Welcome my sister Kelsey back to the blog! This post is part of a series that covers the many ways in which nutrition, digestive health and mood are related. We hope that you find it helpful. If there are any topics that you would like to see covered, leave us a comment and we will try to add them to our series too!
When it comes to anxiety some people just don’t quite understand it, and I get that. As an anxiety sufferer myself I can see that it could be challenging for those who have never experienced it to grasp what it is like. However, the stigmas that surround anxiety discredit it and make those who experience it think they should be able to control it on their own. That is why I am here, to debunk four of those silly anxiety myths so that we can all move on and work towards finding solutions that actually work!
Myth: Anxiety is all in your head
Bottom line: An anxiety disorder is in fact a real illness that can present a great deal of physical and emotional effects on the body-mind network.
Although there is no single blood test or medical scan to determine if one has an anxiety disorder, there are many ways to diagnose and treat one. A growing body of scientific evidence exists to show that anxiety is a full-body disorder, one that involves many anatomical systems. Nutritional deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, problems within the gut microbiome, inflammatory illness and tension in the muscles and connective tissue matrix can all contribute to symptoms of anxiety.
In order to understand this body-mind connection, consider what physically happens during an anxiety attack. A sense of danger arises, the heart rate increases, the muscles tense up and breathing becomes more rapid. The body experiences these symptoms due to a rush of hormones (primarily adrenaline), which are released as part of the fight or flight response. Fight or flight is coordinated by the sympathetic nervous system, a branch of the nervous system that is programmed to help humans protect themselves from perceived danger.
While this type of sympathetic reaction can be triggered in part by thoughts, which are a mental aspect, the symptoms that are activated within the body are very real. Some might say that anxiety sufferers should be able to “turn off” their symptoms by thinking or rationalizing their fears away. However those who understand anxiety or suffer from it know that this is not the case. Anxiety cannot easily be stopped unless the physical symptoms are also directly addressed.
Myth: You are going to pass out if you have a panic attack
Bottom Line: Anxiety often provokes physical symptoms such as dizziness and lightheadedness, which can be falsely associated with fainting. While fainting hardly ever occurs in the midst of a panic attack, the fear of fainting is actually quite common among anxiety suffers, myself included. Previously when I would experience bouts of anxiety my heart felt as if it was going to jump out of my chest and I couldn't catch my balance. I was always convinced that I was going to faint and latched onto this idea, which grew into a greater and greater fear over time.
Let it be known that it is rare for an individual to pass out during a panic attack, unless there is a pre-existing medical condition. I am not saying that it is impossible, however it is very uncommon. This is because during a panic attack the sympathetic nervous system causes the heart rate to increase and blood pressure to rise. As this happens it becomes difficult to pass out; blood pressure needs to drop in order to faint.
Being aware and acknowledging that sensations of dizziness or lightheadedness can happen during an anxiety attack can help to remedy fears, which is why I think this topic is so important to talk about. I know that I was once terribly embarrassed to acknowledge, let alone speak, of this fear. Now I recognize that there are simple relaxation techniques that can calm the nervous system and bring it back to baseline so that uncomfortable symptoms of dizziness dissipate.
Myth: Medication is the only way to treat anxiety
Bottom line: While medication can be helpful and is sometimes necessary, there are other non-drug remedies that can be effective for tackling anxiety.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most widely spread therapy used for those dealing with anxiety. CBT addresses the negative thoughts that can affect the way an individual sees themselves and the things around them. It then gives a person the tools that are needed to reconstruct those thoughts and to alter the way one might perceive a situation that was once anxiety provoking. In short, the goal behind CBT is to transform patterns of negative thinking into a more positive train of thought. One thing to keep in mind however, is that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy doesn’t treat anxiety overnight. It takes time and can be difficult, but working with a therapist to practice CBT may be worth it in the long run.
While CBT can help in working with anxious thoughts in the mind, there are other holistic remedies that attend to symptoms in the body. These "bottom-up" therapies are not as well-discussed in conventional models for treating anxiety, but are just as (if not more) important. Some helpful tools to balance and restore the nervous system include deep breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, mindfulness, gentle physical activity, social connection, and supplementation with mood-supporting nutrients like vitamin B12, omega 3 fatty acids, amino acids, probiotics and zinc.
Adopting healthy lifestyle habits can also help foster a positive outlook on life. Getting involved in activities that are done with supportive people or that help to ground attention to the present moment can make things easier while treating anxiety.
Myth: Anxiety sufferers need to avoid situations that trigger stress
Bottom Line: While this might seem like an easy answer, it is simply not realistic. In fact beliefs like this tend do more harm than good. Avoiding anxiety-provoking situations fuels fears and can lead to social isolation. This allows anxiety to flourish and control one's life. What’s more, stress is inevitable in our modern world and it is important to build effective personalized strategies for managing it. No matter how hard we try to hide from it, stress is bound to occur.
It is only through experiencing and working through anxiety that we learn the unique coping methods that work best for us. Although it can be extremely difficult to work through sensations of anxiety, in the end these efforts only make us stronger.