Anxiety: a dreaded feeling you never want to experience. Yet, over 33% of the U.S. population will experience anxiety in their lifetime- that’s 40 million Americans. However, a holistic and functional approach to health can help explain why anxiety isn’t just in your head, while addressing and healing chronic anxiety disorders.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety describes an inner state of emotional turmoil. It’s a mental, and often physical, response to stress, fear, and worry. In many cases, anxiety is a normal and healthy reaction to unknown situations or danger. However, deeper trouble arises when anxiety becomes chronic and debilitating.
Different Kinds of Anxiety Disorders
When anxiety starts to negatively impact day-to-day activities, a formal anxiety disorder might be at play. The most common kinds of anxiety disorders, include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder – Feelings of excessive anxiety and irrational worry
- Panic Disorder (PD) – Panic attacks and feelings of intense fear
- Social Anxiety Disorder – Fear and anxiety in social situations
- Phobias – Persistent fear of an object or situation
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – Frequently repeating thoughts or actions
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – Fear triggered by a previous traumatic event
- Major Depressive Disorder – Over two weeks of experiencing low mood
It’s important to work closely with a health professional to accurately diagnose and manage any anxiety disorder.
8 Uncommon Reasons Why Anxiety Isn’t Just In Your Head
Although anxiety can feel primarily like a mental or emotional issue, there is much more going on beneath the surface. Meaning, your anxiety isn’t only in your head. In fact, there are many root causes of anxiety. Some of the most common ones are:
Mental or Emotional Stress
Stress comes in many shapes, sizes, and forms. And, it can be in response to previous life experiences. Some of the most common sources of mental/emotional stress are:
- Learned behaviors as a child
- The result of different parenting/attachment styles
- Childhood/school experiences
- Lack of healthy boundaries
- Not enough downtime/rest
- Social, financial, relationship stress
- Negative self-image
Ongoing and acute stress (due to finances, work, family, relationships, etc.) can also contribute to anxiety symptoms.
The thyroid gland affects every physiological function in the body. When thyroid hormones become imbalanced, consequential dysfunction occurs. This imbalance can have a major impact on mood regulation. For example: an underactive thyroid can result in low mood or depression, while an overactive thyroid can create anxiety or fear. Autoimmune thyroiditis can trigger both under and overactive thyroid symptoms.
A functional medicine practitioner can help you identify and address any imbalances within the thyroid through functional testing.
In addition to thyroid dysfunction, other hormonal imbalances can be a primary root cause of anxiety disorders. In many cases, these physiological changes create a chronic stress response in the body, leading to chronic anxiety. The most important hormone imbalances to pay attention to, include:
- Dysglycemia (blood sugar dysregulation)
- Adrenal Issues
- Caffeine sensitivity (ie. an intense adrenaline rush when consumed)
Inflammation is the root cause of all chronic disease, including anxiety. Common causes of inflammation include: unhealthy lifestyle choices, an inflammatory diet, chronic infection, acute sickness, autoimmunity, and more.
In the case of anxiety disorders, cytokines play a starring role. Inflammation causes a dysregulation of cytokine production and can lead to cognitive imbalances, like depression and anxiety. More so, the concept of psychoneuroimmunology further explains the role of inflammation on the central nervous system and brain. GABA deficiency has also been associated with anxiety disorders.
Hippocrates once said, “All health starts in the gut.” Hence, poor gut health is a breeding ground for a host of health issues. Regarding anxiety, the following gut imbalances should be addressed:
- Food Sensitivities
- Gut Infections (ie. Candida, SIBO)
- Leaky Gut (or Intestinal Permeability)
- Nutrient Deficiencies (ie. Vitamin B12, EFA Omega 3)
Unsurprisingly, imbalances in the brain largely influence mood and anxiety. Common examples of brain imbalances, include:
- An overactive mesencephalon (midbrain)
- Excessive CO2 levels in the body
- Increased amygdala function / limbic system activation
- Underactive frontal lobes
- Neurotransmitter imbalances (ie. GABA deficiency)
- Post-Concussion Syndrome
- Vestibular, Balance or Eye Tracking issues
Unfortunately, toxins are all around us. We find them in our air (pollution, mold, mycotoxins), food (pesticides, herbicides), water (heavy metals, pharmaceutical drugs, bacterial, parasites, viruses), cleaning products (chemicals, fragrances), cosmetics (endocrine disruptors), and more. Chronic exposure to these toxins in everyday life can greatly alter brain, immune and hormone function.
Various socioeconomic factors can play a role in anxiety disorders. The most common factors, include:
- Financial burden
- Systemic oppression
- Lack of access to healthcare
- Community safety
- Discrimination, racism and bias
- Cultural influences and expectations
It might feel like anxiety is all in your head. However, it’s clear that anxiety stems from other imbalances in the body. The key is to identify what is causing anxiety, so that it can be effectively addressed and healed.
How to Heal Anxiety (from a Functional Approach)
Anxiety can feel like a life sentence, but it doesn’t have to be. When looking at anxiety from a functional medicine approach, it’s important to understand and address the root cause, starting with:
1. Improving Gut Health:
You may not be able to change all external factors that contribute to anxiety. But you can somewhat control what you eat. An inflamed gut and brain will have a much harder time managing stress and calming anxiety.
First and foremost, it’s critical to adopt an anti-inflammatory diet when anxiety is present. Minimally, this means removing inflammatory foods (ie. gluten, dairy, soy, sugar, corn) from the diet. However, for those with a chronic health condition, an autoimmune disorder or severe anxiety, the Autoimmune Protocol might be the best option.
Additionally, it can be beneficial to include plenty of gut-healing foods in the diet, like:
- Green tea
- Fermented foods
- Bone broth
2. Practicing Mind-Body Exercises:
Clearly, the mind-body connection is strong. Practicing mind-body exercises is an effective way to address both chronic anxiety symptoms and acute anxiety attacks. Try these exercises to expedite healing:
- Vagal nerve exercises
- Deep breathing- Breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 2, breath out for 8, hold for 2, and repeat.
- Deep pressure application- weighted blankets, hugs, massage, applying pressure to your own body
3. Implement Natural Remedies:
Naturally remedies, like supplements and essential oils, are foundational in functional healing.
- Supplements- GABA deficiency is very common in those with anxiety. Precursors to GABA, like glutamine, magnesium, and zinc, can help the body naturally produce more GABA. Additionally, adaptogens, like ashwagandha, are helpful in regulating the nervous system and stabilizing mood. For those who are sensitive to nightshades, opt for eleuthero root, instead.
- Essential Oils – Essential oils are an effective and enjoyable method of aromatherapy for anxiety. Specifically, Lavender, Wild Orange, Lemon, Ylang Ylang, and Melissa Frankincense have been shown to reduce anxiety and improve stress response.
4. Consider Therapy:
Arguably the most well-known treatment for anxiety is therapy. Various methods of therapy, like talk therapy, neuro-based therapies (EMDR), and energy psychology techniques can be beneficial. Explicitly, EMDR has been shown to help people heal from the past traumas and experiences that cause anxiety in the first place.
Unaddressed anxiety can affect every part of your life. To fully heal from your anxiety disorder and get your life back, it’s necessary to take a root cause approach. And, sometimes, we need help doing so.
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