We live in a world that is obsessed with productivity. Our political situation seems to be in a constant state of upheaval. Fear-based messaging is prevalent in the media. In a world inundated with stressors, what can we do to ease our fears and decrease anxiety?

It can be helpful to understand how anxiety arises in the first place. Let’s look at the nervous system. At any given moment, our autonomic nervous system (ANS for short) is working to stay in balance and keep us alive. It controls unconscious functions like heartbeats, breaths, breathing and blood flow. One part of the ANS, known as the parasympathetic nervous system, oversees slowing things down and allowing us to “rest and digest.” The opposing part of the ANS is the sympathetic nervous system, which speeds things up and handles the “fight or flight” response. When these two parts of the nervous system to work together, it helps keep us healthy and safe.

Our fast-paced lives and screen-filled days stimulate that sympathetic response. While this is helpful when we’re in life-threatening situations, it’s not so helpful in everyday life. Additionally, the parasympathetic response becomes dampened, meaning it’s difficult to feel relaxed. The constant imbalance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems contributes to increased anxiety.

So, many of the best ways to feel less anxious promote the parasympathetic nervous system. Here’s a list of some simple things that can help:

  • Deep Breathing: 10 deep, intentional breaths. Count to four on the inhale, and four on the exhale. Breathing deeply helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Taking even a few deep breaths during stressful moments can help.
  • Exercising: regular exercise can be a great way to decrease stress and anxiety. Exercising outside may even be more beneficial. Spending time in nature decreases blood pressure, and increases healing capacity.[2]
  • Neutral or warm baths: This can help with acute episodes of anxiety by calming the sympathetic nervous system.
  • Journaling/reflecting: getting your worries out of your head and onto a page can sometimes help reduce anxiety.
  • Take a break from screens: If you’re feeling anxious, try putting down the phone or turning off the TV. Even if it’s just for a little bit.

If you need more targeted support for anxiety, some of the therapies below might be right for you.

  • Herbal Medicine: there are lots of great herbs that help to calm the nervous system, called “nervines.” Some common herbs in the nervine category are lavender, skullcap and lemon balm.
  • Acupuncture: this can help to regulate the nervous system and “qi” or energy flow in the body. Many people find this modality helpful for managing anxiety.
  • Nutritional Supplements: some nutritional imbalances can contribute to feelings of anxiety. Talk to your doctor about which ones might be helpful for you.
  • Counseling: talking to a professional about your fears and worries can help. A good counselor can also provide you with tools you can use to cope with feelings of anxiety as they arise.

Lastly, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, choose one small step and focus on that. Schedule an appointment today to learn about anxiety treatments that might work best for you.

[1] Congress DLL. For 80 Years, Young Americans Have Been Getting More Anxious and Depressed. The Cut. https://www.thecut.com/2016/03/for-80-years-young-americans-have-been-getting-more-anxious-and-depressed.html. Published March 13, 2016. Accessed January 30, 2018.

[2] Hartig T, Mitchell R, De vries S, Frumkin H. Nature and health. Annu Rev Public Health. 2014;35:207-28.