How to Remain Calm in Life
By Dr. Saunders, M.D.
Sheri can hardly function in life because of a gripping fear of everything. She lives in an apartment above the businesses in the center of town, but hasn’t left her apartment in over five years. Everything is brought to her. She shops online and on the Home Shopping Network.
A trip to her house is a trip indeed! Boxes she has purchased remain unopened, stacked four feet high around the whole apartment. There is a trail only six inches wide leading from the front door to the bed and from the bed to the bathroom and kitchen. She tried to leave her apartment a year ago. But only made it to the front steps before she got a panic attack and had to run back inside.
Panic is a type of severe anxiety from a sudden release of adrenal (stress) hormones. Short or long-term stress produces large amounts of these hormones, causing severe anxiety. When this surge of stress hormones hit the body, people feel like they are going to die.
In a typical hospital emergency department, patients with severe anxiety often display symptoms of: chest pain, palpitations, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and a fear of imminent death. They get blood tests, EKGs, X-rays, and even cardiac catheters to determine if they are having a heart attack. The symptoms of anxiety often mimic a heart attack. But more than 80% of the time there is no sign of heart trouble. Many people are told, “It’s just a panic attack.”
Living with Anxiety
While panic attacks are the extreme, and happen to some people, anxiety is very common. In fact everyone feels anxiety at some point, like fear or trepidation.
- Needles often provoke anxiety, such as before a vaccination or blood draw.
- Others feel anxiety before a test, interview, or court case.
- Most get anxious at the thought of public speaking. They get a dry mouth, sweaty palms, cold hands and feet, and palpitations of the heart.
- Even professional speakers, businessmen, or giving speeches or presentations experience anxiety.
The worst effect of an anxiety attack is on the brain. It causes disorganized thinking and poor memory, making it harder to present material. One speaker noted after many years of public speaking that the “butterflies” in his stomach didn’t go away; they just flew in formation.
Anxiety with a threat of loss is normal. Situations that cause anxiety are common to all people.
The purpose of anxiety is to warn us of danger. A message of fear sends a signal to the adrenal glands that there is an emergency. We then release hormones from the adrenal glands such as adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol (cortisone) to help us get out of danger.
These stress hormones:
- Increase our blood sugar and heart rate for quick energy.
- Suppress our immune system and other “unnecessary” functions to protect our body.
- Create a multitude of effects on the brain, including a sense of fear, danger, imminent death or foreboding, as well as loss of memory.
Their overall effect is an increase in circulation and energy to certain body systems and a downshift of less important ones into maintenance mode. In this way, the fight or flight response prepares the body for extreme action.
When there is danger our body doesn’t need to function at capacity. We just need to get out of danger!
However, even when there is no danger present, the adrenal glands release the stress hormones causing all the same symptoms. This emergency response causes physical symptoms that many people misinterpret as a heart attack or other serious physical conditions. Misinterpreting these symptoms can cause anxiety and the fear response to continue.
Sheri would feel panic just from walking outside her door. She had no control over the release of hormones or how she felt; it just happened. She tried taking medications of all kinds, and received counseling, but nothing seemed to help at all. She was stuck.
The ways we categorize anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is constant worry or fear.
- Panic Disorder refers to those who get sudden panic attacks, feel out of control, or sense impending doom.
- Social Phobia feels like continually being embarrassed in public.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is when fearful thoughts take control of one’s actions. People then “have to” do things to relieve the anxiety.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) refers to those who have had major trauma that brings on chronic anxiety.
Anxiety becomes a problem when:
- You feel anxious most/all of the time for more than 6 months
- Your level of anxiety is excessive and intense
- Your anxiety is uncontrollable and disrupts your job, relationships, sleep and social life
- Your behavior changes due to your level of anxiety – this could be anything from drinking lots of tea, finding it hard to breathe, not being able to leave the house, or performing repetitive rituals, such as counting to 10 before you do something
Generally, anxiety is not considered abnormal unless it affects the normal functioning of the person, such as their ability to work, play, interact with others, or sleep, and has been present more than six months. And, of course, there are levels of anxiety – mild to severe.
