Tips for coping with anxiety and stress

by nutritionist Maxine Sheils BSc (Hons) 

An estimated 3 million people in the UK suffer with an anxiety disorder, but as many as 1 in 10 experience feelings of anxiety at some stage in their life, with women twice more likely to suffer than men. Worryingly, these figures are on the rise, which begs the question: is enough being done to raise awareness and offer support and advice to those in need? Whether you are one of the 3 million suffering with an anxiety disorder, the 1 in 10 experiencing feelings of anxiety, or have a friend, family member or colleague who struggles with the symptoms of anxiety, this article will not only help you better understand the condition, but also offer ten top health tips to calm those anxious feelings.  

Anxiety is associated with feelings of worry, tension, fear and concerns for the future; whilst symptoms can be common and not unusual, especially when faced with a stressful event, it can become more serious when it starts to affect quality of life for the sufferer, e.g. avoiding particular situations, experiencing panic attacks, feelings of anxiety becoming overwhelming. When it gets to this level, it is considered anxiety disorder, a psychological condition whereby it affects thought processes. Anxiety disorders include phobias, panic disorders (leading to panic attacks), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).  

Deep breathing can provide a state of relaxation, important when coping with stress and anxiety

Whilst symptoms of anxiety mainly relate to the way someone feels, the associated symptoms can be more physical and include insomnia, palpitations, shortness of breath, tension, nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhoea, sweating and headaches.

Anxiety is also often linked with depression but it is important to understand that the two are separate conditions. Both anxiety and depression affect mood and the way a person feels; quite distinct from anxiety, depression is associated with feelings of low mood, guilt, helplessness and low self-esteem, although many people suffering with anxiety may also suffer with depression.

So what is going on in the body and mind when anxiety occurs?

Understanding anxiety is not as straightforward as many other conditions, as there can be numerous underlying factors, and they are not always obvious. Let’s have a look at a few:

Anxiety and stress activation

As anxiety often occurs at times of stress, it is interesting to see how stress historically relates to stress today, as the body has an inbuilt method of dealing with stress to support survival. For example, a stressor in the form of a predator giving chase leads the body to quickly release a hormone called adrenaline, leading in turn to one of two actions, known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. Stressors today are mostly in the form of daily pressures: traffic jams, bills to pay, jobs, exams, families, alarms, scary movies, video games, alcohol and recreational drug use and so on. Whilst this in-built response serves us in the short term, this constant activation of the fight or flight response can lead to feelings of panic and anxiety.

Not only are mental and emotional factors triggering this stress response, but many health complaints also play a role, including blood sugar dysregulation, allergies and intolerances, heavy metal toxicity and exposure to toxins and plastics  

Anxiety and neurotransmitter dysregulation

In response to stress, the body may also dysregulate the production of neurotransmitters – chemicals messengers that send messages in and around the body. The neurotransmitter glutamate, for example, is known to support memory; however, too much glutamate is linked with anxiety. GABA is our calming neurotransmitter; however, low levels are linked with anxiety. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter linked with pleasure, is linked with anxiety when levels are either too low or too high, whilst serotonin is the neurotransmitter best known for feelings of happiness and wellbeing, with low levels linked with anxiety.

Anxiety and gut health

Some symptoms of anxiety affect gut health (nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhoea), so it may not be too surprising to see that a massive 84% of those suffering with a digestive disorder also experience anxiety. Whether this is a ‘chicken or egg’ scenario is yet to be clarified. When we consider the anxiety and stress link detailed above, activation of the stress response reduces the body’s ability to digest food. Therefore, if you are suffering with anxiety as a result of stress, with the stress response activated you may not be breaking down and absorbing nutrients from food you are eating. Many nutrients, such as magnesium and vitamin B6, have been shown to support symptoms of anxiety; however, if you are not absorbing them in the diet, this could exacerbate the problem. The neurotransmitter serotonin is well known for producing feelings of happiness and well-being, as mentioned above, but 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut. Again, if bowel function is compromised, is serotonin production being optimised?

Anxiety and hormones

Hormonal imbalances are also associated with anxiety. Again, when we consider the stress response activation in relation to anxiety, the body produces a hormone called cortisol which is made from pregnenolone. Pregnenolone is considered a parent hormone as it is also required for the production of sex hormones such as progesterone, oestrogen and testosterone. When the stress response is activated, the body favours survival over reproduction, so pregnenolone supports the production of the stress hormone cortisol over sex hormones, which may lead to a hormonal imbalance. Hormonal imbalances, such as having a higher than optimal ratio of oestrogen to progesterone, have been linked to anxiety.

