The pandemic has brought us six solid months of stress, anxiety, and fear of the unknown. This Fall things are ramping up again, with increased COVID infection rates and back to school worries. Hundreds of studies have been published on the negative health effects of the pandemic worldwide, and what tops the list? Skyrocketing levels of stress and anxiety.
Whether you’re stressed about contracting COVID-19 or dealing with the many “pivots” brought on by recurring lockdowns and decreased socialization, such high stress levels are simply not sustainable. Now is the time to work on demystifying stress and anxiety so that you can disarm it and reclaim your inner peace this fall.
Stress and anxiety have deep roots in the body, involving your brain, gut, hormones and nervous system. Let’s see what science has to say about it:
Fight or Flight Mode, aka the HPA Axis
When a stressor hits, your body goes into emergency mode by activating the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) Axis. The adrenal glands receive the ‘danger’ message from the hypothalamus and pituitary glands in the brain, triggering them to produce adrenaline which then spurs your entire body into action to either fight or flee from the situation.
The problem? Our HPA Axis was designed to be used for only a few minutes at a time, but it also has the ability to be activated for prolonged periods time. This means that chronic stress forces your adrenals to work overtime. Becoming stuck in “fight or flight mode” due to constant stress leads to overwhelm and, inevitably, exhaustion.
Your Microbiome Affects Your Stress Levels
Your microbiome is made up of the diverse community of bacteria and microbes that reside in your gut. What many people ignore when discussing the microbiome is the fact that it is not only involved in digestion - in fact, gut bacteria are also strongly linked to your brain.
A 2019 study looking at the effects of a Mediterranean diet high in fresh fruit, vegetables, healthy fats, polyphenols (i.e. dark chocolate and berries) and fermented foods (i.e. kimchi or sauerkraut) helped participants to be more stress resilient. Researchers noted the role of the microbiota in producing serotonin (the ‘feel good hormone).
Another 2019 study showed that both probiotics and prebiotics increase our ability to handle stress by supporting gut microbes, and can actually reverse some of the negative effects of stress.
Many studies have shown that stress changes our microbiome, which further reduces our ability to handle stress. A 2017 study concluded that even short-term stress exposure (especially in early life) reduces microbiome diversity and increases anxiety.
The Blood Sugar Rollercoaster
Finding comfort in carbs? A 2020 study showed that high consumption of processed carbs can increase anxiety and irritability by taking you on a blood sugar rollercoaster. Your body considers low blood sugar an emergency, which puts you back into fight or flight mode- and releases more cortisol (the stress hormone).
Inflammation, Anxiety and Leaky Gut
The strong links between the gut-brain axis and inflammation are well established. One 2017 study showed that microbiome imbalance can promote chronic inflammation, which then makes us more responsive to stress and increases anxiety. The study notes the important role of Leaky Gut Syndrome, in which stress caused by microbial imbalance causes holes in the mucus lining of the GI tract, allowing bacteria to escape into the body. Our body’s immune response to these “invaders” is linked to systemic inflammation.
How to Balance, Manage and Reduce Anxiety
You can’t control what life throws at you, but you can control how you respond to it. Here are our top tips to help you cope with anxiety both in the moment, and build long term stress resilience.
1 - Breathing Exercises
Do you experience panic attacks? Deep breathing can help reduce panic and overwhelm in the moment, and help you cope in the long term. Try these two exercises, backed by scientific research.
Deep Breathing for Vagal Nerve Tone
The vagus nerve is the main line of communication between your gut and your brain. Certain breathing exercises can improve vagal nerve tone to get you out of flight of flight and into ‘rest and digest’ mode.
A 2018 study reported decreased stress and anxiety, and increased sense of well-being after doing breathing exercises. Effective techniques include slow breathing, longer exhales than inhales and breathing from the diaphragm. Learn how in this short video!
Alternate Nostril Breathing
This ancient practice has been used in yoga for centuries. Recent research suggests that this technique can bring the mind and body to a state of balanced calm, and reduce both stress and anxiety.
Learn this technique in this short video!
2 - Smartphone Apps
Is constant social media scrolling making you more anxious? How can you harness the power of technology to reduce feelings of overwhelm and anxiety? These 3 apps use evidence-based scientific research.
MindshiftTM uses evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques to help you manage feelings of stress, anxiety, worry and panic. When a stressor hits, try features like Coping Cards and the Chill Zone to ground yourself and cope in the moment. Features like the Thought Journal, Goal Setting and Expanding Your Comfort Zone will help shift your mindset to make positive change that lasts.
Have you tried to meditate without success? Headspace features hundreds of guided meditation sessions for beginners. Choose a topic (like anxiety or sleep) and the app will suggest the best sessions for you. From bite-sized mini meditations to more in-depth sessions, the app will help train your mind so you can gain solid benefits from your meditation practice.
Muse goes one step further by pairing a brain-sensing headband with an app to give you real-time feedback on your brain activity during meditation and sleep. Mind wandering during meditation? Stormy weather sounds will cue you to refocus. Peaceful weather sounds confirm you’re in the calm zone.
3 - Nutritional & Herbal Supplements
This amino acid found in green tea is well known for its ability to reduce stress and anxiety. By interacting with both dopamine and GABA receptors in the brain, it brings a sense of calm and well-being. If green tea isn’t for you, supplementing with L-Theanine means you get all the stress-busting benefits with none of the jittery caffeine drawbacks. A 2019 study of stressed, healthy adults showed that just one month of supplementation with :-Theanine significantly reduced anxiety and stress, and improved cognitive function.
This herb has been used for 3,000 years in Indian Ayurvedic Medicine as a whole-body tonic. Classed as an adaptogen, Ashwagandha supports your adrenal glands and HPA axis to help you stay calm and resilient in the face of stress. A 2019 study of healthy, anxious adults showed that ashwagandha supplementation significantly reduced anxiety and improved mood.
Are you ready to face whatever this Fall has in store for you, anxiety-free? Let’s meet to discuss and assess your current stress and anxiety levels. Together, we can come up with a solid treatment plan including supplements, diet and lifestyle strategies to dial back anxiety and increase your stress resilience. Isn’t it time you focused on yourself? Call us today and schedule a free ten minute consult to get started!
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Alternate Nostril Breathing technique video