Habits to Decrease Anxiety From the Body
Taking care of your body can help alleviate some anxiety caused by diet, sleep, and inflammation.
Dr. Ellen Vora’s new book, The Anatomy of Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming the Body’s Fear Response, describes anxiety as “that hypervigilant feeling that escalates quickly to a sense of catastrophe and doom.” Anxiety is “as grounded in the body as it is in the mind.”
She claims that we too often look only to mental fixes for issues that have some physical roots. The only surefire solutions I’ve discovered over the years are physical in nature: a good high-intensity workout is guaranteed to improve your mood, and giving up caffeine has occasionally made nervous symptoms disappear for extended periods of time. For many of us, who are already doing everything we can to take care of our minds through therapy or other cognitive techniques, taking care of our bodies provides a different path to happiness.
Through research and stories from her decade of clinical practice, Vora’s book shows how anxiety manifests in the body as well as how dietary and lifestyle changes can lead to major changes. Additionally, she discusses what to do about anxiety that is not primarily physical. Rather than fearing anxiety, this distinction offers a new perspective on it.
In discussing anxiety and its treatment, we often talk about the brain first. According to Vora, this leaves out a crucial piece of the puzzle below the neck.
Although brain chemistry and thought patterns play a role in anxiety, she contends that they are often ‘downstream’ effects, meaning that a body imbalance often changes our brain chemistry.
Improving your physical health habits can make you happier.
Sleep. Anxiety can be ramped up by sleep-related changes in the brain and hormones. The medial prefrontal cortex (which regulates emotions) shows less activity after a sleepless night, according to a 2019 study. We also feel anxious tomorrow based on the quantity and quality of our sleep tonight.
“There is probably no more effective or accessible treatment for anxiety than sleep,” Vora writes.
Caffeine. Caffeine stimulates the release of cortisol in the body, which mimics anxiety, Vora explains. Moreover, caffeine can amplify other cardiovascular reactions to stress by raising blood pressure when we consume it prior to a stressful situation.
Diet. There are times when anxiety can be caused by something as simple as low blood sugar, which can cause anxious feelings, nervousness, shakiness, and heart palpitations. It’s possible to alleviate anxiety symptoms by improving your diet (by eating less refined carbohydrates and more protein, fat, and fiber).
A research review found that probiotics and prebiotics (found in fruits and vegetables or as supplements) may also reduce anxiety.
As a result of poor sleep, we need more coffee, which makes it hard to sleep the next night; tired and deprived of willpower, we eat unhealthy foods, resulting in blood sugar crashes that can wake us up hungry in the middle of the night.
Deficiencies in vitamin D, which we get from our diet, supplements, and sun exposure, put us at higher risk of anxiety. Our circadian rhythm is regulated by sunlight, so getting more sunlight also leads to better sleep at night.
Participants in a 2017 study showed lower heart rates, slower breathing, and a lower skin conductivity after eight weeks of belly breathing training.
As journalist James Nestor explains in his book Breath, holding our breath during stressful moments at work, as well as breathing through our mouths, can contribute to anxiety and mental health problems. As our nervous system is directly influenced by our breathing, the way we breathe can either promote calm and relaxation or cause us to put ourselves in a fight-or-flight situation.
Stress, diet, and even birth control may cause inflammation in the body, which affects how we feel. Changes in our brains caused by inflammation, including in the amygdala and neurotransmitters linked to threat, may contribute to anxiety.
By troubleshooting each of these areas of our lives, from sleep to inflammation, we can eliminate some levels of anxiety and become happier. Diet and lifestyle can be powerful tools for overcoming anxiety. It is possible to make a meaningful difference to our anxiety by making small changes to our physical bodies
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