Anxiety is an extremely common problem, with one in seven Australians currently experiencing an anxiety condition. According to Beyond Blue, one quarter of Australians will experience an anxiety condition in their lifetime, while 26.3% of Australians aged 16 to 85 have experienced an anxiety disorder to date. This is equivalent to 4.96 million people having experienced an anxiety disorder in the last 12 months, or 2.71 million people with anxiety right now.
Anxiety is so widespread that it is the most common mental health issue worldwide.
It’s important to discuss treatment options with your physician or therapist to determine which path of treatment is right for you, ensuring you do not over-use or misuse these powerful drugs in your attempt to alleviate the distressing symptoms of this condition. Likewise, you should never suddenly cease any treatment, especially drugs for the treatment of anxiety or depression and you should always manage medications under the supervision of a qualified medical practitioner. I will discuss the pharmaceutical options and risks later in this blog.
Only about one-third of those who experience anxiety seek formal treatment, and anxiety is one of the most common reasons that people use holistic and alternative modalities.
In last week’s Wednesday Wellness blog, I introduced Ayurveda as a source of traditional therapies for treating seasonal allergies, but what does this ancient healing system say about anxiety?
Let’s recap the Ayurvedic explanation of anxiety…
From an Ayurvedic perspective, anxiety is an imbalance in the Vata dosha. Vata is referred to as the “air” principle. Its character is light, dry, and mobile. An imbalance of Vata, mentally or emotionally, is associated with an overabundance of lightness, flightiness or movement with erratic thoughts, worries, obsession, confusion, and difficulty focusing. Vata imbalance is also associated with a hyper-excitable para-sympathetic nervous system and trouble sleeping. If you’ve ever been described as “ungrounded,” that’s a classic description of Vata imbalance. It’s too much energy in the mind, not enough at the feet to anchor you to life, or like a tree that needs a good pruning that has too much growth in the branches leaving not enough energy in the roots. Interestingly the ancient middle eastern practice of Kabbala also sees anxiety as a lack of foundation, or grounding in life. The penultimate sephirot of the Kabbala Tree of Life is Yesod – Foundation, or the connection between all things – this sephirot along with final sephirot – Malkuth (Kingdom) – are the last steps required to incarnate into life and become grounded in the world. All progress stems from this foundation, and fear can only overrun us when we lose it. You’ll see me talk about this later on in this blog. Yesod and Malkuth correspond to the root chakra – Muladhara – in Ayurveda.
Speaking of roots, when Vata is disturbed, you feel ungrounded and disconnected from the earth. In Ayurveda, to treat anxiety/Vata imbalance, you have to stabilize your energy—calm the nervous system, relax the mind, release obsessive thoughts, connect to your body and to the earth, and ultimately surrender to the flow of the Universe. This can involve a range of therapies and practices.
7 Essential Tips to for Anxiety
Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, an Ayurvedic approach will include looking at your whole life to reduce the Vata imbalance and bring energy out of your head and back into your body that may include:
- Diet: Avoiding sugary foods, take-away, junk foods like soda and I hate to say it – chocolate – as these foods can be overstimulating. Increase grounding, warm, moist, less oily foods, like, hot cereals (porridge), dairy products, bread and pasta or their gluten-free or vegan equivalents like almond milk and oats
- Structure: Staying warm, taking a hot bath with aromatic oils, and avoiding distracting or busy music, stressful work or study zones, or entertainment like violent programs or gaming. Create a sanctuary for yourself where you can control your environment
- Mindfulness Use mindfulness techniques, meditation or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, listen to grounding music or guided meditation tracks, learn breathing techniques to help eliminate the use of stimulants like nicotine, coffee, energy drinks, illicit drugs etc.
- Sleep: Keeping a regular sleep cycle in tune with your natural circadian rhythm, going to bed before 11pm and waking before 8am. Develop a wind-down routine to eliminate stressful activities like answering work emails or browsing social media at least an hour before bed-time, keep your sleep area free of blue light
- Nature: Spending time in nature to ground your energy, get your toes into the sand or dirt, create a small garden, talk to your plants, sit on a rock in the sun, hug a tree or look at pictures of nature
- Exercise: Undertaking exercise that grounds, strengthens and warms, hot yoga, weight training or hot pilates
- Essential Oils: Supplementing with plant-based remedies like essential oils that include concentrates of grounding ingredients including cinnamon, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, rock salt, sesame seeds, anise, citrus, lavender as either aromatics or ingestibles have been shown to support the parasympathetic nervous system to relax, reducing anxiety and stress
You may or may not have come across these 7 tips. They work best when used in conjunction with each other, and many of them are common sense. Today’s blog is the second last in our series counting down the tips mentioned above and focuses on the role of structure in managing anxiety.
Natural Wellness Treatments and Lifestyle Routines for Anxiety
Tip 2 – Structure
Following on from the mindfulness theme of yesterday’s post, structure is a crucial piece of the puzzle. You’ll want to create a relatively solid and consistent structure for your day. Follow a routine. Avoid erratic lifestyle choices. In other words: eat at generally regular times, work at regular times, exercise regularly (and at regular times), sleep at regular times, and spend some time outdoors every morning and evening. Routine helps stabilize Vata, ground restless energy, and calm chaotic minds. It’s especially important that the physical structure of your home or workplace is steady, warm, predictable and as far as possible within your control.
