This past week I saw an article by Arjun Walia that I thought over simplified, and actually got wrong, the relationship between anxiety and depression. Coincidentally, also this past week I was asked about the same ideas that the article presented. When a “theme of the week” pops up, I notice that. So here is the real scoop on anxiety and depression from a holistic perspective.
Looking at things from a brain perspective anxiety and depression are opposites. They are not “on the same team” nor do they habitually occur together. In order to have one, your body has to be out of balance. In order two have both, your body has to be really out of balance. Let me explain.
The autonomic nervous system has two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. These two parts work in opposition to each other, so when one is ramping up, the other shuts down. Why? The parasympathetic is responsible for the rest and digest function. It also will shut your body down and send it into freeze (depression) in the face of overwhelming stress. The sympathetic system is responsible for fight or flight (anxiety). So the parasympathetic system is for relaxing and the sympathetic system is for action. So these two generally do not operate together because they inhibit each other.
So, how does it happen that some people have anxiety and depression at the same time? Well, when you are faced with a threat, the body automatically kicks the autonomic nervous system into gear to deal with the threat. When that happens the body responds by:
- creating muscular tension
- slowing down digestion
- slowing down intestinal movement
- increasing sugar and fat levels
- dilating pupils
- increasing perspiration
- inhibiting tears
- increasing the heart rate, higher blood pressure
- increasing mental activity
- inhibiting erection or vaginal lubrication
- the breath gets higher and more shallow
- dilating blood vessels in the heart, legs and arms while constricting them elsewhere
All of this occurs to prepare the body to defend itself from danger. The problem is, the brain can’t discern the difference between the stress caused by a car coming at you really fast, your neighbor playing his music too loudly, and you being late for work. It just cranks up the autonomic nervous system and it’s go, go, go! So for most people living in the modern world, that means they are “on” all the time. And when there is no escape, the brain gets overloaded to the point where it can no longer respond effectively.
When things are working well, a healthy body will move into the rest and digest phase when the threat is over. In other words, the parasympathetic system will kick in so that the person can relax and heal. You can notice that this is happening because the body starts releasing: releasing tears, urine, feces, saliva, reproductive fluids, and digestion happens. Unfortunately, a high tech, high stress, city lifestyle can mean that this doesn’t happen at all for many people. If you have a chronic problem in one of these areas, you can bet that your stress level is way too high.
When either of these two systems are not functioning properly, people often turn to outside sources to feel normal. They usually tend to be either stimulants (for energy to overcome a sluggish system) or depressants (to slow down an overactive system) like over exercising, caffeine, drugs, alcohol, food, drama, and sex.
When neither of these systems is working properly, the brain defaults to freeze in order to survive. This is where both systems are running in high gear and you may experience anxiety and depression at the same time.
Arjuna Walla makes a good point that living a joyless life can create changes in the brain that make us less than vibrant, but try telling someone who has no energy (because the sympathetic system is on overdrive) to just go out and follow her dreams! It’s impossible while living in this highly disregulated body. There are lots of natural things you can do that will help, but you live in your body. If you don’t take care of that first, your body won’t have the energy to do what you need it to do.
So the first order of business is to raise the baseline level of functioning by doing more of what works and less of what doesn’t.
- eat fresh alive food
- spend time in the company of happy, warm, supportive people
- get outside in the sunshine and grass
- engage in practices that detox the kidney, liver, lungs, skin, colon, and lymphatic system
- do gentle movement daily (walking, swimming in chlorine-free water, tai chi, qigong)
- meditate daily
- practice deep breathing
- eliminate drugs and alcohol
- eliminate or at least reduce processed foods, sugar, artificial colors, artificial preservatives,
- eliminate toxic bath and body products
- eliminate pesticides
- eliminate chemical household cleaners
- sit less
- watch less tv
- turn of your cell phone when you are sleeping
- reduce computer usages
- move electronics away from your bed… or get them out of your bedroom completely
You might look at some of these suggestions and wonder what they have to do with reducing the stimulation of your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Stressors do not have to be things that you consciously react to. There are many stressors that are a part of every day modern life that go ignored like the noise level, dead air inside buildings, chemicals, radiation, and electromagnetic fields. By eliminating stressors, detoxing the body of chemicals, and providing the body with natural vitamins and minerals, the body can recover. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight, but trust your body. It knows how to heal itself. When you give it the right tools and treat it well, it will do well by you. …and THEN you can go out and indulge in your dreams. Your decisions will always been more effective when you are building from a strong baseline.
So, is that all there is to it? Will this “cure” your depression and anxiety? For some, it is enough. For others it will raise their baseline and make it easier for healing to happen. Everyone is different. Some are out of balance due to trauma. If that’s the case, the underlying trauma must be treated. Some are out of balance due to toxins and mineral imbalances and deficiencies. This won’t be fixed by diet and lifestyle alone. Other interventions are necessary. Some having thinking (“There is too much darkness in the world”) and/or programming issues (“I am not good enough”) that have to be changed. The mind and body work together, you know. Some didn’t learn the skills to deal with problems so molehills look like mountains and require a great deal of energy to handle them.
When you fix the lifestyle issues, it becomes easier to see what else is there. It gives you the energy to deal with the rest of the world. And since it’s all self-help type stuff, anyone can do it. You can even start today. So, why not start today?
The above suggestions are meant to be general in nature. If you’d like professional help that can supplement. and perhaps speed up, your own self-help efforts, please contact me.