What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural feeling, often felt in anticipation of an event that might be considered stressful, uncomfortable or scary. It may be experienced as worry, tension, rapid breathing, butterflies in your stomach, a racing heart, feeling hot and clammy or all of the above. This is a natural feeling in reaction to a situation, which usually passes and you wonder what all that worry was for! However, for some, this feeling of anxiety becomes persistent (chronic) and affects their ability to function day to day.
The Naturopathic Approach
In terms of a Naturopathic approach to anxiety, or indeed any opportunity to enhance a person’s health, there are six fundamental principles that form the basis of Naturopathic practise:
- Treat the cause
- Empower people to take responsibility for their own health
- Treat the whole person (emotionally, physically and bio-chemically)
- Work with the innate self-healing power of the body
- Safe practice
When chronic anxiety is experienced, care from a Medical Professional or suitably qualified Complementary Medicine practitioner should be sought to identify and treat the causes unique to each person.
Six Simple Suggestions for Serenity
To help prevent anxiety reaching a chronic state, there are some easily introduced therapeutic interventions that can really help to keep us calm, relaxed and focused on the present moment rather than feeling anxious about what might happen in the future.
So here are six suggestions to help manage acute or early stage anxiety in a naturopathic way by working on a variety of holistic levels to treat the whole and empower you to be responsible for your own health!
1) Healthy Habits
In some individuals, certain stimulants can increase feelings of anxiety. If you have identified or suspect that you might be sensitive to stimulants, the main culprits to consider reducing or replacing to promote self-healing are:
- Refined Sugar – excessive sugar intake can lead to hypoglycaemia (low blood-sugar levels). Following an initial peak after consumption of the sugar, there is an over-compensation in the release of insulin to bring the level back into the normal range, which then leaves the level too low. Anxiety is a common symptom of hypoglycaemia.
- Nicotine – smoking can induce the release of the stress hormone cortisol, high levels of which are well-recognised in those with anxiety. It can also lower vitamin C levels in the brain, potentially resulting in an anxious or depressive mood.
- Caffeine - in some individuals who are more prone to anxious or depressive states, excessive caffeine intake can exacerbate these symptoms.
- Alcohol – a known brain depressant, excessive intake can also lead to depletion of mood enhancing compounds and nutrients.
Aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, cycling or swimming can provide us with a myriad of health benefits, but specifically relating to anxiety, it stimulates the release of chemicals called endorphins which are mood enhancing. Exercising, especially in a scenic area such as a forest not only connects us with nature (which itself has therapeutic effects) but can also have a positive effect on our mood.
Anxiety can result in more rapid breathing typically from the upper chest and through a series of resultant biochemical processes, various physical and psychological symptoms associated with anxiety.
This simple breathing exercise involves training the body to breathe from the diaphragm and promotes relaxation through correct lung function. Place one hand on your upper chest and another on your belly button. Breathe in through your nose for a count of around four (or whatever is comfortable), focusing on keeping the hand on your upper chest absolutely still and feel your belly push on your lower hand, moving it away from your body. Then breathe out slowly through your mouth with pursed lips (like you are trying to blow out a candle on a lovely cake) for a count of around 6 and feel your lower hand return to its original position as your diaphragm relaxes. The numbers you count to are not as important as making sure that your out breath is a little longer than the in breath. A cycle of ten deep breaths in this manner should leave you feeling much calmer.
4) Body Temperature Bath
Hot or cold temperatures can be stressors on the body, activating the sympathetic nervous system; our fight or flight response. Having a bath at about 36-37°C which is generally our body temperature, helps our parasympathetic nervous system to engage, putting us into a resting and digesting mode of relaxation. Combine the bath with some aromatherapy oils for added bliss!
5) Soothing Scents
Aromatherapy works through absorption of the oils into the bloodstream and via our sense of smell (or olfactory sense) exerting an effect on the limbic system in the brain which in turn can result in the desired therapeutic action. Classic oils for promoting relaxation include:
- Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)
- Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
- Mandarin (Citrus reticulata/nobilis)
- Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
- Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata)
A drop or two of one of these oils could be placed on a tissue and inhaled as required whilst you’re on the go or place the tissue on the inside of your pillowcase at night. At home, a few drops can be added to a bath, oil burner or diffuser to create a relaxing, restful environment.
6) Helpful Herbs
- Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) has been traditionally used to help with anxiety and promoting rest and relaxation. It is understood that the root contains compounds which bind to receptor sites in the brain which can then exert anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects. Although more research is required, a calming cup of Valerian tea might be a beneficial bedtime ritual.
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is known as an adaptogen, which means that it helps to support the body to function normally under times of stress. Ashwagandha has been traditionally used to reduce the negative physiological effects of anxiety and to help conserve energy reserves. It is thought that these actions result from the steroidal compounds called withanolides found in the root.
Chaitow, L., (ed), (2008). Naturopathic physical medicine. Europe: Elsevier Limited
Galvin, K., and Bishop, M., (2011). Case Studies for Complementary Therapists: A Collaborative Approach. London: Elsevier.
Pizzore, J.E., and Murray, M.T., (eds), (2013). Textbook of natural medicine. USA: Elsevier.
Sarris, J., and Wardle, J., (2010). Clinical naturopathy: an evidence-based guide to practice. Australia: Churchill Livingstone.