Natural Health Support for Anxiety

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

When discussing a subject such as anxiety, it is important to distinguish between a natural response to danger that we have been created with as a defense mechanism, the normal stresses of modern life, and a psychiatrically diagnosed illness that is often “treated” with medication. But trying to sort all these factors out is no easy process, as anxiety, of all types, is a complex phenomenon, because we as people are complex creatures.

What Is Anxiety?

Maybe the place to begin is to see what Webster has to say about the subject. According to the dictionary, anxiety is: “Distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune.” This gives us a general idea of what anxiety is, but the problem is that there is “anxiety,” and then there is “anxiety.”

Some cases of anxiety are very normal and in fact we could not survive dangerous or threatening situations without the help of some good old-fashioned anxiety. It is intrinsically tied to the fight-and-flight response that energizes our minds and bodies when we need some extra help to avoid harm to ourselves or others. Anxiety of this sort is an unconscious function of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). For example, if we are hiking through the woods and a mountain lion charges us, we immediately undergo some physical and mental changes, including a healthy dose of anxiety, in order to be able to react as quickly as possible to save our lives. Our eyes would dilate, heartbeat would increase, we would instantly become more alert and attentive, and our digestion would even slow down in order to make more energy available to our muscles. This kind of anxiety is perfectly normal and necessary to our survival.

Another common kind of anxiety is caused by the stress of everyday life. It is natural to be anxious about the first day on a new job, or about how we are going to pay the bills if we are having financial difficulties. This type of anxiety is part of the human condition, and always has been to one degree or another. It does seem to be worse for many folks in today’s modern world, and perhaps it is because of certain lifestyle choices. I believe that even a few generations ago, most folks had a lot more common sense about how to live life in a way that minimized stress, instead of maxing it out. A great example is avoiding financial stress by living within your means, and not having an instant gratification mentality, as so many people do today. Most folks from our grandparent’s generation were also a lot more physically active than we are today, and that alone can deter a good amount of anxiety and stress. A healthier diet is also a great anxiety fighter. For most stressed out American’s, convenience junk food has replaced the more natural, homegrown diets of our ancestors. It is getting harder and harder to find “real” food at your average grocery store today. These facts of modern life only act to increase the anxiety of most folks.

The third kind of anxiety that abounds today, and perhaps the most controversial, is the kind the medical profession labels individuals with, and usually tries to “manage” with the myriad of medications gladly provided by Big Pharma. The names for these syndromes and disorders are almost endless, and there seems to be a pet medication for each and every one. The sad part of all this is that most of these “conditions” are not true illnesses, but simply different labels put on the results of the poor lifestyle and nutritional choices that unfortunately define the American Way these days. I am not saying that there are some people who genuinely are afflicted with medical problems that cause undue anxiety, and in some cases very prudent use of medications may be warranted. What I am saying is that most of the time your average doctor will throw drugs at a stressed out, undernourished patient instead of tutoring them as to how to change the way they are living and learn to make some choices that lead to wellness, and not simply compound the existing problems by covering them up with drugs.

Aside from these misdiagnosed cases of “anxiety,” let’s take a look at some of the legitimate forms of anxiety that can be a very difficult burden for folks who are experiencing them, and discuss some management tools that may avoid the use of band-aids such as drugs that only treat the symptoms instead of the root problems. I would like to choose two of the more common anxiety disorders, and discuss them in some detail: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and Social Anxiety Disorder (social phobia).

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

In a nutshell, GAD is characterized by consistent and persistent feelings of anxiety without any definable or realistic cause. This type of anxiety is sometimes called “free-floating” anxiety. Individuals who struggle with GAD often say they feel anxious all the time, often for no identifiable reason. More women than men experience GAD, and it is a very common diagnosis. I suspect that many more people are labeled with GAD than actually “have” it, and unfortunately many of these people are then prescribed medications which often make matters worse and numb them out to make working on positive solutions to their anxious feelings nearly impossible. However, the symptoms that are officially associated with GAD are as follows:

  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Feeling “on edge” most of the time
  • Insomnia
  • Stomachaches
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Inability concentrating
  • Easily distracted
  • Muscle tension
  • Impatience
  • Frustration
  • Shortness of breath
  • Profuse sweating
  • Paranoia
  • Unreasonable fears

This is just a general list, and of course it varies from person to person. There are several risk factors that have been identified that make a person’s risk of developing GAD greater:

  • Chronic stress: Person’s who have consistently high levels of stress, such as relational or financial, tend to develop more of the signs linked to GAD.
  • Certain medical conditions: These include chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, alcoholism, hypertension, and fibromyalgia, among others. Other conditions such as hyperthyroidism can also significantly contribute to forms of anxiety such as GAD.
  • Family history: If GAD runs in your family, your risk for struggling with it personally increases. This may be a learned behavior related to how one deals with stress.
  • Certain personality types: Some folks are just more high-strung than others, and they have a greater likelihood of developing anxiety disorders.

