I’ve been around the natural health movement for a while, and I know that if you have too, you’ve encountered tons of info about what might be going on if you’re struggling with anxiety. It could be this, it could be that. Oh, and don’t forget that it could also be this other thing. While it’s true that everyone’s physiology is different and it’s worthwhile to work with a functional health practitioner who can customize your care, in all the complexity we can be missing the forest for the trees.
When you’ve been experiencing anxiety for a long period of time, your biology changes. Not in terrifying, irreversible ways (I mean, have you seen those horrifying infographics?), but in ways we can address and heal to make our journey through anxiety smoother. These changes that happen over time aren’t necessarily the original cause of your anxiety, but they create a track that keeps your run-away anxiety train out of control. It can be pivotal to work with your thoughts and emotions, to see how your past has worked to create your present. But anxiety becomes a two-sided coin, and unless we address both sides, we can’t find our way to a less-anxious reality no matter how hard we try to think or feel our way out.
Our bodies are incredibly adaptable. Generally, this is a very good thing. It means we’re able to survive when situations change, when we’re presented with new realities we need to deal with. When we face challenges, our body is ready to amp up for the duration and give us its all. But when we develop anxiety over things that aren’t actually threatening us, or what seems to be an excessive amount of anxiety for the small amount of threat present, our bodies are there and they’re listening. Our brain learns the threats by heart so that, next time, you’ll be ready. And the next time you see the threat, you’ll inevitably feel anxious. It’s your body very helpfully shouting “Oh shit! This is that thing! This thing is so scary and I’m totally supposed to warn you when it shows up again because DANGERR!”
Obviously, this would be good if we were in danger. Also pretty obviously, it can become a really bad thing when we aren’t. The part of our brain that becomes tuned into the threats is the limbic system, what’s sometimes called the lizard brain. Your lizard brain understand emotions: it understands fear and adrenaline, safety and calm. And when the lizard brain sounds the alarm, your body pumps out hormones to give you all the oomph you need to choose from your options: face the danger, run away, or freeze. These were evolutionarily designed to be used occasionally to face actual threats. But when we stay amped up because we’ve come to associate all kinds of things with threats, our body keeps pumping out stress hormones and this flood eventually results in hormonal imbalances, a trigger-happy nervous system, and all kinds of other biological havoc.
After months or years of crazy-high anxiety, you can’t just talk your way out of it because your lizard brain isn’t on the thinking brain’s level. So you can say all the smart-sounding shit you want, but it’s not going to get the message. To communicate with the lizard brain and convince it to chill out your nervous system and hormones, you need to speak its language. Luckily for us, there are some accessible strategies that research has found to be effective in reaching this deeper level of our biology. What they all have in common is that they impact our anxiety from the bottom-up. They’re like whispers to the lizard brain: “Helloo we’re seriously safe right now. Seriously so safe, buddy.” It takes a little while to see an impact because a) your lizard brain isn’t really sure if he should believe you, so he takes some convincing and b) your biology has been heading this way for a while and turning the train around doesn’t happen overnight. But these powerful strategies have a domino effect from your biology to your thoughts and emotions, making it possible for you to finally see the progress you want from your more conscious efforts.
- Immerse yourself in nature.
One of the easiest ways to communicate with the lizard brain is to get back to where it evolved: out in the natural world. Humans evolved for thousands of years living intimately in connection with the earth, and have only been more isolated from it in the (relatively) recent past. Our bodies have come to rely on this connection, and so when we live our lives primarily indoors, we see ill effects on our health as a result. Research shows that time outdoors improves immediate physical markers as well as physical and mental health overall. It doesn’t have to be difficult. Head to the park. Walk a trail, read a book, have a picnic. Sit and reflect. Laugh with friends. Whatever it is, do it surrounded by green. Breathe in the fresh air, feel the tingle of fall or the languid heat of the summer. Our bodies and minds are craving this relationship with nature, and meeting this innate, primitive need is an easy way to send the all-clear straight to the lizard brain.
