Breaking Anxiety's Chains

Having an action plan can stop fear from running your life.

By Lisa James

November/December 2005

It’s 3 a.m. and you’ve been awake for hours, fretting without end about being fired or your kids failing in school or your spouse calling it quits—all based on an off-hand remark or cross look. The familiar dread is building again and you wonder if you’re going crazy. Others have bad days and still seem reasonably happy. Why don’t they react to life with the same fear and trembling?

Unlike you, those happy folks don’t suffer from acute anxiety. But plenty of other people do: About 4 million Americans endure that worry-about-everything state called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), marked by both physical symptoms—digestive troubles, tight muscles, headaches, sweating, shaking—and emotional indicators, including an ability to turn the most inconsequential of molehills into impassible mountains. (Anxiety’s misery comes in several other flavors, including social anxiety, panic attacks and phobias about everything from snakes to planes.)

Anxiety is as common and life-twisting as depression (the two often occur together). In its most severe forms, anxiety can also be as deadly; one study found that people who reported feeling anxious were more likely to commit suicide over the following decade than calmer individuals.

Wired to Worry

The tendency towards excessive fear and worry, like other disorders, is born of an interplay between genetic inheritance and environment—everything from a childhood trauma to a recent divorce. (Not surprisingly, periods of high stress can activate GAD.) Genetics doesn’t make anxiety inevitable; rather, it makes it easier to “learn” an exaggerated fear response to life’s challenges.

The brain itself is altered in states of anxiety, with disruptions in levels of neurotransmitters, chemicals that carry messages from one nerve cell to another. What’s more, a brain region called the amygdala, the one that processes fear into adrenaline, appears to be more active in anxious individuals.

Some therapists believe that people who worry to excess tend to have certain personality attributes. “Many of them are perceived by others as the ‘good guy,’” says Dr. Bonnie Freedman, who specializes in anxiety counseling. “Unexpressed anger, energy unvented, will often surface as anxiety.” Perfectionism is another anxiety-associated trait.

Sweet Release

Relaxing anxiety’s relentless grip naturally requires a multi-method plan of action. Here’s what to do:
Up your intake of whole foods, including plenty of produce. Cut down on caffeine, which is a big-time anxiety trigger. Limit yourself to one cup of regular coffee or tea a day, if that much, and avoid cola, chocolate and cocoa.

Exercise is a great quickie stress buster—a walk around the block can do wonders—but it needs to be paired with a more potent relaxation technique for lasting effects. Medi­tation can help, but that may be hard to get into if you’re tied into a worried little knot. First try a simple breathing exercise: Inhale deeply for a count of five, hold for a five-count and exhale for five counts, alternating with two regular breaths. Consider training in biofeedback, which teaches you to become aware of your body’s involuntary functions and how to control them. And don’t forget therapy, particularly the cognitive-behavioral type that helps you change unhealthy thought patterns.

Never-ending stress can exhaust the adrenals, a pair of glands that sit atop the kidneys and produce cortisol, a key stress-response hormone. To revive those tired glands, the authors of Natural Relief for Anxiety (New Harbinger) suggest cutting way back on sugar and supplementing your diet with vitamins B5, B6 and C, along with zinc, chromium picolinate and adrenal cortex glandulars. (For amounts tailored to your needs, see a health care practitioner.)

Other supplements that help calm anxiety include:

* L-theanine: This amino acid, found in green tea, promotes relaxation without drowsiness.
* 5-HTP: This is a form of tryptophan, an amino acid the body uses to create a neurotransmitter called serotonin that helps stabilize mood.
* Omega-3 Fats: DHA and EPA, found in fish oil, are vital for nerve cell health.
* Calcium: This mineral soothes the nervous system by aiding in impulse transmission between nerve cells. Always take calcium with its partner, magnesium.
* Passionflower: This herb encourages muscle relaxation and drains tension from the body.
* Valerian: A sedating herb, valerian can help you both fall asleep and stay asleep.

Don’t you want to enjoy life again? Sure you do! Taking a holistic approach to anxiety may ease your worried mind for good.

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