You know how sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry? This always happens to me when I see anxiety described as “easily treatable”.
Okay, maybe that description does apply to some people. But it most certainly wasn’t my experience.
My recovery from anxiety was not a straightforward affair. At all.
In hindsight, I now know that a key reason I didn’t beat anxiety lickety split was that the treatments I was offered back in the day were not targeting all the factors that were actually behind my anxiety.
There are multiple anxiety risk factors that can make you vulnerable to the beast and in order to effectively treat anxiety, it’s necessary to customize treatment so that it targets the risk factors that are actually at play.
So with this article, I want to raise awareness about the anxiety risk factors I wish I had known about sooner. Had I (and the people I was seeking help from) been more aware, my anxiety recovery would have been a hell of a lot smoother. Probably still not exactly easy, but a whole lot easiER.
Anxiety Risk Factors I Wish I Had Known About Sooner
1. Being A Highly Sensitive Person
About 20 percent of people are born with a nervous system that responds more readily to any kind of stimulation or stressor than the nervous systems of a majority of people.
These people are called highly sensitive people. You can find out if you are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) by taking a test here.
Any person whose nervous system is wracked with chronic stress without breaks in between is at risk for having that stress morph into an anxiety disorder.
But HSPs are more vulnerable to this sequence of events, because their bodies release stress hormones and go into fight-or-flight from less provocation than non-HSPs.
In order for HSPs to thrive and live anxiety-free, they need to make lifestyle changes that help them reduce and manage their stress levels.
2. Adverse Childhood Experiences
When I first sought treatment for my anxiety, the role of my rough childhood was actually recognized. But the treatment I was offered still wasn’t effective, because the full implications of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) were not understood at the time.
But these days, there’s a whole bunch of scientific research showing that adverse childhood experiences – whether physical, emotional, or social – can change your brain and your fight-or-flight response so that you become more sensitive to future stressors and have a harder time returning to a normal state after being stressed than other people.
In other words, your childhood trauma is not just psychological – it’s something you carry in your body.
Again, any person exposed to chronic stress is at risk for having that stress morph into an anxiety disorder. But people with ACEs in their past are more likely to have issues with their stress response system, so they are even more vulnerable to this sequence of events.
And by the way, if you are an HSP with a high ACE score (like me), you were served a double whammy. You were born already more vulnerable to stress, which made you more affected by your less-than-ideal childhood environment.
For people with ACEs – and especially HSPs with ACEs – to beat anxiety, it’s not enough to just talk about your past. It’s necessary to address your stress levels in the present and come up with concrete ways to reduce them.
3. Problems With Glutamate To GABA Conversion
Back when I first sought mental heath treatment, it was all about the “chemical imbalance” and the “serotonin deficiency”, with SSRIs being the holy grail.
But it turns out there’s more than just serotonin happening in our brains. There are two neurotransmitters in particular that are relevant for anxiety sufferers: glutamate and gammaamino-butyric acid (GABA). These two play a sort of balancing game where glutamate’s job is to get you fired up and GABA’s job is to calm you down. If your body was a car, then glutamate would be the gas, while GABA would be the breaks.
Ever since discovering that SSRIs were not the miracle cure I had hoped for, I had suspected that I might have a GABA issue. And when I did DNA testing via Nutrition Genome (talked about in more detail here), my suspicions were confirmed. I discovered that I had variants in several of the genes that govern glutamate to GABA conversion.
No wonder I was feeling so on edge! On top of having a highly sensitive nervous system that will spray out a firehoseful of cortisol over a pin dropping ( 😉 ), I apparently also was genetically predisposed to too much glutamate and not enough GABA.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to help your body produce more GABA, such as exercising regularly, taking probiotics with bifidobacteria (I take this brand), and making sure you eat a diet that is rich in the nutrients your body needs to manufacture GABA.
Which brings me to the last anxiety risk factor I wish I had known about sooner…
4. A Diet That Is Not Right For You
What you do and don’t eat can have a huge impact on your mental health, including your anxiety levels.
I think this anxiety risk factor eluded me for a long time, because its impact is not immediate. It can take many months or even years for nutritional imbalances or deficiencies to manifest as noticeable symptoms. And even then it can be hard to connect those symptoms to diet.
And all of it is further complicated by the fact that there is no one diet or way of eating that is right for everyone. Different people have different reactions to a given food. What particular foods are good for YOU and in what proportions is driven by your gender, age, genetics, activity level, and past health history among other factors.
But we do know that what you do and don’t eat can influence your blood sugar levels, your hormones, your gut bacteria, and inflammation in your body. And we do know that all those factors play a role in your brain chemistry, and therefore, in your mental health.
And we do know that many people (myself included) need to emphasize whole foods and minimize processed foods in order to feel well physically and mentally.
Does Having These Anxiety Risk Factors Mean That You Are Doomed?
I hope you don’t think that I shared these risk factors with you just to freak you out. Because that’s not why I shared them.
First of all, I shared them to empower you. If any of these risk factors apply to you, then you are now better equipped to address your anxiety symptoms, because you can target your efforts appropriately.
Second, I shared my own experience with these risk factors in order to give you hope. I have every single one of these risk factors. I’m a highly sensitive person with a high ACE score and poor glutamate to GABA conversion who used to eat the Standard American Diet made up mostly of processed foods.
And not surprisingly, I struggled with generalized and social anxiety. It eventually got to be so bad that I almost completely lost my will to keep enduring.
But these days, I’m feeling really great. The vast majority of the time, I’m as cool as a cucumber and as calm as a cabbage. 🙂
Now, I do want to clarify that I’m still not a robot. It’s not like my anxiety is never triggered. It’s not like I never get stressed. It’s not like I never worry.
But the vast majority of the time I’m relaxed. And when I’m not, I have tools to deal with it so that I can recover quickly.
So even if you share some of these risk factors with me or even if you share all of them, I want you to know that it’s possible to overcome.
It’s possible to get to where you feel just fine.
And if you’d like, I can show you how. I wrote a step-by-step guide that details everything I did to conquer my own anxiety. You can find out more about it by clicking here. 🙂