Anxiety as a result of medication

Some medications are linked to symptoms of anxiety so if you are unsure whether your medication is best serving you, seek support from your GP.

Your 10 top health tips for a calmer day

Do not despair! The good news is you are not alone and here are easy hacks to reduce your anxiety levels and make way for a happier and calmer day.

1. Get your endorphins flowing

Exercise provides support when coping with anxiety

Endorphins are chemicals released by the brain that help to regulate mood, make us feel rewarded, reduce the feeling of pain and also support digestion, with boosted endorphins linked with a reduction in anxiety. Exercise is a great way to get those endorphins pumping and the good news is it doesn’t need to be rigorous, as strenuous exercise (especially during times of stress) can actually exacerbate stress and lead to an increase in cortisol production (= more stress, and so on). Do an exercise you enjoy, or perhaps try a new exercise class such as dance, aqua aerobics, yoga, Pilates, tai chi or even a walking or cycling group. It doesn’t matter what it is, just enjoy getting your body moving and feel the endorphins flow.

2. Live the stress-free life

Whilst we can’t venture out and live on a desert island, we do tend to feel a greater sense of serenity on holiday. So why do you feel calmer and with a better sense of wellbeing on holiday than in your everyday life? Write a list of the things that you enjoy and find easy ways to incorporate them. If you enjoy reading a book by the side of the pool, use your lunch break to relax outside the office and unwind with a book; If you enjoy an evening stroll, go for a walk in the park or around your local town or village in the evening; and if you simply enjoy being able to switch off from everything, aim for smaller regular breaks throughout the year rather than one big holiday. Whilst these small steps may not have the same feel as the holiday version, incorporating more things that bring joy (whether laugh-out-loud or quieter pleasure) into your everyday life will get those feel-good endorphins flowing.  

3. ‘Journal’ the stressors away

Look at your own causes of stress and anxiety by keeping a journal. It’s not always easy or obvious to notice stressors or causes of anxiety but by keeping a diary and making a note of things that have caused you to feel anxious throughout your day, you may start to notice a pattern. You may notice that you feel most anxious when you arrive late for work because you have been stuck in traffic, although it may not be quite so easy to pinpoint; for example, you may feel anxious mid-morning with no obvious cause, although you may find that during the weekend, at the same time, you don’t experience the same feeling, so what has changed? Whilst it may be work-related, it could be something less obvious such as the amount of coffee you have drunk. Perhaps you have more during the week to help you feel alert and ready for a busy work day, whereas you may only have one cup at the weekend with your breakfast.

Once you have identified triggers, consider ways you can either avoid them, or make them less disruptive to you. If being stuck in traffic makes you feel anxious, consider leaving earlier or later to avoid the traffic, looking for an alternative method of transport (are you close enough to walk? See 1. above and get those endorphins flowing), or using the opportunity to do something you enjoy, perhaps listening to music or a radio programme with no ‘vocal interference’.

You may also want to take the opportunity to speak to a family member, close friend or colleague about how you are feeling, both for support and as a way of problem solving. You may feel better about your anxieties if you understand that other people may share the same worries and concerns, or if someone, perhaps a partner, can help alleviate some of your stressors.  

4. Breathe in serenity, breathe out tension

This subconsciously controlled act not only brings life to our cells and provides oxygen to the blood, but anyone who has ever engaged in breathing exercise will appreciate the power of deep breathing to help put you into a state of relaxation – great to incorporate into a daily routine, especially at points in the day you find stressful (stuck in that traffic again, trying to get your children to complete homework, and so on). You may find it especially useful to start your day with 5-10 minutes of deep breathing, as the body’s cortisol levels are naturally at their peak at this point.  

5. Sleep your way to a calmer day

We all do it but the question is, are you doing enough of it? Sleep is necessary to allow the body to repair, with a good night’s sleep often followed by a feeling of rejuvenation. We all know how awful we feel when we have had a bad night’s sleep and, with a reduced ability to cope with everyday stress, a problem you may ordinarily consider small may lead to an overreaction when sleep deprived.

With stress hormones in circulation, and active brain cells, you may find it difficult to switch off and fall asleep easily. Creating a healthy sleep routine will help to calm both the mind and body to support a good night’s sleep. Create a calm environment by playing relaxing music and perhaps having a relaxing bath or foot soak. Lavender room sprays or scented candles may also help induce a sleepy feeling. Once you’re in bed, if you struggle to fall sleep, try to resist the urge to open your phone or laptop and instead get out of bed and read a book for 30 minutes before returning to bed, with more chance of falling asleep this time.  

