Good morning and happy Monday! I am so pleased to have Mental Health Monday’s back and it is being kicked off with a bang with this amazing guest post from Gabie Lazareff.
This was something I really wanted to write about after studying the inner workings of the brain and how this affected us in terms of depression and anxiety last year for my degree. As someone who struggles with anxiety, understanding what changes and things were going on in my brain, really helped me understand it so much more. I am so glad Gabie chose to write about this, as she has made it so much more understandable than I ever could! I really hope you too, find this information useful and the tips too!
Author Bio: Gabie Lazareff is a certified health coach, yoga teacher and freelance nutrition & wellness writer. After years of navigating the messy waters of mental health, her mission is to share her experiences and advice with others.
In the UK alone, around 1 in 10 people experience some sort of anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a normal, important aspect of human survival. Once we encounter a perceived danger, the body goes into survival mode and activates our ‘fight or flight’ response, which in turn gives us that anxious feeling. If we experience anxiety frequently, we could have an anxiety disorder.
The obvious issue with having an anxiety disorder is that it’s incredibly inconvenient and uncomfortable. Anxiety can make seemingly simple tasks and outings feel overwhelmingly difficult.
The more concerning issue with anxiety disorders is the spiralling nature of anxiety. Anxiety feeds off of anxiety. Experiencing anxiety frequently essentially ‘works out’ the ‘fight or flight muscle’. It strengthens the sympathetic nervous system.
Our ‘fight or flight’ response is our sympathetic nervous system activating and working to protect our body from perceived danger. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated (fight or flight), our body shuts down non-essential tasks, like digestion. This ensures all of our energy is reserved in case we need to run away or survive.
When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, our cells close their doors to keep in the nutrients it already has, which means new nutrients can’t enter. Our body does this in case we are in a situation where we can’t access food.
That’s the problem with anxiety and how our body responds to it. Our body doesn’t understand the difference between anxiety around going to a social event, and anxiety over a bear chasing us. It responds to both of these examples as if it was the bear chasing us. The body’s main objective is survival, and that’s why the sympathetic nervous system is so vital, and why anxiety is a feeling that evolution will not get rid of.
The parasympathetic nervous system is our ‘rest and digest’ mode. The parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system are essentially in balance with one another. When one is activated a lot, the body gets really good at being in this mode. In fact, it starts to resort to it, getting in that mode more frequently and staying there.
In order to lower our anxiety and the frequency of experiencing anxiety, we need to start working out the ‘rest & digest’ muscle; the parasympathetic nervous system.
There are loads of natural ways we can encourage our parasympathetic nervous system to activate! Let’s take a look at some of the simplest natural ways to instantly ease anxiety, and to reduce anxiety long-term.
Frequently practicing breathing exercises is a great way of training our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). Breathing exercises are great for stress-management, and can help to instantly ease anxiety.
A really simple breathing exercise you can practice discretely from anywhere is deep breathing. You can give it a try right now.
Whether you’re standing, sitting, or laying down, take a moment to identify any areas in the body that may be tense. If the shoulders are up by the ears, relax them down the back. If the teeth are pressed together, part them to relax the jaw. Relax the gaze and the eyelids, or if it’s comfortable for you, you can close the eyes.
Exhale all of the air out of the lungs through the mouth. Then, take a long, deep inhale through the nose, keeping the shoulders relaxed, and exhale slowly through the mouth until all of the air is gone. Repeat, taking another long inhale through the nose, holding the breath at the top for a couple of seconds, again, while keeping the shoulders relaxed, and then exhale slowly through the mouth. We’re trying to lengthen each exhale, slowing down the breath.
Repeat this deep breathing a few times, until you notice your thoughts slowing down along with the breath. Continue to practice this deep breathing for as long as you need to. Even repeating this exercise for just a couple of breaths can help to ease anxiety.
Remember, regularly practising breathing exercises will help to manage stress long-term and can help to increase lung capacity, improving breathing technique and stamina during exercise. For people with anxiety-disorders such as OCD for example, getting used to breathing exercises can serve as a useful tool to have to ease anxiety once triggered.
