When we get scared, happy, angry, sad, anxious, depressed or frustrated, we seldom stop to think about what is happening to our bodies physiologically. We feel these emotions, usually without asking ourselves what’s going on; we generally don’t think about the biological or evolutionary reasons we feel certain ways. If you’re happy, you’re probably not thinking “Wow, I’m so thankful for these dopamine neurotransmitters that are contributing to my happiness.” Sad thing is, I think about this shit ALL THE TIME.
YOUR BRAIN IS SO COOL. It’s literally in charge of EVERYTHING, and understanding some of its basic functions can help you understand why you feel the way you do. Today, I want to specifically target anxiety and the overwhelming effect it has on your life and your body. Understanding the brain’s mechanisms when dealing with anxiety can help you try and combat some of its symptoms. So let’s get nerdy, shall we?
Your brain communicates by the transfer of neurotransmitters from neuron to neuron. To help you understand this concept, let’s relate this to the 21st century. Let’s think of these little neurotransmitters as the cell signal and the neurons as cell phones. If you find out some juicy gossip about your ex and want to text your best friend, you’ll need your cell phone (neuron). Once you write your novel of a text, you’ll need cell service (neurotransmitter) to send the message and for your Bff Jill to receive your message (receiving neuron). Make sense? Good.
But not all signals are the same. Sometimes a message gets sent as an iMessage and sometimes it’s sent as a text message (I know, the worst). The type of signal found-- or not found-- has an effect on how someone will-- or will not--receive the message. Depending on the kind of message your neuron’s wants to get across, they can send SO MANY different signals. Your main neurotransmitters are as follows:
Because I want to focus on anxiety, we are going to look at serotonin. As the chart implies, you can think of serotonin as your bodies mood stabilizer. Like the chart says, it contributes to well being, happiness, helps your sleep cycle, regulates your digestive system, and is affected by exercise and light exposure. Low levels of Serotonin are linked to anxiety and depression. WebMD says that, “There are many researchers who believe that an imbalance in serotonin levels may influence mood in a way that leads to depression. Possible problems include low brain cell production of serotonin, a lack of receptor sites able to receive the serotonin that is made, inability of serotonin to reach the receptor sites, or a shortage in tryptophan, the chemical from which serotonin is made. If any of these biochemical glitches occur, researchers believe it can lead to depression, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, panic, and even excess anger.”
If this isn’t making much sense to you, this is the part you should be paying attention to! While you can’t do anything to DIRECTLY increase serotonergic neurotransmitters, there are some foods and nutrients that can increase levels of tryptophan, which is an amino acid from which serotonin is made. I’ll skip the technicalities, but essentially, eating a carbohydrate-rich meal allows high levels of tryptophan to remain in your bloodstream, which means it can freely enter the brain and cause serotonin levels to rise. Additionally, ensuring you are getting an adequate amount of vitamin B6 can affect the rate at which tryptophan is converted into serotonin.
What am I getting at here exactly? You are not your anxiety. Your anxiety does not have the ability to overpower every aspect of your life. Medication is sometimes needed, but it’s not always necessary. Education is key. Diet is key. EXERCISE IS KEY. Exercising regularly and eating a well balanced and healthy diet contributes IMMENSELY to your overall well-being. If you’re suffering from anxiety or any other mental illness, research some foods or meditation practices that help calm your body down. Remember: you are not anxiety. You are simply a person going through anxiety, and you have the power to relieve yourself of SOME of its debilitating symptoms. Find your happy place. Find your peace. Take deep breaths. Read. Sing. Dance. Play. Think back to the times where you were a careless little human that found pleasure in rolling a toy car back and forth for minutes at a time, or telling secrets to your imaginary friend. Surround yourself with positivity. Try to eliminate as many stressors and negativity as much as you possibly can. We all deal with anxiety at some point in our lives, the only thing that varies is the degree and duration. My only tip to you: allow your anxiety to teach you a lesson. Listen to it and try to understand it, before you try and combat it. Take every hardship as an opportunity to grow stronger and wiser. Life would be oh so boring if we stopped learning. So, be strong. Be brave. Be unstoppable.