Anxiety and depression affect tens of millions of Americans each year. Treating anxiety and depression naturally can help avoid the dangerous side effects of prescription medications like SSRIs and Benzodiazepines. Research supporting this route is still growing and understanding the triumphs, and failures, of natural medicine, can help chart a course to better mental health for anyone.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. Anxiety manifests in many forms and those suffering from various types of anxiety-related mental illness are six times as likely to be hospitalized for full-blown psychiatric disorders.
There is a growing body of research supporting the notion that inflammation, in its many forms, is deeply related to the progression of anxiety and depression disorders. In this article, we’ll dig into some interesting, and somewhat unexpected, connections between health, nutrition, anxiety, and—most importantly—inflammation.
First, let’s consider the different types of anxiety disorders recognized by the AMA, their symptoms, and how one might begin to consider them as a possible diagnosis.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
To make matters even more difficult, having a diagnosis of depression is much more likely among those suffering from anxiety. Nearly 50% of those suffering from depression also have been diagnosed with some form of anxiety. But what qualifies as anxiety? Turns out; there are many distinct forms.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is characterized by frequently worrying about everyday things. Stress is a part of healthy everyday life, but not when it comes frequently in response to non-threatening stimuli. Some symptoms of GAD include feeling restless and having trouble relaxing, trembling or twitching, having a hard time concentrating, and being easily startled.
Panic disorder is described as the “unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, and abdominal distress.” Panic attacks—fight or flight—are episodes that can shake one’s sanity to the foundation. It’s estimated that as many as 5% of Americans will experience such an episode at some time in their lives.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is often made light of—used in common conversation—to describe somewhat humorous personality quirks. Clinical OCD is no laughing matter and is associated with often-debilitating fear, aggression, and excessive repetition that can prevent one from living a normal life. Everyone has habits—those suffering from OCD have hurdles that impact their daily lives.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD develops in response to one experiencing a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. This can be war experiences, car-crashes, or even the death of a loved one. PTSD manifests in many distinct—and often unpredictable—ways. To make matters worse, the onset of PTSD can be subtle, acute, and even take years to present following a traumatic event. PTSD is easily misdiagnosed as another anxiety disorder.
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
Social Anxiety Disorder is a somewhat self-explanatory condition characterized by symptoms of fear regarding the social perception of one’s peers. This can include the fear of humiliation, judgment, or behavior around others. A degree of such behavior and emotion is normal but those suffering from SAD must often change their lifestyles to help prevent serious stress responses to common social situations. It’s estimated that SAD affects as much as 12% of Americans at some point in their life.
The Origins of Anxiety
The exact causes of anxiety aren’t known. In fact, researchers aren’t able to say with much certainty that anxiety stems from emotional experience, mental experience, physical experience, all of the above, or just some of the above. Anxiety disorders have been described as early as 500 BC in written texts and are clearly something we humans need to be wary of.
The difficulty in describing the origins of anxiety is likely because it is such a personalized condition. Certain common experiences, environmental factors, and genetic states have shown correlation but final diagnosis often requires considerable personalization. Modern research has found nutritional, emotional, genetic, environmental, physical, and mental connections to help describe, and treat, the onset and progression of many anxiety-related disorders.
Having all that knowledge sounds well-and-good, but the reality is that it often just makes diagnosis a bit more complicated. Inflammation is only one facet of how anxiety disorders evolve, but it has profound connections to many other aspects of our health. Using a consideration for inflammation in the understanding and diagnosis of anxiety can help provide a more holistic perspective on how to address it.
It’s essential that anyone striving to understand or diagnose their anxiety does so under the guidance and recommendations of a well-studied professional.
The Inflammation Connection
Inflammation is a condition that results from the immune systems handling of potentially harmful stuff in the body. This can include damaged cells, infections, and even more exotic things like radiation. Generally speaking: inflammation happens in response to the possibility of cellular damage.
Papercuts, food poisoning, radiation therapy, and some foods can all be connected by inflammation. Inflammation can be caused by many things and is a part of everyday life, the natural healing process, and optimal health.
Trouble arises when the body experiences chronic inflammation that causes continued damage throughout the body. Left unchecked, inflammation is thought to be at the root of nearly every major disease including cancer, heart attacks, and strokes. Much like anxiety disorders, there are many origins of inflammation and its progression is quite difficult to predict in some cases. Maybe that’s what makes the two such an interesting connection?
A survey of modern research shows a profound connection between inflammation and anxiety disorders. Compounds known as “Cytokines” are released by certain cells of the human immune system to help safeguard us. Among these cytokines are compounds such as interleukin, interferon, and various growth factors meant to help protect our bodies and repair damage resulting from defending ourselves from a world that might do us harm.
The release of these compounds has been shown to have a profound impact on the way neurotransmitters are made, distributed, and utilized throughout our bodies. In other words, inflammation has a pretty direct influence on how we feel. Such inflammation can arise from a response to illnesses like a bacterial infection, autoimmune disorders, or even food sensitivities. What’s less obvious is the connection between mental and emotional stressor, such as public speaking, and their ability to cause inflammation—especially in the brain.
Dealing with inflammation can be as simple as helping the body heal from a wound or as complex as understanding the pathology of an autoimmune condition. Again, working with an experienced professional is the best hope for effectively understanding the dynamics of how inflammation may be affecting your anxiety (or health in general). With that in mind; below are some of the most common sources of inflammation that aren’t always obvious:
Seeking Profesional Help
You may feel overwhelmed with all the possible causes of anxiety. That’s OK—anxiety is an overwhelming topic. What’s more, trying to get a grip on all the possible causes and treatment options for your anxiety can cause more anxiety. Step one is to find a qualified professional to help you better understand your anxiety on a personal level.
Online resources like BetterHelp can help find a therapist near you but won’t do all the work. It’s still important to research professionals (reviews, their website, maybe even an initial meeting) to qualify them for your needs. Just because someone is licensed doesn’t mean they are going to be a good fit. Be virulent in your qualification of therapists and don’t be afraid to “fire” one that isn’t working out.
Whew. That’s a lot of information to consider without a lot of solid ground to help make sense of it all. Modern science has helped uncover many of the ways anxiety develops but still does little to explain it on a personal level. “Could be caused by damn-near anything, at any time, by any means” is a decent working definition. The point of this article is to help portray anxiety as having many possible causes and treatments and inspire readers to look deeper into their lives to better address issues of mental health.