Social Anxiety Disorder

This condition, also known as social phobia, is really just an abnormal amount of difficulty with people and situations that we all experience to one degree or another. It is one of the most commonly diagnosed “mental disorders” in the Western World, and again I suspect it is grossly over diagnosed. It is typically associated with such signs as:

  • Extreme anxiety about meeting new people, or being judged by them.
  • Anxiety about others noticing that you are anxious (fear of fear itself)
  • Unrealistic thoughts that people are talking about you or judging you
  • Fear of entering a room or meeting late, so that everyone notices you.
  • Typical symptoms of GAD, as listed above, with the addition of blushing, trembling, and heart palpitations.

Like with all anxiety disorders, symptoms can fluctuate depending on the levels of stress in a person’s life at any given moment. Some folks have a much more difficult time if they have not gotten enough sleep or if they are not taking care of themselves by eating well and getting ample exercise and relaxation time. The truth be known, I think all of us could be diagnosed with any number of anxiety disorders on any given day. It is simply part of the human condition to react better or worse to the stresses of life depending on what is going on inside of us and in the world around us.

What Natural Health Support is Available for Anxiety?

Some alternatives to traditional drug therapy that can help all types of anxiety disorders include taking some common-sense steps to learn to deal with anxiety and stress in better, more constructive ways. These include:

  • Find somebody to talk to when you are feeling anxious. Keeping it inside only makes it worse. This could be a professional relationship with a therapist or counselor, or just a friend who is willing to listen and help you through the tough times. Most people who suffer from abnormal amounts of anxiety tend to isolate from others, and this is the worst thing they can do.
  • Go after the root concern: It may take some time to identify one or multiple sources of your anxiety, but try to identify it and tackle it head on. For example, if you find yourself anxious about your finances, sit down and make a budget, and change your spending habits if possible to live within your means. All change is difficult at first, but an approach like this brings lasting, real change, not just temporary relief.
  • Exercise: Enough cannot be said about getting up and partaking of some physical activity, especially outside activities, when you are anxious. Take a walk, get involved in an outside sport, ride a bicycle, etc. It will help you to feel better mentally and physically, and will also stimulate biochemical changes in your body that can help relieve anxiety.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Most pre-packaged foods contain chemicals which act as xenoestrogens (hormones), refined sugar and hormone-laden  milk can have a definite effect on your emotional health. Try to focus on organic or locally grown vegetables & fruit, free-range meat, organic nuts & seeds, green tea and healthy raw juices.
  • Saliva test your sex and thyroid hormones. This is something that many practitioners overlook. Saliva testing estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA and cortisol is recommended. The endocrine system has a definite effect on the entire body. Unbalanced hormones can definitely cause emotional concerns.
  • Cleanse your body. Performing cleansing on your digestive tract (sometimes called the second brain) and your liver can actually support good emotional health. One of the many symptoms of a toxi liver is emotional concerns such as anxiety.
  • Supplements. Get on an organic multi-vitamin | mineral supplement and take it daily. Other supplements to research include adrenal glandulars, Lithium Orotate, Vitamin D-3, sublingual B-12 (methylcobalamine) as well as B Complete and Magnesium Orotate. Research herbs such as peppermint leaf, passion flower, lavender, chamomile, lemon balm, skullcap and ashwagandha. If you are on any meds, be sure to research and contraindications with herbs or supplements.
  • Face your fears: One suggestion that may help a person who has a problem with social phobia, for example, would be to arrange opportunities to tackle the problem head on. Some ideas might be:
    1. Attend a social event that may typically make you anxious with a trusted friend as your support person.
    2. Think ahead of time about topics for discussion to avoid “small-talk” anxiety. Often instigating conversation will remove some of your uncomfortable feelings and fears.
    3. Practice doing things that make you anxious, like speaking to a stranger or asking a clerk in a store to help you find something.
    4. Once you begin to see that you can overcome your fears, they will have less power over you. It sure beats taking a drug to numb you so that you don’t think about your problems. That is not a real solution.

It is not my purpose to minimize in any way the sufferings of individuals who have anxiety. I do not want to make light of legitimate concerns that cause stress in people’s lives. I simply believe that in most cases the use of medications is not a long-term answer that is going to best help a person get well and overcome their concerns. Getting to the root cause of anxiety is the best long-term answer to help people heal and get well. And it will take time. Unfortunately, that is not the opinion of many modern health care providers and the drug companies that work hand-in-hand with most of them. There are better ways to deal with anxiety in most cases than by covering it up with a drug; however, it takes working with a knowledgeable practitioner and/or counselor that knows what the body needs to repair – both physically and emotionally.

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