When we feel anxious, we are typically filled with adrenaline. It can be helpful to use up that adrenaline through exercise. Aerobic exercise in particular has been shown to be as effective as medication for some people with anxiety disorders.
While exercise can instantly calm anxiety, similarly to breathing exercises, it can also help to reduce anxiety long-term when practiced regularly.
Aerobic exercise includes things like walking, power walking, running, jogging, swimming, cycling, anything that we can do at a steady pace for a while.
In 2017, a study was conducted by Gen Hosp Psychiatry. It examined the effects of aerobic exercise on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder symptoms (a type of anxiety disorder). The participants were required to continue their regular treatment, adding moderate-intensity aerobic exercise into their treatment plan for 12 weeks.
The study found that the frequency and severity of the participants symptoms were reduced immediately after the aerobic exercise. It also found that the overall severity and frequency of symptoms generally decreased over the studied 12 weeks. Some of the participants in the study felt the positive effects of the experiment for up to 6 months after the study ended.
This is why exercise is often recommended as an accompaniment to medication and therapy treatment for those struggling with an anxiety disorder.
If you’ve tried the gym and aren’t a fan, that’s okay! We’re all different and like different things. If jogging or going for a run just isn’t your thing, that’s fine, you don’t have to force yourself. Exercise should be a celebration of our body’s ability to move. We should enjoy our movement routine, otherwise we won’t be motivated to do it. Take your time looking for an exercise you enjoy doing. Maybe it’s going for a long walk after work, or maybe it’s cycling, or gardening! Choose something that you enjoy and that fits with your schedule.
We often drink chamomile and caffeine-free green teas before going to bed. This is because of their calming properties.
GABA is a neurotransmitter found in the brain. Low levels of GABA have been related to increased bouts of anxiety and stress. We can naturally increase GABA levels in the brain by consuming foods and drinks that naturally contain GABA, such as Green Tea. You can also find specific GABA teas, with increased GABA to help with anxiety.
Certain essential oils can also help to reduce anxiety and stress levels. While there is a lack of research around essential oils in general, we do know that inhaling and applying certain oils to the skin can help to reduce anxiety.
As of yet, there is not enough research around the safety of consuming essential oils, so we only recommend inhaling and applying them topically. We should only ever be using therapeutic-grade oils that do not contain any synthetic fragrance. We can inhale essential oils by using an aromatherapy diffuser. When applying essential oils to the skin, they must be diluted with a carrier oil. For adults, every 15 drops of essential oil should be diluted with 1 ounce of carrier oil.
Essential oils that can help to reduce anxiety include Valerian, a herb that contains compounds that promote sleep and calms nerves. Valerian can have a mild sedative effect on the body when inhaled, so this is a great one to inhale before bed if our anxiety keeps us up at night.
Lavender is a very popular scent that helps to calm anxiety by impacting the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls emotions. We can add lavender oil with a teaspoon of carrier oil to a bath, or we can drop a few drops to the floor of the shower to take in the lavender oil scent.
Jasmine is another scent that promotes calmness and eases anxiety. The benefits of Jasmine compared to Lavender or Valerian is that while it helps to ease anxiety, it does not cause sleepiness, making this a great daytime oil.
There are plenty of other essential oils that ease anxiety, but aside from the oils themselves helping, the act of putting essential oil into a diffuser, or adding it to a bath or shower, or applying it topically to the skin is a wonderful act of self-care. Taking the time to care for yourself in this way can alone help to reduce anxiety. We’re actively taking a step away from the situation that is causing us stress, and are engaging in an activity that promotes wellness. Be cautious to purchase high-quality oils that do not contain synthetic fragrance.
Anxiety is an important part of human survival. We feel anxiety as a result of our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). In order to reduce anxiety, we need to practice activating our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). There are many natural ways we can do this, including practicing breathing exercises regularly, finding a movement routine that suits us, and exploring nature’s ingredients that help with anxiety and stress management, like essential oils and teas.
We all have different experiences and relationships with our anxiety. What works for one person may be very different to what works for you! Try different things to figure out what works for you. Maybe that’s meditation, long walks, yoga, jogging, reading, drinking tea before bed, changing our diet… Find tools that you enjoy using!