Symptoms of anxiety may include one or more of the following:
- Shortness of breath, or unable to fill the lungs completely
- Jumpiness and feeling on edge
- Abdominal pain
- Swallowing problems, like a lump in the throat
- Stomach problems and difficulty digesting food
- Headaches of all types
- Sleep problems of all types
- Palpitations of the heart
- Chest pain or pressure
- Short-term memory problems
- Cold hands and feet
- Cold sweats
- Frequent urination
- Bad moods
- Eating, drinking or smoking more than usual
Mainstream Medical Treatment for Anxiety
Since the beginning of time people have used alcohol to relieve anxiety. Doctors call it “the drug of choice” for all types of anxiety and panic because people who have anxiety drink it. And those who have more anxiety, drink more.
- For some, it works so well they become “addicted” to alcohol. If they stop drinking, then they feel lots of anxiety.
- Others only use alcohol for occasional anxiety, or in the evening to relax after a stressful day at work.
- Some try to use it to sleep, but it disturbs sleep.
While it’s effective for anxiety, the side effects of alcohol can be devastating, as most of us know.
Standard medical treatment to relieve anxiety includes medications that stimulate the receptors in the brain that induce calm.
Most anxiety drugs, such as the benzodiazepines, work on the GABA receptors. Stimulating these receptors in the brain suppresses anxiety. Because GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, it slows down the brain function in certain areas. It works immediately, but for only a few hours. However, tolerance to its effects is easily developed. These medications, like Valium and similar drugs, work in much the same way as alcohol to numb anxiety.
Valium was a godsend for many. In the 1960s they called it “mother’s little helper.” Valium allowed moms to be calm and relaxed with the children – without alcohol! Doctors originally believed it was not addictive, and only caused some drowsiness. However, this is not the case. Over time, people become tolerant to the level of stimulation provided by the drug and needed more.
When benzodiazepine treatment is stopped abruptly, patients may develop withdrawal symptoms. Some benzodiazepines, like Valium, can even cause seizures from withdrawal.
Now, the benzodiazepines have become standard fare for all types of anxiety. I had a patient who found that a benzodiazepine worked so well she carried one pill around for over a year, “just in case” she got a panic attack. It helped her to relax, knowing that relief was available if she absolutely had to use it. She never did, and now doesn’t need it at all.
Other medical treatments that might help include antidepressants for anxiety. Most of these work on the serotonin receptors, which have a relaxing effect. This makes sense on a chemical level. Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter that has an effect on multiple brain functions, including anxiety.
Others work on dopamine or norepinephrine receptors as well, such as the “major tranquilizers” or antipsychotic drugs. The use of these for anxiety is becoming much more common. Some people with anxiety prefer opiates like morphine, codeine, and the like.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to anxiety. People have different reasons for being anxious and display different anxiety symptoms, and therefore need different types of medications to relieve anxiety.
The primary problem with most of the medications used for anxiety is the same as with alcohol – they suppress all feeling and create numbness. Using drugs to resolve feelings is always a gamble. This is especially true when people have anxiety because they report they “don’t feel anything.” Some, of course, prefer to live this way. But many would like to try another way.
Determine the Cause of Anxiety
Medications may relieve anxiety symptoms for a short time. But they don’t take care of the problem, or address the cause of anxiety. The key to successfully treating anxiety is to find the cause(s) and remove them. There are many causes of anxiety:
- Excessive stress, or change
- Adrenal tumors
- Pituitary tumors
- Hypothalamic tumors
- Hormone imbalances (such as low progesterone)
- Ectopic adrenal production
- Medication side-effects
- Dietary indiscretion
- Toxins such as heavy metals and pesticides
- Nutrient deficiencies like B-vitamins, minerals, or amino acids
- Thought disorders
- Loss of foundation, or shock such as a sudden illness, loss of a loved-one, or accident
Once you find the cause of the problem, you can begin to change it at the roots, not just for temporary relief of anxiety symptoms. In looking at the list, it becomes apparent that this is no simple task. Some may require the help of a professional.
To end anxiety, follow the general recommendations and try each of the specific supplement and herb recommendations one at a time.
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