Today’s episode we are talking about the:
biological drivers and causes of your anxiety
What does this mean?
It means the biological chemicals, hormones or neurotransmitters that your body creates when you’re feeling anxious.
But here’s a little secret: they can also cause you to feel anxious.
#1. Thoughts & Beliefs
I talk a lot about your thoughts and subconscious beliefs triggering an anxiety cascade. You might see, hear or think of something that triggers a subconscious belief in your mind, which activates places like your amygdala in your brain (aka. your fear centre), and this recognises that situation you’re in or thought you’re having as ‘holy heck – this is scary, I don’t like this, run the heck away’.
BAM – your body launches an anxiety response and you get the pounding heart, tight chest, struggling to get a full breath, feeling sweaty and negative thoughts going round and round in your head.
These thoughts and beliefs are one kind of anxiety trigger. They’re the most common anxiety triggers experienced in the world. Those beliefs you’ve collected throughout your life are all designed to protect and save you. So if your brain and belief deems something as scary, it will trigger an anxiety response in your body and mind to make you get away from it as fast as possible.
Unfortunately, not all the beliefs you’ve collected in your life warrant an anxiety response, but it’s happening subconsciously at the moment. Luckily, that belief can be rewired – but that’s a topic for another day.
#2. Hormones & Brain chemicals
The second cause of your anxiety, are these hormones and brain chemicals called neurotransmitters which made in your body.
Because without even having an anxious thought or belief to make you feel anxious, you can still feel anxious because your body is swamped in these hormones and neurotransmitters. These hormones and neurotransmitters were made from a different signal, something else in your body told them to be made – like you experiencing hayfever or not sleeping – and so these hormones and neurotransmitters were made in response to your hayfever and lack of sleep, but they still carry out an anxiety response in your body too.
These hormones and neurotransmitters don’t discriminate. They get made, and they’ll do everything that they’re supposed to do. So yeah, they’re responding to your hayfever and lack of sleep, but they’re also going to make you feel anxious. Because that’s their job.
So even without an anxious trigger – you still end up feeling anxious.
- This means you can wake up feeling anxious and you have no idea why.
- Or maybe anxiety decides to hit and your heart starts racing in the afternoon…and you have no idea why.
- Or even when your anxiety flares up for a reason but then it seems to last for days or weeks before you feel like your calm self again, despite the anxious situation having long gone.
This feeling of anxiety in your body and mind is driven by these hormones and neurotransmitters. And usually in someone who feels anxious like this – these neurotransmitters and hormones just hang around way too long. Way longer than they’re supposed to.
The good news is, there are ways to get rid of these hormones and neurotransmitters that are causing your anxiety. When they’re not there, your body and mind won’t be feeling anxious anymore. Halle-freakin-luyah!
What are these hormones and neurotransmitters that make you feel anxious and how can you get rid of them?
You may not have heard of glutamate before, but I bet you’ve heard of GABA. Well, these two are neurotransmitters or brain chemicals and they work like a see-saw.
On one side of the see-saw you have glutamate which is your excitatory neurotransmitter. It’s the one that stimulates your brain, makes it buzz like crazy, has your thoughts swirling round and round, makes you feel frazzled and is the one responsible for making you feel anxious.
- Glutamate is your anxiety neurotransmitter.
On the other side of the see-saw is GABA. GABA is your calming neurotransmitter. It calms your mind, makes you feel really good and cosy and safe. The medication Valium and other benzdiazpines tell your brain you have more GABA, so this is why they’re used in anxiety to make you feel calm.
- GABA is the absolute queen at reducing your anxiety.
#1. The thing is, you need glutamate to make GABA.
Glutamate is still essential in your brain, but it’s like how your bedroom only needs 1 or 2 lights on to be able to see in your room at night. Glutamate is there to carry out some function (it helps with memory and learning), so you want a small amount of it so you can see in your bedroom when it’s dark.
But imagine if every square inch of your bedrooms roof and walls were covered in a light bulb – like 50 lights – so when you turned your lights on at night, you’re blinded by wayyyyy to much light. It’s too much and too blinding.
This is the same thing if you have too much glutamate in your brain. If you have too much, your brain is wayyyy to stimulated and it makes you feel anxious.
#2. The other bummer is glutamate can cause oxidation and inflammation in your brain.
When your brain is inflamed, you can’t make your serotonin neurotransmitter. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy and calm as well. So too much glutamate means not enough serotonin and an extremely stimulated and anxious brain.
How can you get rid of glutamate?
Glutamate makes GABA, so why isn’t your brain taking all that glutamate and turning it into GABA?
Well, this could be because you haven’t got the cofactors needed for glutamate to turn into GABA. The key cofactors being:
- vitamin B6 (and you especially want the vitamin B6 to be in pyridoxal-5-phosphate or P5P form)
Without enough zinc or vitamin B6, glutamate can’t go anywhere and GABA can’t be made. So you end up with too much glutamate, not enough serotonin and not enough GABA. The perfect recipe for an anxiety cocktail.
So my challenge to you is to reduce how much glutamate you have in you brain.
How do you do this? Make sure you’ve got enough zinc and vitamin B6 to allow your glutamate to turn into GABA. And wa-laa – a beautifully calm and anxiety-free brain.
2. Adrenaline or epinephrine
You might also know adrenaline as one of your stress hormones. Y’know, the one that gives you the racing heart, the tightness around your chest, the sweaty palms and armpits, feeling hot and bothered, racing energy through your veins, struggling to get a deep breath, the sticky glob in your throat, and the panicky thoughts. Do those symptoms sound familiar?
