Maybe you don’t associate anxiety relief with chiropractic and I understand that. But, by the end of this article I think that will change. My goal is to help you understand the imbalance in which anxiety manifests and how chiropractic is perfect to help relieve it.
If you suffer from anxiety you’re not alone. The NIH (National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than 31% of adults will experience anxiety at some time and 19% experience anxiety in any given year.
What Causes Anxiety
If you research what causes anxiety you really won’t really identify a cause. What you will see is discussion about a history of trauma, abuse, and stress. There are plenty of examples but you can distill them all down to a history of emotional stress.
So, you might be wondering how stress factors into anxiety. Stress is linked to over 90% of all illness and disease, and more than 70% of doctors visits are stress-related.
We all have a predisposition to certain health challenges. For some of us stress shows up in our digestion with acid reflux or ulcers or inflammatory bowel disease. For others it’s the cardiovascular system and hypertension. For most of us stress eventually impacts the quality of our sleep and that exacerbates everything else.
But, how does stress do all this?
The Link Between Stress and Anxiety
Our nervous systems evolved during much simpler times in human history. Life was much less complicated. But, there were more frequent and real threats and our nervous system is programmed to prioritize survival.
We don’t encounter those frequent threats to our survival but unfortunately the nervous system is triggered frequently to respond as though there were a threat. Here’s how:
Sympathetic “fight or flight” System:this is the survival division of the nervous system and when it is activated it mobilizes resources as though we have to fight or flee for survival. Here are typical actions of the Sympathetic System:
- Increased heart rate
- Increased breathing
- Increased muscle tension
- Decreased digestion
- Impaired sleep
Parasympathetic “rest and digest” System or Vagus Nerve: as the name implies this system is responsible for the majority of activities that support overall health and well-being. The Vagus Nerve supports:
- Lowered heart rate and blood pressure
- Healthy digestion
- Rest, relaxation, recovery
- Healthy Immune response
- Lowered inflammation
- Restorative sleep
The overactivity of the Sympathetic System over time eventually results in us living in what I call a Sympathetic Dominant state. The Vagus Nerve is progressively inhibited and we live with an overactive Sympathetic System.
Studies have shown that people with chronic anxiety have a greater Sympathetic Response to both physiological and mental stress. This overactivity of the Sympathetic System is the perfect storm for those of us predisposed to anxiety.
It’s also thought that people who experience anxiety either experienced significant trauma or grew up in homes with an environment of uncertainty, fear, and or stress.
Chiropractic and Anxiety
All of this still leaves a question of how chiropractic can help with anxiety. While the common perception is that chiropractors are back doctors, the truth is that the focus of chiropractic is on removing tension and interference from the nervous system. The spine simply offers the easiest access and the place where the most common interference takes place.
What is the relationship of the spine to the Vagus Nerve and the Sympathetic Nervous System?
Vagus Nerve: The Vagus Nerve passes right in front of the C1 vertebra. Any misalignment of the C1 vertebra can easily cause tension and irritation to the Vagus Nerve.
Sympathetic System: The Sympathetic Nervous System originates in the spinal cord of the mid back from T1 to L3. Any misalignment in this area will often cause an irritation of the Sympathetic System.
As I’ve noted, anxiety is accompanied if not caused by an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system.
If you want to overcome your anxiety…
If you want to experience less stress…
If you want to get sick less often…
If you want to be and feel healthier…
…then you must bring your Autonomic Nervous System back into balance. Our modern life is full of triggers that repeatedly activate the Sympathetic “fight or flight” System. This is not something that you will necessarily notice or be aware of. In fact, in the initial stages this can actually feel good. It mobilizes energy and brings you into focus. You can often accomplish a great deal with sympathetic activity.
Problems develop when we repeatedly over activate this system. We begin to live in a state of Sympathetic Dominance and this progressively suppresses the activity of the Vagus Nerve.
This combination of overactivity of the Sympathetic System and suppression of Vagus Nerve function is what creates the perfect environment for anxiety and panic attacks. When you are feeling anxious it is an experience in your body. While therapy might help you understand what is going on and give you strategies to deal with it, the key to unlocking this is in your body.
If you can change your physiology you will change your experience. By changing your physiology we are talking about lowering Sympathetic activity and raising activity of the Vagus Nerve.
Top 3 Ways Chiropractic Helps Anxiety
Now that we have a good picture of the imbalance in the autonomic nervous system that drives anxiety, let’s explore how chiropractic can help restore balance and relieve anxiety.
#1: Restore Motion and Balance to the Cervical Spine and Pelvis – In the upper neck is the brainstem and this is key to the function of the autonomic nervous system. The Vagus Nerve passes right in front of the C1 vertebra. Misalignment and restricted motion in the neck tends to suppress Vagus Nerve activity. This is absolutely critical to helping to raise Vagal function and overcome anxiety.
#2: Restoring Motion and Balance to the Thoracic Spine – The mid back from T1 to L3 is home to the Sympathetic Nervous System. Misalignments and joint restriction have a tendency to activate the Sympathetic system. Restoring alignment and motion to this area helps remove irritation to the Sympathetic system. Misalignments here have the effect of increasing Sympathetic activity.
#3: Vagus Nerve Activation – In my practice I integrate something called Polyvagal Theory with my chiropractic. This is all about teaching people how to cultivate their Vagus Nerve. In polyvagal theory they describe the experience of Vagus Nerve activation as safety. In chiropractic we refer to this as ease.
There are a number of ways to activate the Vagus Nerve. The more you use the better. It takes time and regular activation to “awaken” the Vagus Nerve. Simply going out in nature for a walk activates the Vagus. Nature is full of repeating patterns called fractals that have been shown to have a calming effect on the nervous system.
My primary means of Vagus activation is the use of conscious breathwork. Most of us breathe in ways that tend to activate the Sympathetic system. We can simply shift breathing and use breathing practices to activate the Vagus Nerve.
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