Anxiety is an increasing problem that both adults and children are dealing with. Even if an official diagnosis is not given, many people have anxious tendencies that can manifest as so many different types of symptoms – the feeling of overwhelm, inability to sleep, being restless, and not adapting to stress appropriately. Unfortunately, we are also seeing children at a younger and younger age showing signs of anxiety and stress. When it comes to kids, we tend to see behaviors that include avoidance of certain places or activities, stomachaches or nervous stomach, exhibiting strange coping behaviors (pulling out eyelashes, picking or biting nails, or hiding), getting nervous or extra clingy to parents in social settings, trouble making friends at school, and acting out when scared (which is typically viewed as being hyperactive or having poor/uncontrollable behavior). But what is causing anxiety and how can we overcome these challenges to live a better quality of life? Follow along to find out!
This is the first of two blogs that will help give you a clear picture about anxiety. This one will cover what anxiety is and how it affects your body. The second part will go through action steps that you can take to overcome these challenges. So, let’s dive in!
Anxiety is the leading mental health issue in US. Many studies, including one from the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics (outlined in this article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2018/05/10/why-kids-and-teens-may-face-far-more-anxiety-these-days/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.03d6d3c03c3c), show that this challenge continues to rise, especially in children.
There are a lot of struggles centered around anxiety that show up in our office. Some of the common things we hear from patients is that they feel like their brain is on high alert all the time and they can’t shut it down, lack of focus, difficulty remembering things, inability to sleep because their mind starts racing and they constantly worry when they try go to bed, low energy to the point where they feel chronically fatigued and could sleep for three days but still be tired, brain fog, a negative mindset, headaches, jaw pain, tension, and irregular menstrual cycles. These challenges all stem from the root cause of too much stress that the body cannot properly adapt to. Anxiety always starts off as stress.
Now, we all go through stress on a daily basis. This comes in three different forms, which we call the 3 T’s (thoughts, trauma, and toxins). Or in other words, emotional, physical, and chemical stress. Our body and nervous system are made to adapt to stress. However, we as a society are dealing with so much more stress earlier on in life than ever before to the point where we are not able to overcome these challenges. I’m going to dig in here to explain some of the science as to why that is.
First, I’ll fill you in on some examples of these different stressors. Physical stress is what you put your body through. That could be physical trauma as a kid, birth trauma as a baby (which is a huge stress that often goes undetected), spending too much time in car seat or other baby seats/devices, repetitive poor posture, lack of physical exercise, and car accidents. Chemical stress can include the food you eat, medications, toxic things in the environment, and chemicals you are using in your household (cleaning chemicals, personal care products, beauty products). Lastly, emotional stress is our day to day modern day lifestyle stress, your inner thoughts and self-talk (if it’s negative, depleting, and pessimistic), interpersonal connections to your family, loved ones, and your community, and in kids, it can include technology overload, overstimulation, the pressure to succeed in school, high pressure athletics, and bullying. So again, anxiety always starts off as stress that builds and builds until it gets out of control.
Like I mentioned previously, our bodies were literally designed to adapt to stress. But, there is a threshold for the amount of stress that a person can tolerate at any given point. When those three forms of stress pile up, it overwhelms our body, nervous system, and our brain and we literally begin to lose the ability to adapt. Then, what happens is we get stuck in that vicious, unending cycle of stress. This is known as sympathetic dominance.
Before we go over what sympathetic dominance means, I want to go back and talk about the nervous system so I can provide some context as to how all of this really goes together. So the nervous system is this amazing part of our body that includes the brain, the spinal cord, and miles and miles of nerves that control, coordinate, and regulate every single function of your body. It controls every organ, every cell, every muscle, every gland, and every other tissue. Your spine is the hard, bony armor that protects this intricate system. Remember how I said that your body was designed to adapt to stress? Well that can only happen when the nervous system is well regulated, in state of ease, and properly balanced.