Adrenaline puts your body into the fight or flight response. The same response you go through when you’re anxious.
Adrenaline is beautiful if you need to run away from a tiger or get out of the way of a car zooming down the street. It’s not so great if you’re just lying in bed.
Adrenaline is released into your body when you’re feeling anxious, because your body see’s that anxiety situation as scary and is trying to do you a favour by giving you the juice to run away from the scary trigger.
It’s a life saving response – you have just evolved that you aren’t running away from tigers and lions as much anymore. Instead your life is filled with overwhelming to-do lists, a job interviews, first dates or exams which all trigger the same adrenaline fuelled fight or flight response.
The thing is, we want this adrenaline to stop once the anxiety trigger is gone.
- To-do list written down – you should feel calm.
- Job interview finished – you should feel calm.
- Scary situation gone – that anxious feeling should be gone.
But when you’re still feeling anxious despite the overwhelming to-do list, exam or job interview having been long gone – this is where adrenaline becomes a problem.
What’s happening, is you’re body isn’t getting rid of that adrenaline.
Instead, your body keeps recycling it again and again and you continue to feel frazzled, uneasy, overwhelmed and anxious even when your mind is telling you it’s ok to feel calm now.
Why isn’t your body getting rid of that adrenaline?
It may be because your enzymes that break down adrenaline aren’t working at their best. The most important enzymes that break down and get rid of adrenaline are COMT and MAO. These two enzymes are responsible for breaking down your catecholamines in your body, and adrenaline is a catecholamine.
So your body has been told to make adrenaline in response to something that triggers your anxiety, but then you can’t break down and get rid of that adrenaline – well then that adrenaline is going to keep telling your body it’s in fight or flight mode and make you feel anxious long after the anxiety trigger is gone.
Unfortunately, anxiety isn’t the only thing that triggers your fight or flight response.
Anytime your body feels stressed, you release adrenaline to produce a fight or flight response. And stress doesn’t just mean your perceived stress such as running late or being stuck in traffic.
Stress can be caused by:
- arguing on the phone
- comparing yourself to the glamorous lives on social media
- having a million things to do
- when your body is too hot or too cold
- when you’ve slept terribly
- when you’re sick
- when you stub your toe
- there’s inflammation in your body
Your body launches a stress response to things in your life and to biological things happening in your body.
Even if you don’t have anything making you feel anxious, if your body launches a stress response, that adrenaline floating around in your body can be making you feel anxious for seemingly no reason at all.
Even worse, if you’re not getting rid of that adrenaline via your COMT or MAO enzyme pathways, then that random feeling of anxiety will linger for a long time.
Another key sign of a sluggish COMT enzyme pathway, is that you easily feel anxious or buzzing after caffeinated drinks such as coffee, coca cola or green tea. This is because COMT breaks down the catechol found in these caffeinated beverages, so if COMT isn’t working well then you’re easily stimulated when you have them.
How can you get rid of adrenaline?
Even if your MAO or COMT pathway aren’t working very well?
Don’t worry, I’ve got you sorted.
There are 3 main ways to get rid of your excess adrenaline:
- Vitamin B2. Vitamin B2 is an essential cofactor for MAO to work well. If you’re B2 deficient, your MAO enzyme pathway is gonna be sluggish and slow to get rid of your adrenaline.
- Magnesium. Magnesium is an essential cofactor for COMT to work well. If you’re magnesium deficient, your COMT pathway is going to be sluggish. And the common issue is when you’re stressed, you actually pee out a lot of your magnesium you stored in your body so stress itself makes you more likely to be magnesium deficient, and you need that magnesium for COMT to work well to get rid of your adrenaline.
- Gentle exercise. In the cave man days, running away from that lion was using up their adrenaline so at the end of the chase, they weren’t on an adrenaline high anymore. Doing 20 minutes of walking morning and night is much better at clearing adrenaline than a 1 hour gym session.
You may not have heard of histamine and anxiety being connected, but oh boy histamine packs a real doozy.
You see histamine is also a neurotransmitter found in your brain. Histamine in your brain is essential to make you feel alert, help with learning and your memory. But too much histamine causes too much stimulation in the brain and you become super alert.
Excess histamine in the brain has been associated with increased anxiety and depression.
Why are you making so much histamine in your brain?
Well, histamine is at the very top of your stress cascade. Anytime you’re stressed, histamine is one of the first molecules to be made.
Yay for running away from a lion. Boo when you’re simply feeling too hot or feeling frazzled.
Why isn’t your brain and body getting rid of histamine?
Well that all depends on the enzyme HNMT in your brain. HNMT is what breaks down the histamine in your brain, so that your histamine levels come back down again and you feel calm once again. If you’ve ever taken a drowsy antihistamine such as Phenergan or Polaramine in Australia, you’ll see the drowsy and calm effect reducing histamine has on your brain.
How do you get rid of the histamine that’s causing anxiety?
- One step is making sure you have enough vitamin B6 as it’s the cofactor needed to help make HNMT in the first place.
- But the most important is supporting your stress levels and being mindful of anything that makes you feel stressed so that you’re not making excessive amounts of histamine in your brain in the first place.
And there we have it, your 3 biggest biological drivers and causes of anxiety.
The next time:
- You’re waking up feeling anxious
- You’re feeling randomly anxious one afternoon
- Your anxiety is lingering for days or weeks
It’s more than likely one of these biological causes triggering your body and mind to make you feel anxious. Even when nothing is around that makes you feel anxious in the first place.