So, why are routines important? According to psychologist, Rachel Goldman, PhD and assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine:
“If people don’t have structure and are sitting around with less to focus on, then they also probably will find themselves thinking about the stressful situation more, which can also lead to additional stress and anxiety.”
Routines create structure – A daily routine often begins with the alarm clock ringing to start our day, and the routines follow from there with showering, brushing our teeth, dressing and grabbing coffee on the way to the office.
Routines give us a sense of accomplishment – Routines typically have a beginning and an end, and we plan our day and time around being able to prioritize them and accomplish the most important tasks of the day for ourselves and our families.
Routines let us know how we are doing – Even small routines like showering, brushing our teeth, and dressing are important parts of our day. Since the pandemic, many of us have taken a more liberal approach to those daily routines, such as working from home in sweatpants that were once reserved for weekends. Although this change is subtle, it can have a big impact, making you feel sluggish or lazy.
Routines let people around us know how we are doing – Routines also are indications to people around us of how we are doing. Before the pandemic, if you didn’t show up for work people would worry, or if you didn’t come out of your house for weeks friends would look in on you or be concerned about your well-being. With no routine, there are a lot of unknowns that can cause concern or anxiety.
Here are some simple routines to help organise your day:
- Write a list of what you need to do each day before you go to bed the night before
- This will help your brain to download prospective tasks and allow you to get to sleep more easily. But remember, don’t make the list too big or unattainable. Pick 3 things from the list as your top priorities and aim to get them done first.
- Wake up the same time every day
- This is important to re-establish your circadian rhythm, the most powerful biological routine for mental health.
- Shower as if you were going out
- This refreshes you and tells your brain it is time to get things done, and makes you feel better about yourself.
- Dress for the day (even in casual and comfortable attire)
- It helps to lay out your clothes the night before, so you don’t have to procrastinate in the morning by wasting time thinking about what you’ll wear. For instance, I get dressed into my workout gear first thing every day so that exercise becomes my priority.
- Eat meals at regular times
- This is crucial to support healthy digestion, and ensure you are getting nutrition to maximise energy and productivity. For example, eating too late can make it hard to get to sleep at night.
- Keep to a daily schedule of exercise
- Work out what time is best for you to exercise – I love mornings, but you might do better early afternoon or in the evening. Remember it doesn’t have to be exactly the same time every day, research shows it’s better to be flexible. In other words exercising on a daily basis is more important than exercising at exactly the same time each day.
- Limit your use of electronic devices or TV time
- We talked about the importance of this point in both the mindfulness and sleep instalments this week, and how people who regulated their screen time had much lower anxiety and better mental health than those who allow devices and TV to take over their lives. You can set your phone and other devices to go into do-not-disturb mode at a certain time. Some health insurance companies also offer rewards via their apps for device downtime and winding down without devices before bed each night.
- Go to bed at roughly the same time each night
- This is crucial – and again related to re-establishing your circadian rhythm. Remember to start winding down at least and hour to 90 minutes before bedtime. Optimally you want to go to bed before 11pm, to have the best chance of getting enough REM, deep and light sleep through the night.
If working from home, researchers recommend creating separate “zones” in your home to differentiate work areas from leisure or communal areas, which will also create structure and routines within the home. For example, if a room is designated as the home-office then we get accustomed to focusing only on work in that area. That routine gives us the opportunity to “leave work” later in the day as we enter the kitchen for meal and family time, and the living room for relaxation.
If your environment is shared with others who might not respect your needs, create a sanctuary within the space that is yours to control, no matter how small or modest.
I also recommend taking a bath in sea salt and ginger powder while also drinking ginger tea to wind down. Ginger is very warming. Vata is considered to be a cool or cold energy, so warm temperatures are balancing for this cool, chaotic energy. Too much ginger can be a bit irritating if you’re dominantly a Pitta dosha, long term, but when stressed or anxious the Vata dosha is temporarily out of balance and needs treatment. So, even a Pitta can handle a little heat temporarily to help stabilize a Vata imbalance.
Here’s a great podcast I found on the subject of creating lasting change featuring Katy Milkman, PhD, that you might find helpful and while emphasizing structure, talks about the importance of flexible routines: https://www.verywellmind.com/the-importance-of-keeping-a-routine-during-stressful-times-4802638
The key takeaway from this podcast is to set your day up to make it easier to engage with positive habits and make it harder to engage with negative habits. For example, have your gym gear at the end of your bed at night, so you don’t have to think about getting changed for the gym, and put the junk food in your kitchen in higher cupboards that are harder to get to, while the healthier food should be easily within reach. Your routines become your default mode – so you want your default mode to support your health and set you up for success. Sometimes these default modes are called life-hacks, but whatever you call them they leverage the path-of-least-resistance to create new positive habits and consistency.
All these tips for creating structure will be especially important when it comes to the next tip – diet:
Anxiety is a complex problem and, thus, there are no simple solutions. The greatest improvements I have seen come with dedicated effort across multiple dimensions of life. |As a clinical hypnotherapist for over 30 years, I have seen people experience dramatic improvements in their anxiety levels if these suggestions are consistently and diligently practiced. Think: lifestyle change rather than one-time adjustment.
As Deepak Chopra says, “the journey of self-discovery, taken with an open heart, inevitably leads to healing.”
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Yours in wellness,
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