There are two sides of that nervous system: the sympathetic side and the parasympathetic side. If you’ve been to the office or have checked out any of our webinars or workshops, you’ve heard me talk about the importance of the proper balance of these two parts and how it contributes to stress and is the root cause of so many different challenges. The parasympathetic side is known as the rest and digest mode or brake pedal mode. It helps to down regulate stress and calm the system down. On the flip side, there is the sympathetic mode of the nervous system, which is in charge of that fight or flight response and revs up the body for an acutely stressful situation, which is why we call it the gas pedal mode. It has the opposite effect on the body as the parasympathetic side, so it amplifies stress. It’s the side that we get stuck in when we’re in sympathetic dominance. The nervous system will literally get stuck operating out of fight or flight mode. The thing about the sympathetic nervous system is that it’s supposed to be reserved for true fight or flight stressful moments like getting cut off while driving on the road and having to slam on your brakes, getting chased by a wild animal, or even moments before speaking in front of a large audience. It isn’t meant to tolerate sustained, chronic stress over an extended period of time, which is what most people that I talk to and connect with are struggling with. As that fight or flight mode gets stuck on, the brain will literally rewire itself for stress because that is the information that you are directly feeding it. So it’s no wonder your body is constantly amped up, tense, and fatigued. As strange as it sounds, it almost makes perfect sense because your body is doing what you are telling it to do, and that is to stay stressed.
So, how is it that sustained stress impacts our body and how our nervous system is able to adapt? When we deal with sustained, chronic stressful situations, not only is it rewiring your brain and body for stress, but it also begins to place excess stress on our three lines of defense that our body has: the adrenal glands, the thyroid gland, and the pituitary. When you think about how the body adapts to stress, the first line is primarily going to be that nervous system. However, when our nervous system gets stressed for a sustained period of time, it gets fatigued and wiped out and cannot deal with it because it is not meant to handle so much stress for such a long period of time. Then, it will call on the adrenal glands to help. These are small glands that sit right on top of the kidneys and are responsible for releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol any time you experience stress. They’re also in charge of regulating blood sugar and blood pressure. When these adrenal glands get overworked through sustained, chronic stress, they can get burnt out, leading to what’s called adrenal fatigue. As a survival mechanism, the thyroid gland is then called on to take up the slack. The thyroid’s primary goal is to regulate hormones, immune function, and metabolism. I hear it so often from those with anxiety that they have challenges with those exact functions, especially women. Many of these women also have irregular menstrual cycles, heavy periods, trouble getting pregnant or maintaining a pregnancy, are constantly getting sick, and have a really hard time losing weight. Eventually, the thyroid is going to become fatigued and exhausted as well if we’re not handling the root cause of our stress and anxiety. At this point, both the adrenal glands and thyroid become dysfunctional. When both of those become overworked, then the pituitary gland is called on to pick up the slack. The pituitary will release extra stimulating hormones to try to boost our system. Because other areas of our bodies aren’t working properly, this extra boost of hormones is there to try to fire up our systems to get them functioning the way they should. However, by the time it reaches that third line of defense, it’s almost like it’s too late because the pituitary gland, just like the others, isn’t meant to handle sustained, chronic stress. When your glands aren’t producing hormones, it will lead to chemical imbalances that can affect mood, which can lead to more stress and anxiety.
So what’s a person to do about this and how does chiropractic fit into the story? Stay tuned for part two of this blog post to find out!
Dr. Jill Mork is a pediatric and prenatal certified chiropractor and the owner of Family First Chiropractic of Verona. She focuses her practice on families, infants, kids, and pregnant women. She takes a special interest in children with neurodevelopmental challenges. Her mission is to empower families to take control of their health and well-being. She believes that the body was designed to heal and function properly. By approaching the body from a functional standpoint, she utilizes chiropractic care to free up the interference on the nervous system and allow the body to work like it was designed to. Her office is located in Verona, WI and she serves those in Verona and from Fitchburg, Oregon, Middleton, and the surrounding Madison area. To improve the quality of life of you and your family, contact Dr. Jill at 608-497-1801.