Anxiety is real. There are people who think that mental illnesses such as panic disorder, anxiety attacks and depression, are figments of the imagination and can be controlled. They see these as signs of weakness and cannot comprehend why that person can’t “pull themselves together and get over it!”
However, these conditions are real and the solutions are more complex than a simple application of mental effort.
What is anxiety?
So, what is anxiety? Caryn Levick (ND) from Perpetual Wellbeing describes anxiety in an article featured in GIGI magazine as “a complex feeling of nervousness, fear and worry, often accompanied by shallow breathing, racing heartbeat, sweating and other physical sensations. It is a common condition that can be a response to a stressor. It is a serious condition that makes it difficult for a person to cope with daily life. These feelings cannot be easily controlled.”
In his book The Anxiety Cure, Dr Archibald Hart writes: “Too much stress, stress that hangs around too long or a stress-response system that has too low a threshold raises the level of cortisol being released from the adrenal glands. This increased cortisol finds its way to the brain and blocks the natural tranquilisers from reaching their receptor sites.”
High cortisol in the body causes a person to suffer these disorders and feel unwell overall. It is a chemical imbalance.
My first anxiety attack
I was four years old when I suffered my first anxiety attack. The civil war in my country was raging. Every night, for 40 nights, soldiers broke into our house and church and caused havoc. My young mind didn’t completely understand what was going on but I knew it was bad. Tremendous anxiety ripped through my little body and uncontrollable trembling, vomiting and being unable to breathe always followed.
After the war we moved to another country, but the anxiety continued. My parents didn’t understand what was wrong with me; they only knew that I wasn’t the same. Life continued as normal and soon my anxiety attacks subsided; for many years I lived peacefully. However, when I was 17, they returned. I was in Year 12—busy, stressed and with a pile of assignments suffocating me.
I was with my friends at a slumber party. The night started perfectly but suddenly, during one of the movies, I experienced very strange sensations.
My throat was constricting and I found myself trying to swallow over and over again. Pins and needles pricked my neck and arms, and my heart raced frantically. In my panic, I fled to the toilet and hid myself in there. My hands were shaking uncontrollably and I felt that I was going to pass out. I was terrified!
Then, just as quickly as it came upon me, it disappeared. When I was calm enough, I left the toilet and went into the bathroom to wash my face. I looked in the mirror and was surprised to see my face so pale.
Later, at about 2 am, I woke up with a start. I had the same symptoms that I’d had earlier. I felt that something horrible was going to happen: that I was going to die or have a heart attack. I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t see properly, I couldn’t warm up—I was freezing! I was terrified and I had no-one to turn to. Everyone was sleeping and I was too afraid to tell my friends. What was wrong with me?
At 6 am I called my parents to pick me up. Once in the car I told them everything. That night the anxiety attacks came back stronger and my parents rushed me to the emergency department at the nearest hospital. It didn’t take long for the nurses to take me directly inside.
The doctor I saw was lovely; he put me at ease immediately. After asking me numerous questions, he gave me the verdict: anxiety attack. He explained what it was and referred me to a psychologist so I could learn to manage it.
I’m so thankful that I got help early in life. For me, short-term medication prescribed by a doctor—along with a balanced diet, exercise, vitamins and prayer—helped improve my mental health. I believe that these kinds of interventions are also likely to be helpful for others struggling with anxiety.
What can help
Anxiety can be aggravated by mental stress, emotional upsets or hormonal changes (for example, PMS or menopause). Nutritional deficiencies originating from poor diet and/or poor digestive function have also been found to contribute to anxiety. Here are some dietary tips:
• If you suffer from anxiety, you should avoid coffee and other caffeinated drinks. Caffeine is a stimulant and can prompt an increased heart rate, sweating and an inability to sleep or relax—exactly what you don’t want!
• Your diet should be low in sugar and refined carbohydrates, as blood sugar imbalances can be a trigger for anxiety.
• Each meal should have protein to provide adequate amino acids for the production of healthy neurotransmitters (brain chemicals). Some examples of protein foods include eggs, nuts, chicken, fish, cottage cheese, tofu, lentils and chickpeas.
• You should eat small, regular meals. Your brain and nervous system need a steady supply of energy to work properly, so eating small, frequent meals is essential.
• Avoid alcohol consumption.
• You may find some benefit from taking a magnesium supplement and consuming foods high in magnesium, such as green vegetables, prunes, bananas, berries, and mixed nuts and seeds. Magnesium is important for a healthy nervous system, particularly in times of increased or prolonged stress, and may assist in relief of anxiety. It is also required to help muscles relax and promote a calm mind and relaxed body.
• Include oily fish in your diet three to four times per week or consider taking a good quality fish oil supplement. Omega-3 essential fatty acids are important building blocks for the brain and nervous system and can help support healthy moods.
• B vitamins are a group of nutrients that act together to support energy production and optimal brain function. B vitamins provide support for the nervous system, particularly in times of stress. Sources of B vitamins include chicken, wheatgerm, brewer’s yeast, rice bran, almonds and eggs.
POWER IN NATURE
There are many herbal medicines that can be taken in the form of a tea, herbal liquid or tablets, to help with the symptoms of anxiety. Do your research and consult with your GP and a qualified naturopath or herbalist to find the best combination of treatments for you.
• Chamomile may assist in the relief of nervousness.
• Passionflower, in traditional Western medicine, is used for tension, anxiety, irritability and insomnia.
• Traditionally, rehmannia has been used for nervous tension due to ongoing stress and anxiety.
• Zizyphus (Zizyphus jujube) has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for the management of sleep disorders and symptoms associated with anxiety.
• Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is indicated for symptoms of nervous disorders, reduction of excitability, anxiety and stress.
The benefits of regular exercise are relevant for many different conditions. People with anxiety disorders may benefit from the introduction of exercise into their daily schedule. Exercise is associated with improved brain function. Aerobic exercise is also proven to decrease stress hormones. Aerobic forms of exercise may include running, swimming or cycling.
Adequate sleep is important for many different conditions. Patients with anxiety are advised to get enough sleep every night. If you’re having problems sleeping it’s recommended that you consult a health professional to discuss your particular type of sleep problem.
Relaxation may help you develop the ability to more effectively cope with the stresses that contribute to anxiety, as well as with some of the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Techniques such as conscious breathing, relaxation therapy and music therapy may be helpful for prevention of anxiety. Researchers have shown that conscious deep breathing can reduce symptoms of stress. Take three deep breaths and follow each with a long exhalation to the count of three seconds. Practise sets of conscious breathing 15 to 20 times per day.
CLAIM YOUR STRENGTH IN CHRIST
Having a relationship with God is one of the most important practices you can include in your life when dealing with anxiety. He is the One who can bring peace and tranquillity into your heart and mind as you experience the unpleasant anxiety symptoms. Opening your Bible and reading its promises will fill you with peace. Spending time in prayer and taking every dark moment to God is a great way to unburden your soul. He is ready to listen to every plea we have. At the beginning of Job 14:15, God promises, “You will call and I will answer you . . .” God can come to our rescue and heal our minds. Another wonderful promise can be found in Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
There is no shame in getting help. If you’re suffering from anxiety attacks or panic disorder, I’d encourage you to seek help immediately. Talking to a professional about your feelings will be beneficial. Don’t suffer alone—get help. God will give you strength.
Esther Espinoza is co-founder of teen girl magazine, GIGI. She lives in Brisbane.
Medical information by Caryn Levick, ND (naturopath, nutritionist and director of Perpetual Wellbeing). Part of the article was first featured in GIGI magazine.