Anxiety Disorders – a method in the madness by Despina Kamper

As Published in NOVA MAGAZINE

They suddenly startle us in our prime and most successful years and turn them around into becoming our most frightful. Anxiety disorders are conditions that happen to over 20% of Australians. It is not a fatal disorder, yet the fear of death is an imminent threat to the sufferer.

In most cases people manage to control the symptoms to some extent, but to rid the cause is often the hardest challenge – a challenge that is more frightening to tackle than the disorder itself. As a result we find a downward spiral becomes inevitable. Depression sets in to numb the gaps between our bouts of instability and insomnia prolongs the day. We battle the abnormal feelings of tension which occur from anticipating nightmares and then you awake early (too early) to battle another day.

What causes this torment and what treatment is available out there?

Modern medicine explains that anxiety disorder can manifest itself as an acute or chronic condition:

As an acute people have episodes of what is commonly known as panic attacks. A panic attack is when your body’s natural “fight or flight” response happens at the wrong time. Physically, an increased production of adrenaline occurs. The body quickly metabolizes proteins, fats and carbohydrates to produce the energy your body requires. The response to this reaction then makes your muscles tense, your heart to beat rapidly, chest pain, short and rapid breaths and even the composition of blood changes slightly, making it more prone to clotting. Other symptoms that follow are diarrhea, dizziness, trembling, numbness or tingling sensations in the extremities. “First time” panic attackers often find themselves in the emergency ward of a hospital suffering from what they believe to be a heart attack. Mentally, this is not only distressing but very frightening! You are overwhelmed with the belief that your death or some other impending disaster is about to occur. A smothering, claustrophobic sensation, a feeling of unreality and a distorted perception of time may also accompany this intense experience.

As a chronic condition it is a milder, more generalized form of this disorder. Many sufferers feel a vague sense of anxiety much of the time, but the intensity of the feeling does not reach the levels of those in an actual panic attack. They feel chronically uneasy, especially in the presence of other people, and tend to startle easily. Headaches and chronic fatigue are common among people with this form of the disorder. Some people with chronic anxiety disorder also suffer from occasional panic attacks.

Prescription: Sedatives or anti-depressants.

The prescription the medical establishment normally prescribes is sometimes a necessary measure as panic attacks may produce such overwhelming feelings. In many cases the symptoms are unbearable and people battle to live with the disorder. It may be necessary to dampen the effect to reach some type of “normality” before you can go further in resolving the fundamental issue. Unfortunately, in many cases these drugs barely scratch the surface and the symptoms go on as usual.

A disturbing factor of this disorder is that a panic attack may occur at any time and its intensity is unpredictable. This only adds to the everyday anxiety, which could itself bring on its own panic attack. These vicious roller coaster rides are worsened by the fact that after you have had one, there is no guarantee that another will not occur that day. It is frightening to be alone, yet going out in public is also not a comforting option.

Psychologists believe there is a trigger which brings on these attacks. Your trigger is unique to you and may be as simple as watching TV or there being too much noise around you or confronting certain personality types or seeing old men that remind you of your abusive father etc. However, a trigger doesn’t necessarily have to have an emotional connection. Food allergies, caffeine (like tea or coffee) or other stimulants, preservatives and additives can also be triggers. Below is a list of additive numbers that have been known to affect the nervous system but by no means are they exhaustive. They are to be avoided by those who are predisposed to hyperactivity or hyper sensitivity:

102 Tartrazine 104 Quinoline yellow
110 Sunset Yellow 120 Cochineal
122 Azorubine 123 Amaranth
124 Ponceau 4R 132 Indigotine
133 Brilliant Blue FCF 142 Foodgreen S
282 (found in breads to prevent mould)

Creating a food diary may assist you in discovering patterns that occur. Alternatively ask your GP or natural therapist for a food allergy test (there are different types around, so find one that suits you). Below is a brief self-test which can also get you on your way to evaluating your body’s response to certain foods:

Take your pulse before you eat a meal whilst you are in a relaxed state. Take your pulse again one hour after your meal (in the same way) again in a relaxed state. If your pulse is only a few beats higher, it shouldn’t create a problem. However, if your pulse is 10 beats per minute higher or more, a reaction has occurred which has caused stress to your body and could also trigger a panic attack.

Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is also common among people with anxiety disorders, and can promote panic attacks. Ask your GP to check your blood sugar levels to confirm that this is not the case with you.

