In one context or another, everybody has heard of the ‘Fight or Flight’ response, and the term is quite self-explanatory. When faced with a stressful situation, our nervous system responds by preparing our body to either fight the attacker, or flee from them. This response is produced by our sympathetic nervous system and is an evolutionary means of survival from our cavemen ancestors, who faced life or death situations on a daily basis. However, in the modern world, there are nowhere near as many potentially life-threatening situations humans will find ourselves in, and this response can become over-regulated. Something as simple as a decision on what to eat for dinner, in a person with increased sympathetic activity can lead to anxiety. The important thing to realize, whether you suffer from anxiety or not, is that to the brain, these threats are very real.
There are two precursors to anxiety: biochemical and environmental factors. On the biochemical side, an imbalance of hormones can lead to anxiety disorders. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain which allow communication between nerves. An increase in these neurotransmitters releases noradrenaline, or norepinephrine, also known as the ‘stress hormone.’ This chemical is responsible for symptoms typically associated with fear, stress, or even panic attacks: increases in heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, breathing rate and dilated pupils. Serotonin, the ‘love hormone’ inhibits noradrenaline, and is produced by the parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘Rest and Digest’ phase of the body. As such, a common treatment for anxiety is SSRI drugs, which increase the uptake of serotonin in the brain.
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There are also some ways to naturally increase serotonin, such as:
Get more sunshine - vitamin D helps the brain produce and utilize serotonin
Get moving - exercise releases endorphins to make you feel good, decreases stress
Shake up your diet - incorporating foods high in tryptophan (milk, nuts, soy), Omega-3 (fish, seeds, oil) and magnesium (dark chocolate, avocado, spinach)
Hugs - it’s called the ‘love hormone’ for a reason
Yoga - activates the parasympathetic nervous system and ‘rest and digest’ state, and more active forms (vinyasa) will also produce the same benefits of exercise
The environmental component of anxiety means that our brains can develop anxious tendencies from the moment we are born from the people around us, our life experiences and traumas. In particular, the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis, if overactivated in childhood by traumatic events and abuse, can increase the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, and compulsive behavior disorders.
The good news is, we can ‘rewire’ our brains to lessen this sympathetic response. This is the scientific phenomenon of neuroplasticity; the ability to form new neural connections within the brain. The primary method of forming new memories in the brain is through repetition, a clear example of this can be seen in post-traumatic stress disorders. A traumatic memory is replayed in the brain, and each time, the connections (synapses) of the memory become stronger, making it more difficult to ‘forget’ the event. In the same way, we are able to ‘hack’ this system, by practicing mindfulness techniques to strengthen the connections to positive thought patterns and behaviors.
Mindful practices for anxiety and stress:
Awareness meditation - label thoughts, sensations, sounds - to practice non-attachment
Gratitude - journaling 3 things you are grateful for each day, or for each negative thought matching it with 3 positive ones - to strengthen positive thought patterns
Compassion - let go of judgment of yourself when you have a negative thought, emotion or response, practicing self-compassion to decrease stress and physical symptoms of anxiety
Breathe - inhale for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 - repeat as necessary, anywhere, anytime
Yoga works on the body beyond the physical feeling of a deep stretch.