As well as feelings of fear and an inability to think straight, symptoms can include a pounding heart, dry mouth, excessive perspiration, insomnia, fatigue, headaches and muscle tension. Dealing with the normal challenges of daily life can be a trigger – walking into a room of people, getting stuck in traffic, travelling to an unfamiliar place, having to talk at a meeting, for example. But anxiety can also occur with no obvious cause, leaving sufferers feeling frustrated that they cannot control these reactions. However, as we’ll see, willpower alone is not the answer. Researchers working in the field of neuroscience have found that emotions operate at a much higher speed than thoughts and can frequently bypass the mind’s linear reasoning process entirely.1 The part of the brain involved in emotional processing – the amygdala – also evolved before the cognitive, ie thinking, part of the brain, and is highly attuned to potential danger, so is hyper sensitive to possible threats.
What this means in practice is that a past event, which at the time seemed threatening, can then set a pattern for future reactions. And because this trigger is often held in the subconscious, it can be hard to identify. So, for example, witnessing an angry exchange between your parents as a young child may then make you terrified of anger and confrontation. Also, if you experience a particularly challenging period that causes you to feel extreme stress or anxiety, your amygdala can become hyper-reactive, so will be looking for other potential triggers. This means you can find yourself in panic mode before your rational brain can evaluate a situation to see if such a response really is necessary. This state is referred to as ‘emotional hijacking’. One of the best approaches for dealing with this is HeartMath.
But there’s a lot you can do with your nutrition and lifestyle. While you are working towards adopting a consistently calmer way of being, steer clear of activities that significantly raise your heart rate, as these may confuse the brain into thinking you’re in an emergency situation. Opt instead for activities that help to relax and raise your natural energy levels like yoga, meditation or t’ai chi. Likewise, avoid stimulants that get your heart racing – coffee, tea, cigarettes, colas, energy drinks, chocolate and caffeine pills.
In pursuit of GABA: the antidote to anxiety
Most people, when faced with an intense or constant feeling of anxiety, will either ‘self-medicate’ with alcohol or cannabis, or see their doctor, possibly to be given a prescription for a tranquilliser, now called mood stabilisers. In one week in Britain, we pop something like 10 million tranquillisers, puff 10 million cannabis joints and drink 120 million alcoholic drinks.
The choice of these three drugs – alcohol, cannabis and tranquillisers – is no coincidence. They all promote the neurotransmitter GABA, which is the brain’s peacemaker, helping to turn off excess adrenalin and calm you down. That’s why that beer or glass of wine makes you feel sociable, relaxed, happy and less serious, at least for an hour as GABA levels rise. But after an hour or so GABA starts to fall and you feel irritable and disconnected, so you have another one, and another one. The trouble is that after a session of drinking, GABA levels become very suppressed, leaving you grumpy and irritable. So most of us avoid this by drinking in the evening and going to sleep under the influence. What we don’t realise is that alcohol also disturbs the normal cycle of dreaming, and it’s dreaming that regenerates the mind. So, when you wake up in the morning, you’re mentally tired, grumpy and irritable because of the low GABA, dehydrated, and feeling sluggish as your body detoxifies the alcohol from the night before. The net effect is that alcohol, in the long run, makes you more anxious, not less. The same is true for cannabis, which, if habitually smoked, also reduces drive and motivation.
1.5 million people in Britain are addicted to tranquillisers
The most common anti-anxiety drug is the benzodiazepine family of tranquillisers, such as Valium (diazepam), Librium and Ativan. These are highly effective at reducing anxiety in the short term, but highly addictive in as little as four weeks. For this reason doctors are strongly advised not to prescribe these for more than four weeks. Despite this, a poll carried out by Panorama found that 3 per cent of people questioned, equivalent to one and a half million people nationally, have been on tranquillisers for more than four months. Of these, 28 per cent had been on them for more than 10 years. A report by the National Addiction Centre, Kings College London, for prescriptions up to 2009, also found that a third of prescriptions were for more than eight weeks.2
These highly addictive drugs are now less likely to be prescribed, and have been replaced by newer, more profitable non-benzodiazepines such as benzodiazepines such as zolpidem, espopiclone and zaleplon on the apparent basis that they are safer.
However, even leaving the addictive nature of these drugs aside, a recent study in the British Medical Journal reports that patients prescribed zolpidem, temazepam and other hypnotics for reducing anxiety and aiding sleep suffered four times the mortality compared to matched patients not prescribed hypnotics.3 “Even patients prescribed fewer than 18 hypnotic doses per year experienced increased mortality, with greater mortality associated with greater dosage prescribed,” reports the author Dr Scripps, an expert in insomnia from California. There was also a 35 per cent overall increase in incidence of cancer among those prescribed high doses.
The sad truth is that tranquillisers, much like alcohol, increase anxiety and depression in the long run, as well as ......
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