Healing Yourself, Healing the Planet

Rachel_CarltonEconomic Anxiety Got You Shaken?

Whether it’s your job that you are worried about keeping or a house with a large mortgage or the daily news of an ever-worsening economy—it’s a hard time for many to stay cool and, as we say in Santa Cruz, grounded.  I have been treating many people over the last few months for anxiety and there are a number of steps that you can take to calm your mind and stop your heart from pounding with worry.  
Start with the basics.  
1)    Eat healthy food and eat small meals regularly.  Too much sugar and caffeine will only worsen anxiety while missing meals lowers blood sugar and exacerbates anxiety.
2)    Sleep.  Lack of sleep increases irritability and anxious feelings and worsens depression and concentration difficulties.  If you have to do without sleep, consider a 20-minute power nap in the afternoon instead of that cappuccino.  If you can’t sleep, all of these recommendations will help, and check out next month’s column on insomnia!
3)    Breathe.  Put your hand on your belly and take a deep breath, so that your belly moves your hand out as you breathe in.  “Belly breathing” can drop my patients’ blood pressures by as much as 20 points in my office, because it stimulates their parasympathetic (calming) nervous system and slows the heart rate.  It works equally well to calm the anxious mind and can be done anywhere.  I have talked patients through panic attacks (severe anxiety episodes with chest pain, shortness of breath and fear of death) using only belly breathing!
4)    Exercise!  Yeah, I know you know you need to exercise, but if anxiety is scrambling your mind, it is even more important.  Any movement–walking to work, walking the dog, gardening, strolling the farmer’s market—will reduce anxiety and help you stay calm enough to sleep.  Integrate exercise into your day in a natural way by walking or biking where you need to go and taking the stairs. Any exercise over 12 minutes seems to help, but the most benefits are for exercise sessions of at least 40 minutes

Still a crazy, hypervigilant mess?  There is hope.
5)    After cutting out caffeine (slowly if you are a regular user or you can get withdrawal headaches!), consider adding some herbal teas to your day.  Chamomile, lemon balm, lavender, hops, and passionflower all have calming properties and are unlikely to make you drowsy. Stopping excessive or daily alcohol consumption also, interestingly, reduces anxiety overall.
6)    Consider adding omega-3 fatty acids (fatty fish or fish oils, 1-2 grams daily, flax seed freshly ground or flax oil, 2 tablespoon daily) to your diet to help feed the brain and stabilize mood.  Taking a B-complex vitamin and folic acid 400-800 micrograms daily, can be beneficial as deficiencies in B vitamins alter brain function and lead to anxiety.

7)    If the anxiety is more significant, you may want to consider a stronger dose of  the anti-anxiety herbs valerian or kava as a tincture, capsule or tea.  They are both non-addictive and useful for anxiety but can make you tired, so avoid drinking alcohol with them or driving or operating equipment.  Valerian can be taken at 25-150 mg doses during the day and at higher doses (600mg), is great for sleep.  Kava has been used to assist in the easy-going manner of the Polynesians for centuries.  Typical doses of Kava are 50-70 mg, starting once daily and increasing to three times daily if needed.  Kava should not be used on a regular basis or at all in someone with liver problems, as there are rare reports of liver damage among regular users.  
8)    Traditional Chinese Medicine offers a variety of herbs and the balancing effects of massage and acupuncture to help align the body and calm the nervous system.  Also, talk therapy can be extremely useful for exploring the underlying sources of ongoing anxiety.  If the anxiety is severe, see your medical provider to investigate possible medical causes (such as overactive thyroid) and to discuss the variety of prescription medications that are available.

Remember that the current state of affairs is uncertain, but that in uncertainty lies the possibility of great and necessary change, in us and in our world community.  I hope that this information helps soothe your troubled mind and remember to reach out for help when you need it—from family, friends, and your local health care provider.  May you find serenity in these challenging times and remember that in all crises are the seeds for new growth.

Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD, is a family practice physician and the Medical Director of the Santa Cruz Integrative Medicine & Chi Center, a multidisciplinary holistic health clinic serving Santa Cruz County:  www.santacruzintegrativemedicine.net, 831-465-9088, 21511 B East Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz, CA 95062

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