stress and anxiety

Anxiety and Stress: What Happens In The Body and What We Can Do About It

Stress and anxiety show up in often the most uncomfortable ways. Panic attacks, tight muscles, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, and digestive difficulties to name a few. Anxiety is both a mind and a body state that can interweave with depression. As a person tries to cope under stress for a long time, they can eventually get overwhelmed and fatigued. Interestingly enough, with depression there is typically a pressing down in energy and in anxiety we typically see an uprising. The struggle between the two energies will often fatigue the patient.

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for the control of bodily functions not consciously regulated, like breathing, heart rate, and digestion. It is made up of two opposing systems, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The depth at which we breathe and the Vagus nerve together inform the autonomic nervous system on which response system needs to be activated at any one time.

When the body is in a fight or flight state (sympathetic nervous system reaction), the autonomic response triggers tunnel vision, shallow breathing, increased heart rate, muscle tension, and perspiration. These responses are meant to prepare you for danger through heightened alertness and physically readying you to flee from the tiger that may eat you for dinner. All of these symptoms can manifest as the feeling of anxiety or panic.

When the body is in a rest and digest state (parasympathetic nervous system reaction), the body senses safety and is able to relax. The body’s autonomic response conserves energy, slows and deepens breathing, slows the heart rate, and increases intestinal activity. This also relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract allowing you to be at peace while “safely”
digesting and absorbing your meal.

Each one of us has daily experiences that stimulate both systems. For instance, we can activate both systems in a healthy way with exercise. Cardiovascular exercise stimulates the sympathetic state, while most yoga practices stimulate the parasympathetic state.

When a person suffers with anxiety, their sympathetic system is over responsive. It is important to figure out if there is a physiological imbalance in the body that is increasing the response to a mental or emotional trigger. This can be done through testing the thyroid and other basic blood counts to ensure they are within the normal range. It is also important to ask your doctor to look at your adrenal and neurotransmitter pathways to identify any deficiencies or excesses that may
be contributing to the stress your body feels and is manifesting as anxiety symptoms. By understanding lab results, your naturopathic physician can assist you in creating a treatment plan that will incorporate your physical, mental, and emotional health goals.

In the meantime, here are some wonderful tools to help you adapt to stress and reduce anxiety by increasing the parasympathetic response:

  • Increase your mindfulness. When you can focus on one task, one thought, one person, it reduces your need to be vigilant. Multitasking increases the sympathetic nervous system.
  • Meditation is a wonderful tool to increase the parasympathetic nervous system. If doing meditation on your own is challenging, use guided meditations and visualization to assist you in your relaxation sessions.
  • Choose a quiet and low stress environment to eat in, this will help you digest more of your food in a healthy way.
  • Practice a loving kindness meditation. This is one of my favorite meditations. You do it for yourself first, then for someone who is kind to you, then for someone who is neutral for you, and then for someone with whom you experience difficulty. You can also add a repetition for all beings everywhere. You can continue on until you feel calm and rested. Many meditation teachers have presented this version over the years, I do not know who to give absolute credit to for this thoughtful piece.
    • May I live without fear and anxiety
    • May I be happy, may I be at ease.
    • May (name the person) live without fear and anxiety
    • May (name the person) be happy, may (name the person) be at ease

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