I've had anxiety my entire life, I know it like the back of my hand. I'm now 40 and it has taken me this long to become more comfortable with having it in my life. It still bothers me and catches me off guard, but I am now able to live a more complete life without the need to push it away or feel ashamed about it. It is what it is. I'll always be prone to panic attacks if I'm not looking after myself, at certain points of my cycle or if I'm under a lot of stress.
As a sensitive person and as a health practitioner, here is what I know about anxiety...
- It is multifactorial. Anyone that tries to tell you that just one thing will cure your anxiety is lying. As an example, it is not just nutrition that will help your anxiety - it is nutrition in addition to other interventions. Anxiety in its different forms usually combines genetic factors with environmental ones such as situational stressors, diet and substance use (either illegal or very legal such as caffeine). All of these should be addressed to have the best likelihood of success.
- It is very common - with one in four Australians believed to have an anxiety disorder at some stage of their life.
- It is a sneaky mofo, presenting in so many different ways - eg. eating disorders, generalised anxiety, panic disorder, substance abuse, phobias. These all have anxiety as a central or definining characteristic, yet it shows up differently almost every time. Even in the same person who has been diagnosed with a single disorder.
- Anxiety can make life unbearable, but also very rich. Anxiety actually means you are alive, experiencing complex emotions. It means you are usually more empathetic towards other people and often more creatively talented and intelligent. This is not to gloss over the hardship that anxiety entails, but to point out that anxiety is often the flipside to intense, rewarding human experience.
- Many forms of anxiety respond well to diet changes - such as keeping blood sugar levels steady with well-designed meals and minimising the use of caffeine and alcohol, however boring that sounds. See also Point 1.
- Anxiety comes with a lot of shame and can often lead to depression in the long term. All those stress chemicals being pumped out due to anxiety often lead to burnout and low mood.
- Anxiety and depression are both about control. Anxiety leads a person to try to control everything, especially that which is not in their control. Depression involves feeling that you have no control over anything, or very little control. A lot of the psychological interventions that address anxiety are all about giving up the need to control.
- Plenty of low cost interventions work well for anxiety such as 4-7-8 breathing and simple lifestyle changes such as diet modifications, social engagement and sleep optimisation.
- Specific nutrients can really make a difference - such as zinc, B vitamins and magnesium. These should always be prescribed by a qualified practitioner as in some cases they may actually exacerbate anxiety if the wrong ones are used.
- There is no shame in using medication if necessary. I always recommend people choose what they feel is appropriate to them - as long as they are aware of potential side effects and are also working to address underlying causes.
- What works for one person is not always appropriate for someone else. Believe it or not, some people with anxiety are triggered by meditation. So, while meditation can be excellent for many people, it's not the right choice for everyone with anxiety.
- Reverse psychology and re-framing anxiety are very powerful tools. 1960s Australian general practitioner Claire Weekes was so ahead of her time and her work on anxiety is timeless. Weekes emphasised the importance of accepting anxiety rather than rejecting it, and being aware that our minds can create a second layer of fear that perpetuates anxiety and elevates it to a disorder. It is this second layer that we have the power to control in our favour. I highly recommend her work and also that of Barry McDonagh, who developed the Panic Away program that is a similar, more modernised approach using mp3 files to use before or during panic attacks. The latter involves inviting anxiety in to dismantle it (reverse psychology) - you have to find the courage to do this. The work of both Weekes and McDonagh helped me immensely. Part of this acceptance is understanding that most people with anxiety will always be prone to it, it doesn't magically go away.
- Sitting with, and observing, anxious sensations - rather than pushing them away - is a much more effective way of letting the anxiety naturally dissipate on its own. Pushing away can mean distraction and it can also refer to that second layer of fear I mentioned above, where the response to the anxious sensations is one of immense discomfort and feeling out of control.
- It is possible to recover, or at the very least to live a full and rewarding life while living with anxiety. It doesn't have to rule your life.
If you'd like to work with me to address anxiety, get in touch. I'd love to help you.