6. Dim lights at night, bright mood tomorrow

Walks in nature may be useful when coping with anxiety

Whilst creating an ambient environment to induce sleep, prioritise your light exposure. The body naturally produces melatonin in the evening and reduces production in the morning with exposure to light. With TVs, fluorescent lighting, tablets, mobile phones, laptops and Kindles regularly used in the evenings, you may be suppressing your body’s natural production of your sleep hormone. Not only are the lights reducing your melatonin production, but the mental stimulation may also keep your brain firing long after the lights go out. Try to have a tech-free hour before you turn your lights out to benefit natural induction of sleep.

7. Brighten your plate to brighten your mood

Whilst many people struggle to eat when they are feeling anxious, it is important to eat nourishing foods to provide your body with the additional nutrient requirements associated with anxiety, and support the production of calming neurotransmitters. The foods packing the most nutrients are those brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and beans and lentils. If you struggle with appetite, instead of three large meals try five small ones, including a nutrient-packed smoothie, a veggie-packed soup or a bright and colourful salad. The benefit of eating small meals regularly is that it reduces the amount of time between meals, which can help to stabilise blood sugar levels and reduce cortisol production that occurs in response to low blood sugar levels.  

8. Drink a calming cuppa tea

It’s not all about what you eat – what you drink can also affect how you feel, with coffee and alcohol increasing cortisol levels. Instead of reaching for a mug of coffee first thing in the morning, consider an alternative such as dandelion coffee; it doesn’t have quite the same effect but it has a roasted flavour, can be served in the same way as coffee and is free from caffeine. Alternatively, consider a calming herbal tea such as chamomile.

Whilst alcohol can be seen (and is often used) as a stress reliever, it can create inflammation of the gut lining, with digestive health paramount for optimal brain function. Alcohol can also affect neurotransmitter production and increase cortisol production, so consider ways you may be able to reduce your intake, or consider an alternative stress reliever. Perhaps take a warming bath, listen to calming music, go to a yoga or meditation class, or meet up with friends in an alcohol-free environment such as the park.

9. Nutrients in, anxiety out

There are many nutrients that support anxiety. Vitamin B6 and magnesium are required to convert glutamate, the excitatory neurotransmitter, to GABA, the calming neurotransmitter. Vitamin B6 is also required alongside folate to support the production of dopamine and serotonin. The nervous system can become over-stimulated with magnesium, zinc and vitamin B12 deficiency leading to higher levels of cortisol. L-theanine is a compound that we often find in tea and is associated with relaxation, helping to calm the nervous system by preventing glutamate from exerting excitatory effects and reducing stress hormones.

Whilst having the nutrients to support production of beneficial neurotransmitters and hormones is important, we also need to ensure cell membranes are healthy and therefore sensitive to the message of hormones and neurotransmitters to help reduce over-production of these linked to anxiety. The omega-3 fatty acid EPA supports the correct functioning of cells, whilst the omega-3 fatty acid DHA supports cellular structure. Antioxidants also support cellular health by protecting the cells from free radical damage which can occur as a result of environmental, mental, emotional and physical stressors. 

Probiotics and vitamin A support gut health which, as discussed, is important for the optimal production of serotonin, with some strains of probiotics supporting the conversion of glutamate to GABA. 

MindCare BALANCE contains a blend of 16 powerful nutrients, including many of those listed above, aimed at supporting stress and anxiety, and promoting a sense of calm.  

10. Professional anxiety busters

It’s not always easy to know where to start when you’re looking for professional help to reduce your anxiety, but there are many qualified people who can help you on your way. If your anxiety is negatively affecting your quality of life and you haven’t yet done so, book an appointment with your GP who may be able to make a referral for talking therapy such as CBT. You may also want to consider a natural health practitioner who can support your health goals. MyOnlineCLINIC has been developed as an easy-to-access solution for those requiring support from professional nutritionists. We know it’s not always easy to embark on a journey of self-help, so allow qualified nutritionists to help you on your way. Experienced nutritionists will take the time to understand how anxiety is affecting your everyday life, help identify underlying mechanisms which may be preventing you from progressing towards your health goals, and apply scientific knowledge in developing your personal health plan to improve your health and wellbeing, all from the comfort of your own home. Simply register at MyOnlineCLINIC, book your online video consultation at a time that best suits you, complete a short online assessment, and your journey to better health and wellbeing will begin!

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These achievable steps can go a long way towards perking up your mental well-being and helping you to take positive steps forward in achieving your health goals. If you require more support, feel free to contact our approachable team of nutrition professionals who will be more than happy to support you further or point you in the right direction.

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