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Root Causes of Anxiety: Exploring the Stress-Anxiety Connection

posted:

8/14/2023

@caroline__potter

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Caroline

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Have you ever been super stressed and felt totally out of control of your mental + physical response? Learn now the root causes of anxiety, while exploring the stress-anxiety connection!

You fly off the handle and don’t even know why. And then the more out of control you feel, the more you try to control the situation, which only leads to MORE anxiety. Yes, I’ve been there.

Stress, fear, anxiety and overwhelm are real emotions, and emotions we shouldn’t ignore or suppress. 

Stress weakens our body and brain’s capacity to think rationally. The brain “turns off” certain functions to stay alive. So your reaction, thought process or ability to think clearly feels off or weakened. 

Start here…

The Stress Anxiety Connection

Stress and anxiety are both emotional, physiological responses to a perceived threat—they are both part of the body’s fight or flight response.

Your body perceives anxiety as a type of stress.

Perceived threat → brain sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, sympathetic nervous system activates the adrenal glands → cortisol spikes, blood pressure rises, breathing quickens, heart rate increases, blood sugar spikes…all creating more energy to meet the demands of the threat.

There’s a reason why stress and anxiety go hand in hand—our body’s physical response to stress is often the same as our response to anxiety. Have you ever noticed a season, day or moment when your stress is heightened and you feel a rise in anxious thoughts as well? Anxiety thrives off stress.

Stress vs Anxiety drawing

Root causes of anxiety: a holistic approach

A holistic approach always starts with the question: WHY? As a holistic nutritionist, I often feel like Nancy Drew playing detective. Rather than suppressing these valid emotions, let’s discover WHAT has your body stressed out and brain swirling.

Depression, anxiety and overwhelm are symptoms—they are not the root cause.

Anxiety is all about what happens in the future. So…

Always getting a stomach ache after dinner? Before mealtime, your anxiety begins to mount.

Not sleeping well due to little ones waking you up? Sleep anxiety sets in as bedtime approaches.

Skipping breakfast for caffeine? From the day’s onset, your body battles to cope, signaling your brain about the looming stress and escalating anxiety.

Most often there is a very valid reason for anxious thoughts—my goal as a holistic nutritionist is to discover why, address the root cause then begin to rebuild physically and mentally.

Draw of a brain with half of it turning it to flowers

Prefrontal cortex and its impact on stress and anxiety

Keep reading, because this is where things get fascinating…and a little nerdy!

The prefrontal cortex (or front part of our brain) regulates our thoughts, emotions, critical thinking, social interactions, self control, decision making and in general how we respond to situations.

Your ability to think rationally through situations relies on the effective function of your prefrontal cortex. WOW that’s a huge job.

Stress greatly impacts how our prefrontal cortex functions—high levels of cortisol can wear down how our brain functions. Stress begins to shrink our brains—a high flood of cortisol, norepinephrine and dopamine signals neurons to stop firing and turns off neurological function. 

^Read that again. Yes, stress shrinks our brain.

So I’m not crazy, I’m stressed?

No you are not crazy or out of control—your brain is crying out for help! 

Ever walked into a room and had no clue why you were there? Or been jolted awake by a tiny noise in the dead of night? Maybe there were times you responded with rage or lacked compassion, and couldn’t quite pinpoint the reason?

Lately I’ve been thinking: is our lack of self control or our “out of control” response to a situation actually a brain issue? 

(But please, don’t take this as an excuse to do whatever you feel like and blame it on your brain!)

This expert from a study on the impacts of stress on self control and mental paralysis is SO good:

“When things are going well, the prefrontal cortex acts as a control center that keeps our baser emotions and impulses in check. The new research demonstrates that acute, uncontrollable stress sets off a series of chemical events that weaken the influence of the prefrontal cortex while strengthening the dominance of older parts of the brain. In essence, it transfers high-level control over thought and emotion from the prefrontal cortex to the hypothalamus and other earlier evolved structures. As the older parts take over, we may find ourselves either consumed by paralyzing anxiety or else subject to impulses that we usually manage to keep in check: indulgence in excesses of food, drink, drugs or a spending spree at a local specialty store. Quite simply, we lose it.”

WE LOSE IT. Yes I’ve been there. 

Lack of control fuels anxiety even more. We get stressed and anxious about our lack of control, so we try to control even more. If you have been caught in this cycle, you know.

Practical ways to decrease stress and anxiety

We truly can decrease stress and begin to rewire our brain. Our symptoms of overwhelm, anxiety and depression are signaling for help!

These tools won’t remove anxiety, and that’s never the goal, but they can transform how you respond to anxiety and help you navigate the ups and downs of fear and overwhelm.