If anxiety or panic attacks are caused by an emotional trigger (conscious or sub-conscious) then the process becomes a much more difficult challenge. Therapy is often recommended to understand the triggers and where they stem from – it is only through this awareness that you can begin your transition away from future anxiety.

In the meantime, it is important to have some practical tools to control anxiety and panic attacks when they occur. In doing this, it is important to understand exactly what occurs during a panic attack.

Prior to the onset of a panic attack, hyperventilation often occurs. Hyperventilation is an increase of the volume of air in the lungs. We achieve this through not only short quick breaths but frequent long deep breaths as well. Subconsciously it is a habit we don’t even realize we have. Some of us are chronically bad breathers as a result of growing up with breathing conditions such as asthma or sinus disorders. Whatever the reason, once we hit that point of hyperventilation, a whole array of symptoms begin to develop. Uncontrolled hyperventilation can cause palpitations, irregular heart beat, chest pain, Raynaud’s disease and a deadening of fingers and toes. It can destabilize the central nervous system to cause dizziness, disturbances of vision, and tingling sensations or numbness. It causes muscle tremors, exhaustion, general weakness and sleep disturbance. These symptoms are frequently accompanied by tension and anxiety, which in some people may lead to panic attacks or agoraphobia. Sound familiar?

So what happens when we hyperventilate? When we breathe our quick, short or long breaths, it causes an imbalance of the oxygen to carbon dioxide ratio in the blood. The important component here is the drop of the carbon dioxide level in the blood. Decreased carbon dioxide (CO2) stimulates nerve cells, which prime the body for action. As CO2 levels continue to fall, it stimulates the smooth muscle to contract which constricts blood vessels, particularly those to the heart and brain giving rise to palpitations. Muscle tension is increased and sensitivity and perception heightened, the pain threshold lowered and adrenaline released in the blood.

What we may think is a simple action, breathing correctly takes a lot of training. Many disorders can be attributed to incorrect breathing: snoring, high blood pressure, asthma and others. One obvious benefit is that breathing correctly is the key to controlling anxiety disorders.

Understanding the body’s autonomic nervous system is another key to controlling anxiety disorders. This system controls involuntary muscles and glandular secretions over which there is no conscious control. The autonomic nervous system has two divisions: the sympathetic nervous system and the para-sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system governs the fight or flight reaction. It has nerves which are distributed to the blood vessels, heart, lungs, intestines and other abdominal organs, sweat glands, salivary glands, and the genitals, whose functions it governs by reflex action. Therefore, it supplies involuntary muscle and glands, stimulates the circulatory and respiratory systems, but inhibits the digestive system.

The para-sympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest and digestion. It also has nerves which are distributed to blood vessels, glands and the majority of internal organs. This system maintains basal heart rate, respiration, digestive system and metabolism under normal conditions.

These two systems should work together in balance, by governing the same organs with an opposite effect (putting it simply the sympathetic activates while the para-sympathetic rests). In an emergency situation or panic trigger, the body is called on to cope with a sudden change in its external or internal environment e.g. fight/flight, athletic competition, severe change in temperature, blood loss. To respond rapidly to the external environment, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system.

When we have anxiety or a panic attacks our body naturally switches off the para-sympathetic nervous system. If we chronically suffer anxiety then we find that we aljost permanently keep the sympathetic nervous system alive. This re-ignites the whole vicious circle. This is important information because unless we teach ourselves to keep our para-sympathetic nervous system alive and in balance, we will fall into many anxiety symptoms throughout the day which may lead to panic attacks. There are certain simple exercises and methods that are used to awake the para-sympathetic nervous system, and combined with controlled breathing, this disorder begins to have a much more promising outcome.

So where does one start?

The Buteyko method has proven itself in teaching correct breathing techniques. It teaches how to breath in what should be a ‘normal’ fashion i.e. approx 8-12 breathes per minute in a relaxed state and in breathing a breath which doesn’t drop your carbon dioxide levels. Certain Buteyko therapists combine this with exercises stimulating the para-sympathetic nervous system.

Homoeopathy and Bach Flower remedies are valuable therapies to use in supporting the emotional journey and combating fears. Natural therapists are also valuable in supporting the body and particularly the nervous system through herbs/supplements.

Psycho-therapists are vital in connecting with fears and anxious feelings and are trained in the process of understanding their origin. Once a patient confronts where the fears/anxiety stem from, they can then learn of alternative ways of coping which provide a safer outcome.

For further information on this article contact: Despina Kamper