You wake up in the morning, swing your feet onto the floor, and are immediately overwhelmed by a queasy sensation, clammy palms and the sense that something bad is going to happen. Thinking of the day ahead fills you with such a sense of dread you want to crawl under the covers and hide. This is anxiety in a nutshell: the worried threat of some future event. Always a product of your imagination, anxiety results in and from heightened activity of the amygdala, your brain’s threat-detection center, which results in increased stress hormones (particularly cortisol).
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million adults (about 18% of the U.S. population) and cost more than $42 billion per year. Whether your childhood programming conditioned you for a lifetime of anxiety or a recent event triggered your worry zone, imagining the bad things that will befall you can interrupt daily living and disrupt functioning.
There are many medications to treat anxiety. The most widely prescribed are tranquilizers, which effectively slow down the central nervous system to produce a sense of calm. While these are fast-acting (results are typically seen in as little as 30 minutes), their significant side effects (including impaired sexual functioning, appetite loss or increase, headaches, nausea, and decreased motivation or lethargy) come from reduced brain function. Alternatively, antidepressants have recently gained market share as anti-anxiety medication. Their burgeoning popularity originates from fewer side effects. The problem: it takes 4 to 6 weeks to experience full benefits.
From short- to long-term side effects to the cost of prescriptions, treating anxiety with medication remains less than ideal. Holistic remedies—including chamomile and L-theanine tea, hops, valerian, lemon balm, exercise, passionflower, lavender, Omega-3 fatty acids, and breathwork—require a consistent outlay of funds and are not always available the moment you most need them.
How would it change things if there were a no-cost solution available anytime, anywhere, that is scientifically proven to work immediately?
The Science of Love
Healing your body with your mind can be a challenge when dealing with anxiety. In the surge of released chemicals and their resulting emotions, it’s tough to sync up rationale and biology. You may be able to think, “I should stop imagining ahead and catastrophizing,” but your physiological anxiety response can be too strong to respond to self-guided or positive thinking. In times like these, what can help more quickly is to engage in changing your body first, mind second. A study recently published in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience offers insight into a holistic, free, and fast-acting anti-anxiety medication: love.
At the University of Exeter, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 42 subjects and made an interesting and original discovery: when people view images of others being loved and cared for, it reduces activity in the amygdala—even when they’re not explicitly paying attention to the pictures.
While previous research had proved that the brain’s pain response lessens with reminders of subjects’ being loved and cared for, the University of Exeter findings are the first to prove that this same process positively impacts anxiety. The findings suggest three important aspects of anxiety reduction when we are reminded of being loved and/or cared for:
- Tamps down the threat response.
- Increases self-efficacy and functioning during threat activation.
- Improves activation of soothing processes when the stressful situation has ended.
The more anxious subjects were, the more effectively they connected to a sense of love-reduced anxiety. Speaking of the study, senior researcher of psychology Dr. Anke Karl at the University of Exeter says, “These new research findings may help to explain why, for example, successful recovery from psychological trauma is highly associated with levels of perceived social support individuals receive.”
Using the Science of Love to Reduce Anxiety
The study suggests actions anyone can take to utilize the power of love in reducing, controlling, and possibly even eliminating anxiety. If you want to bulk up your anxiety-busting protocol, try applying any of these holistic actions to immediately alter your physiological response:
Create an image portfolio. Put together a series of pictures showing you as the recipient of love and support. This can mean being hugged or kissed or even just an arm around your shoulder. If you don’t have any such pictures of yourself, cut out images from magazines or print from websites. Arrange the pictures on a bulletin board where you can see them every day upon waking and going to bed, and create a version you can carry in a wallet, briefcase, or purse.
Build a support network. Last fall a study published in Journal of the American Heart Association proved that heart attack patients without social support had more adverse side effects in recovery. Senior study author Dr. Harlan Krumholz says, “We shouldn’t just be concerning ourselves with pills and procedures. We have to pay attention to things like love and friendship and the context of people’s lives. It may be that these efforts to help people connect better with others … may have very powerful effects on their recovery and the quality of their lives.” Again the suggestion is that feeling connected and cared about improve resilience and mental health, both states that also reduce anxiety. Consciously and purposefully build your own support network and reach out for loving connection, both consistently to manage anxiety and also to reduce it in moments when it flares.
Hug yourself or someone else. In just two minutes you can change your body chemistry and reduce stress hormones by engaging in a hug. Often called “the bonding hormone,” oxytocin promotes trust and connection. Research suggests that oxytocin may activate the “tend-mend” response, your body’s natural antidote to the fight/flight response. Being touched produces oxytocin. Hug yourself or someone else and you can bump up your oxytocin level and decrease your stress hormones.
Perform a random act of kindness. Serotonin, another important brain chemical, is widely believed to maintain mood balance; without proper levels, depression frequently results. The moment you perform an act of random kindness—a selfless act undertaken solely for the purpose of helping someone else—your brain produces serotonin. The act creates a sense of love and connection flowing from you to another person, from the other person to you, and also emphasizes love and connection in yourself.
Express your love. One of the quickest, most surefire ways to feel loved and cared for by others is to lead by example. Rather than wait for and/or expect others to show you love and caring, offer it first. Set the tone in your most meaningful relationships by being generous with your affection and support. Build an infrastructure for this kind of interaction and it will begin to feed itself, leading to unexpected moments when others send loving kindness your way.
Using nutrition, herbs, exercise, and breathwork can create inner peace and life change by integrating successful holistic remedies for anxiety.
If you want to find happiness on a whole new level, however, applying the science of love to reducing anxiety can operate twofold: first, by creating immediate physiological change that reduces stress hormones; second, by molding you into a person whose focus (both internally and externally) is on connection, meaning, and love in the present moment. Since anxiety comes from imagining the future, tethering yourself to the present through the strong emotion of love affects the body’s chemicals while also engaging the mind in a useful, supportive focus. At this point the mind/body feedback loop can create energy, intention, and momentum that extends the benefits of love in reducing anxiety in the moment while also creating a lifestyle of love that reduces anxiety long-term.