Anxiety, addiction, irritable bowel syndrome and depression
“I like my anxiety! It makes me plan, get off my butt put in the hard work (studies currently) that otherwise I wouldn’t”, said P as she yapped on over our 30 minute call yesterday (P is 46 and has gone back to being a student after almost 20 years!)
And you should really start listening to ‘Hidden brains’, the podcast that I have been telling you about since a year now! There are psychologist there explaining why anxiety is good!
I couldn’t stop thinking, I don’t like anxiety! Like all of us, I too am the consequence of all my experiences.
Having closely watched someone for 6 years with Generalised anxiety disorder, I saw all the bad it could do. Hers was triggered most by social interactions. Basically, an introvert, her constant anxiety could be seen in the rubbing of the fingers and movement of the toes, the body constantly in a heightened sense of motion. Always in fear, thinking of scenarios that could go wrong.
Another client/friend explained how when she enters any café/restaurant, her first impulse is to look at all the escape options, because her mind is already anticipating things that can go wrong. When she walks under a high rise, she always thinks something is going to fall on her!
The problem with Anxiety
To describe P’s personality is not difficult, she is an out and out extrovert, fun, optimistic, courageous, with immense resilience! She is also a person who exudes good mental health. So, when she talks about anxiety being positive for her, one can see why. She is geared towards action and not over-thinking, so her anxiety draws her attention towards things that need some action. In her case, studies! She is neither a procrastinator nor an avoidant and hence it is safe to say that anxiety might never become clinical for her (as in Generalised Anxiety Disorder).
But what about those with the different personalities (introverts, avoidants) or where one in stuck in a life situation, with no way out? What do they do when the anxiety messenger comes knocking? Very often then not, they will resort to coping.
Coping or coping mechanisms are normal ways that we all handle stress and anxiety. Not wanting to think about something or deal with something right away, is fairly normal. Or distracting oneself by keeping busy because we can’t acknowledge or deal with a stressor that seems overwhelming are all normal reactions.
But prolonged and excessive use of coping mechanism, for example procrastinating endlessly or making life so busy so that we never have time to deal with the anxiety messenger can make them our default settings. They then finds their way into our personality traits: anxious or avoidant and also becomes the underlying reason of anxiety/panic attacks, addictions (alcohol, food, adrenalin anything where you can use the word ‘binge’) Irritable Bowel Syndrome and depression.
Anxiety and addiction
Ever heard the term ‘addictive personality’? Yes, it is a personality trait that is prone to addiction. It can be food at a period of time but can also be social media, gadgets, alcohol, sex, adventure sports (high adrenalin activities). The object of the addiction is not so important here, the trait in the personality is.
I notice a direct correlation between addictive personalities and generalised anxiety. My sense is, it comes from numbing. Take the example of food. When food is used to quench or numb that feeling of discomfort inside our bodies (the anxiety messenger), it becomes like a drug whose dosage needs constant upping. In some this will happen gradually, in some more quickly, what was just some extra helpings, are now binges. And we explain food binges as cravings. Binges are never cravings, they are filling the gap not of hunger, but of an anxious body.
Can it be the other way round, that addiction triggers anxiety, It sure can. It is easier to see this in drug and alcohol addiction, where unavailability of the object of addiction can trigger anxiety. My understanding is that this kind of addiction is easier to do something about than where addiction has become a trait in our personality. Because in the personality type, people keep replacing one object of addiction with another, and doing so gives the false impression that the addiction has been dealt with. Without realising that it has merely shifted focus.
Anxiety and Irritable bowel syndrome
Working on the Gut is the bread and butter of a naturopath, since naturopathy believes that every disease first begins in the gut. What earlier were complaints of constipation, have now become complaints of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Irritable bowel syndrome is more complicated than plain constipation mainly because it is a syndrome, so has multiple symptoms (diarrhoea or constipation or both, bloating, gas, abdominal pain, frequent stools, etc) and because it has a strong mental connection.
The Cleveland clinic defines IBS as a type of functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder. That means that in IBS, there is a problem with how the gut and brain work together. This causes the digestive tract to be very sensitive and changes how the bowel muscles contract. The result is abdominal pain, diarrhoea or constipation.
If one is listening well, all those who complain of IBS, always have a great deal of underlying anxiety. In fact, IBS without anxiety is not a possibility. I read somewhere that IBS is the gut’s response to life’s stressors.
To me, IBS is the anxiety messenger at its wits end. It has been sitting there since years trying to draw your attention to things that need attention. But you have numbed it or procrastinated for years and now it presents itself in its violent form: IBS, something you can’t ignore. Well you can ignore again actually by thinking that IBS is simply an organ gone wrong, taking allopathic medications that merely supress the symptoms, and again not addressing the underlying root cause.
Anxiety and depression
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is where one finds the link between emotions, mental states and bodily organs. Anxiety is in the heart! Ask someone who gets anxiety attacks, and their symptoms will closely mimic those of a heart attack: increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, etc. Prolonged anxiety does weaken the heart, just like prolonged anxiety weakens the muscles of the gut in IBS.
Physically our spleen is not located that far away from the heart and once anxiety has weakened the heart it will either go down to the Gut or move sideways to the spleen or impact both the gut and spleen. If it goes to the gut, you have IBS, if it goes to the spleen, then depression. TCM tells you that spleen is the organ of concentrated thinking. Prolonged anxiety can start impacting our thinking patterns, with constant fearful thoughts that always imagine the worst. Prolonged thinking of this kind can turn into ruminations, concentrated negative thinking (where everything is dark and ends badly) and intrusive thoughts. Anxiety is now also depression! Ask any seasoned psychologist and they will agree between the strong correlation between anxiety and depression.
Like P said wisely, when anxiety strikes, I know I need to ‘do something about it’. There is wisdom in P’s words.
If you are constantly numbing and procrastinating your messenger, please don’t. Remember if it is still there means it’s needs have not been met and constant numbing and procrastination will make it erupt someday, sooner or later.
If you are curious to know how naturopathy deals with the above get in touch!
If you would like to try some somatic practices that help with anxiety, read this.