Reclaim Your Life from Anxiety

By Lee McCarthy, Lic.Ac.

If you have ever felt overwhelmed by worry to the point of physical illness you are not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (2008) 18% or almost 40 million Americans have an anxiety disorder. This equates to about one adult in five that experiences an anxiety disorder in a given year.

Anxiety disorders refer to states of irrational fear and worry about real or perceived threats or impending danger. According to the diagnostic standards of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV) the main criteria used to distinguish normal anxiety from an anxiety disorder is the level of impact it has on one’s social, occupational and cognitive functioning.

Symptoms:

Symptoms of anxiety include: palpitations, accelerated heart rate, difficult or rapid breathing, trembling, chest pain or discomfort, dizziness, sweating, dry mouth, nausea, numbness or tingling sensations. Although there are many types of anxiety disorders, the most common is ‘General Anxiety Disorder’ and is characterized by excessive anxiety and worry that is difficult to control or stop and is out of proportion to the stressor itself. This state can include feelings of restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension and sleep disturbance. One may also experience cold clammy hands, loss of appetite, diarrhea, urinary frequency, trouble swallowing or ‘lump in the throat’ and excess sensitivity to loud noises or quick movement. Behavioral symptoms include avoidance of certain everyday situations that may elicit stress. Also categorized are ‘Panic disorder’ when anxiety comes in waves or attacks and ‘Phobic anxiety’ when anxiety is provoked by specific fears. In addition, anxiety often presents in association with depression.

Function:

The function of anxiety actually has its roots in prehistoric times when human survival depended on our body’s automatic ‘fight or flight’ response. When triggered, a sequence of nerve cell activation and chemical release enables the body to move into a hyperactive state. Our whole system is mobilized for action – pupils dilate to increase sight, heart rate and blood flow increase, powering our muscles and limbs, blood sugar escalates, amplifying our energy. As well, awareness intensifies and the emotions of fear or rage override rational thinking, magnifying our perceptions to detect danger.

When the brain perceives a threat or danger, signals are sent to the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The bodily changes described are associated with the ‘sympathetic division’ (fight or flight) of the ANS. Glucocorticoid hormones such as cortisol in addition to adrenaline and norepinephrine are released via the adrenal glands, triggered by acetycholine released from sympathetic nerves. These catecholamine hormones facilitate the immediate physical reactions. After physical exertion the body then begins to restore itself back to normal through the ‘parasympathetic division’ (rest and digest) which acts as a kind of stabilizer. Running from saber tooth tigers allowed our ancestors to engage in the physical activity needed to effectively metabolize the excess stress hormones released from activation of the fight or flight response. Once the crisis resolved, the body system could return to a state of normalcy.

Causes

In modern times however, that same primal mechanism is subject to different conditions. More often than not our anxiety producing triggers are more of a mental nature than a physical threat - overwhelming responsibilities in home and family life, constant pressures at work, financial worries, rush hour traffic and even misplaced cell phones can put us on edge. For today’s anxiety, there are few physical release responses to metabolize our accumulated stress chemicals. Studies indicate excess and cumulative buildup of stress hormones in the body can contribute to states of aggressiveness or irritability as well as hyper-arousal and over-reactivity causing fearfulness and over worry. In addition, our modern lifestyle tends to excite continual sympathetic - stress response with little opportunity for parasympathetic - rest response.

Maintaining health requires proper balance of both aspects of the nervous system – without this homeostasis disorders and disease can occur. When the parasympathetic system is active, the bowel and other non-muscle organs receive good blood flow and the glands all function well. Absence of parasympathetic activation can lead to poor digestion, poor organ function and poor immune function. Continued suppression of the parasympathetic system by sympathetic system arousal can lead to disorders such as headache, irritable bowel syndrome and high blood pressure. As well, extended or repeated activation of the stress response can cause the leveling off mechanism to diminish causing stress hormones, heart rate and blood pressure to remain elevated - all taking a heavy toll on the body.

Psychological factors such as our thoughts, beliefs and perceptions about ourselves and our environment can also have a key role in anxiety tendencies. Thought patterns of self -doubt and undue fear or pessimism of life can affect our perception of tasks or events and our ability to handle them thereby causing anxiety.

Treatment

In treating anxiety disorders all factors should be considered to enable the most effective treatment plan. It is important to rule out underlying physical causes, such as endocrine disorders of overactive or under-active thyroid, or hormonal issues affecting the release of insulin and adrenaline. Once a medical cause is ruled out there are various treatment options to consider. Counseling or stress management techniques can be beneficial. Cognitive behavior therapies focus on identifying and shifting detrimental thought patterns to learn more effective coping skills. Stress management techniques include Massage Therapy and mind-body methods such as Yoga and Qigong that include breathing, meditation and relaxation exercises. All of these methods can increase the parasympathetic - rest response.

When anxiety symptoms are severe and cannot be controlled through behavioral techniques alone there are several types of medications that are effective and can be used in conjunction with other forms of therapy. Holistic medical therapies are also becoming widely used in the mental health profession. Acupuncture is a time proven medical therapy that has shown to be an effective option for treating anxiety disorder. From the Acupuncture or Oriental Medicine (OM) perspective, the mind and body are integrally connected. Hence emotional disorders such as anxiety are treated as patterns of imbalanced energy flow in the same way physical disorders are treated. This approach addresses the underlying cause of anxiety as well as the symptoms.

At the root of anxiety disorder is the hyper-sensitivity of the nervous system to daily stimulus. Several studies suggest that acupuncture works to activate the parasympathetic response – providing deep relaxation. As the mind relaxes, the body can return to a more balance state improving the function of all organ systems. Findings indicate that acupuncture can activate the release of endorphins - neurochemicals linked to serotonin and dopamine that act to decrease impulses that cause anxiety. Research shows that acupuncture affects endocrine function, immune function and increases circulation of blood and oxygen. Hence the body is able to cycle out accumulated stress toxins helping the body to achieve a more normal balance.

Although at times it may seem we live in the ‘Age of Anxiety’, fortunately we have health care solutions to overcome this disorder to lead fulfilling and enjoyable lives.

Lee McCarthy, Lic. Ac. is a licensed and board certified acupuncture practitioner who also holds a Bachelor degree in Psychology. She has training in Qigong, energy exercise and meditation and offers compassionate care for a full range of disorders, with special interest in women’s health and psycho-emotional disorders such as stress and anxiety. Lee practices at Zanjabee Integrative Medicine and Primary Care.