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You know the feeling: Your chest starts to tighten, and your breathing shallows. The mind starts racing with worst-case scenarios, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t calm down. While this can be a normal response to stress, for too many it’s the state they live in daily. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older … yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.”
These unrelenting and unexplainable feelings of dread are, interestingly, often the result of conditions with biochemical root causes, just like diabetes or heart disease. Viewing mood disorders through this lens can be empowering because it means it’s not necessary to suffer, that there is a solution.
All chronic mental-health issues involve some level of brain inflammation. Simply defined, inflammation is the immune system’s response to injury, which can range from food sensitivities to emotional trauma, lack of sleep to concussion. When the brain’s stress-response systems are activated, biochemical changes take place, affecting the ability of brain cells to efficiently send and receive messages, and genetics play a large role in determining which region(s) of the brain are affected.
Common environmental triggers of anxiety:
- Insomnia/lack of sleep
- Food sensitivities
- Gut microbiome dysbiosis (imbalance of bacteria)
- Emotional trauma
- Hormone imbalance
- Nutrient deficiencies (magnesium is a key player here)
- Blood sugar imbalance
- Unsatisfactory relationships
- Unsatisfactory job or other life situation
Related: Are You Always Anxious? Here’s How to Find Relief.
Since anxiety can be a normal response to life events, having tools to prevent and manage it in the moment is helpful and important, but if it feels as though you’ve tried everything but anxiety persists, one of the above culprits may be at play. This is empowering because it means anxiety has the potential to be healed, not just managed.
Therapy and deep breathing can be fantastic anti-stress strategies, but because many people start with them when seeking to resolve their anxiety, I’m going to focus on lesser-known yet powerful physiology-based approaches. When working with clients in our practice, the deepest healing occurs after uncovering underlying contributors (such as those outlined above) — research best achieved through a comprehensive health evaluation (ideally with lab testing), then systematically addressing each culprit. That said, the recommendations outlined below serve as an important foundation and can be applied to combat anxiety both in the moment and prophylactically.
1. Heart rate variability training
Also referred to as HRV, heart rate variability is one of the best non-invasive objective markers for reflecting a person’s physical and mental health. We used to believe that hearts beat like metronomes, but now understand that there are minute, millisecond differences between each beat, referred to as the “interbeat interval.” HRV reflects the “variability” between heart beats, which is the product of autonomic nervous system activity: the division of the nervous system that encompasses the sympathetic “fight or flight” stress response and the parasympathetic “rest and digest” normal resting state. Together these states control subconscious activities like breathing, digestion and the burst of adrenaline that helps us escape lions (even when that lion is your boss, or a traffic jam). HRV represents how balanced we are between sympathetic and parasympathetic activity. A higher HRV value is indicative of greater tolerance of and resiliency towards stress with lower risk of chronic disease, while a lower one can mean poor tolerance of stress and a greater disease risk.
Fortunately, we can hack our systems through HRV biofeedback training, which can increase baseline HRV and so positive moods and feelings of openness and alignment. Such training involves breathing at your “resonance frequency” breath pattern to enter a state of heart “coherence” — one characterized by the highest amplitude of heart-rate oscillations. While each person has a unique resonance frequency (determined using a biofeedback device for maximum results, and there are many apps available on smart phones for this), a generally effective rate is a 10-second breath cycle in which inhalation happens to a count of four and exhalation to a count of six. Breathing at this frequency for 20 minutes per day (or even three minutes in the heat of a stressful moment) while focusing on a regenerative emotion (such as gratitude or confidence) will optimize mood, health and resiliency towards stress and anxiety. It’s important to note that this “heart coherent” state achieved through resonance breathing and HRV training is different than simply relaxing or deep breathing; it is actively training and strengthening the heart and nervous system’s response to stress.
Related: These Strategies Help Entrepreneurs Combat Anxiety and Depression
2. Prioritizing sleep
Let’s face it: Sleep is often on the back burner for many entrepreneurs. However, if you’re not running on rest and recovery, you’re doing so on stress hormones, which is a recipe for increased feelings of anxiety and stress. And as much as we may think we’re thriving on five hours per night, logging less than seven hours of sleep has consistently been shown to decrease attention, focus and productivity, and is associated with anxiety, depression, weight gain, heart disease and neurodegenerative conditions. Look at sleep as a mental-health hack, and start prioritizing it as you would a needed medication. Setting a consistent sleep and wake time, using black out curtains or an eye mask to create total darkness, minimizing screen time, wearing blue-light-blocking glasses when the sun goes down and keeping the temperature below 70°F can all promote deep, restful, rejuvenating sleep.
3. Using food as medicine
Even though the brain represents just 2% of typical body weight, it demands 20% of our fuel supply. Have you ever felt “hangry” after skipping a meal or snack? This is what it feels like when your brain is starving, with mood one of the first things affected. And while proper nutrition is bio-individual, there are a few key principles to prevent or calm anxiety.
First, experiment with intermittent fasting. There are many ways of applying this, but I’ve found the easiest is the “8/16 method,” which involves fasting for 16 hours (most of which is done while you sleep) between dinner and breakfast, then eating a full day’s calories in the remaining eight-hour window (you may need to work up to this, starting with 12 hours and gradually building up). This promotes balanced blood sugar and more stable mood and energy levels. Break each day’s fast with protein and healthy fat, which serves as a time-released source of fuel and supplies your brain’s raw materials (the brain is 60% fat). Great options are eggs with avocado, protein shakes or grain-free granola with almond milk.
Related: What Is Nutritional Psychology, and How Can It Help You Excel?
Anxiety does not need to underscore your life or suffocate creativity, relationships, self-confidence and business power, and as always, the best offense is a good defense. Mental health starts with physical health. Applying the above recommendations will provide a powerful foundation for optimizing your mood and mental health for years to come.