This list is a great starting point—I encourage you to choose 1-2 tools to focus on this week that resonate the most with you. What on this list lights you up?

01 | Seeing, hearing or feeling water

The rhythmic sound of water and the visual movement of running water, a trickling creek or ocean waves can shift the body and brain into a calm state. If getting out in nature or being near water isn’t an option, play ocean sounds on your phone or even watch videos of waterfalls. 

Take a warm bath, shower or wash your hands + face. The simple act of running warm water over your hands could quickly slow your heart rate and stress reaction. If you are out and about or in the office and feel anxiety start to build, splash cool water or put a cool cloth on your neck.

Start your morning with a facial ice bath—it will perk you up for sure! Cold water activates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system or relaxed state and can regulate your heart rate. 

02 | Don’t cram your schedule too full

Nothing good ever comes from trying to do all the things! Sadly society glorifies being busy and living exhausted day to day. 

Think about it—when someone asks how you are doing, most often the response is: “Oh good, we are busy.” Busy is our default. It’s cool to be busy. I mean have you ever responded and said, “I am really working on boundaries right now so that I’m not stressed out and anxious all the time and you know what, I’m feeling amazing.”

But really, how cool would it be if we could respond that way more often! It would be contrary and shocking!

If we are hustling from activity to activity, we can never fully participate in the moment at hand. Being present is KEY to reducing anxiety and stress.

03 | Engage in expressive writing

This is a tool from Dr Hanscom, a spinal surgeon, who successfully encourages his patients to learn how to cope with stress as a key method to navigate chronic pain.

Expressive writing creates space and detaches your thoughts from your current physical reality whether that is pain or anxiety. He says to write down your thoughts, pen to paper, whatever comes to mind and then destroy them, that last step is key! 

How does expressive writing help with anxiety? Expressive writing allows for the release of pent-up thoughts and emotions, creating a mental detachment from the immediate physical reality of anxiety. This process provides a form of therapeutic catharsis, reducing stress and anxiety levels.

04 | Choose matcha over coffee

Caffeine is a nervous system stimulant and many of the effects of caffeine mirror the symptoms of anxiety—caffeine does not cause anxiety but it can worsen symptoms you are experiencing.

Matcha is still a source of caffeine but will not give you the jitters or cortisol spike that caffeinated coffee does. Matcha is high in the amino acid L-Theanine which helps shift the mind into a state of calm. L-theanine can also protect brain cells from the damage of stress and increase brain wave patterns that promote calming and relaxation.

Why should I choose matcha over coffee? While coffee contains caffeine that can worsen anxiety symptoms, matcha provides a source of caffeine without the jittery effects. It also contains L-Theanine, an amino acid that promotes calmness and relaxation.

05 | Say short affirmations or prayers

What we meditate on will be at the forefront of our mind. When stress or anxious thoughts come, do you have something you can quickly say or revert to so that your brain is not overcome by anxiety? You can intentionally shift your thoughts rather than spiraling out of control.

Breath as Prayer has been a powerful and practical tool for me—these short prayers have helped me recenter my thoughts!

How can affirmations or prayers help with stress and anxiety? Affirmations or prayers can shift your focus away from anxious thoughts. These short phrases can help recenter your mind, leading to decreased stress and anxiety.

FAQs

  • What is the connection between stress and anxiety? Stress and anxiety are both emotional, physiological responses to a perceived threat! They are part of the body’s fight or flight response. Stress can often trigger anxiety as the body’s physical responses are similar in both cases.
  • What are the root causes of anxiety? Several factors can contribute to anxiety including chronic stress, lack of restorative sleep… Also, a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar, caffeine intake, adrenal fatigue, unresolved trauma, autoimmune diseases, digestive issues… And brain inflammation!
  • How does the prefrontal cortex influence stress and anxiety? The prefrontal cortex regulates our thoughts and emotions! It also regulates your critical thinking, social interactions, self-control, and decision-making. Stress can greatly impact how the prefrontal cortex functions—high levels of cortisol can wear down its functioning, leading to stress and anxiety.
  • Can the way we respond to stress or anxiety be changed? Yes, by addressing the root causes of stress and anxiety, and implementing tools to transform how you respond to these feelings, it is possible to improve your response to stressful situations and decrease the severity of anxiety.
  • Can a holistic approach help manage anxiety? Yes, a holistic approach addresses the root causes of anxiety, rather than just suppressing the symptoms. It aims to understand what’s causing the stress and anxiety, and uses a comprehensive approach to manage it, considering physical, mental, and environmental factors.

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