- Get in that trancey state.
We’ve all heard about the positive benefits of meditation, but it’s easy to tune out when we’re ready for experts to tell us we need to be thinking about nothing, humming “Om” for long periods of time, or stretching our bodies into contorted pretzel-like shapes. The good news is that you don’t have get quite so zen to get the benefits these studies are talking about. It’s more about getting in that zone where you’re not worried about what’s happening tonight, tomorrow, or later this afternoon. Think about what gets you in that trancy, present state. Music, drumming, dancing? Maybe writing, or zoning out during your nature time. What about feeling your muscles relax into goo during a monthly massage? Anything that gets you out of your head and slows the incessant thrum of conscious thought is healing and restorative for your stressed-out body and mind.
I know, I know. You already know that exercise is important. But its power to bring down your physical stress and anxiety while having a down-stream effect on your emotions and moods really can’t be overstated. Aerobic exercise, where you really get your heart rate up, has been found in many studies to be an effective treatment for depression and other mental health problems. And if it helps at all, over-exercising is actually bad for you! I’m not the only one who likes thinking about that, am I? “I’m calling it a day because, you know, I wouldn’t want to exercise too much!“ A good starting point is trying to get your heart rate up 3-5 times a week for 20-30 minutes. As you find things you like that keep you motivated, it will become more of a habit and you can work up to 5-6 days a week, perhaps for longer durations. Sports or hobbies that make exercise meaningful or social can help keep you motivated to make it a habit, so it will make the powerful difference we know it can.
- Use adaptogenic herbs.
Adaptogens are herbs that are known for being general tonics, gentle and great for multiple systems of the body. But some in particular are great for helping your body adapt to stress and heal from the harmful effects of long-term stress and anxiety. One herb that is exceptional for those who need this gentle healing effect is ashwaghanda. Ashwaghanda is known for reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which gets all wonky when we experience chronic stress or anxiety. It’s a great first adaptogen to use because it doesn’t have any stimulating effects, unlike some others that are used for anxiety (like Rhodiola). Because of adaptogens’ slow, gentle way of working, they’re very safe for longer-term use, unlike some other herbs. When using ashwaghanda for stress and anxiety, I go by the guidelines of Dr. Aviva Romm, who recommends a dose of “3 to 6 grams of the dried herb in capsule form daily OR 1 to 4 mL (20-80 drops) of tincture, in water, 3 times per day” to be taken for a minimum of 3 months up to one year. Sticking to this regimen can help your body to heal from the residual effects of long-term stress to make your future recovery and progress smoother. (Check out Dr. Romm’s guide to adaptogens to learn more about this amazing class of herbs!)
- Re-think your social media.
I saved this one for last because I know it’s a painful thought. We’ve all become accustomed to carrying our phones in our pockets, constantly tuned into Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. We’re becoming compulsive checkers, constantly checking for new posts, comments, or messages. We don’t know the full extent of our social media obsession on our biology just yet because the research is brand new, but it doesn’t look like it’s doing anything to chill out our anxious minds. I’m not suggesting you ditch Facebook, but think about how often you’re checking your social media. Is there a way you could cut back, make it less a part of every moment and more something you check two or three times a day? Maybe leave your phone in your purse when you’re out with your friends or in your car when you go in somewhere. Baby steps.
Start with choosing just one or two of these strategies and incoorporating them into your week somehow. I know you know the old “21 days makes a habit” saying, so try to build your favorites into your life in the same way that Sunday night Game of Thrones is built in (set in concrete, anyone?). It can be easy to dismiss these strategies because they seem too simple, or like too much work. But these are the strategies that your primitive lizard brain can hear loud-and-clear and that work when it comes to impacting your biology so you can see real down-stream effects on your anxiety. These strategies can be the boost you need to finally see results from all the other hard work you’ve done in changing your mindset or processing your past.
It’s your turn, so get out there and infuse some chill into your day!