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Anxiety: Friend or Foe? Sometimes both!

We all have a definition of what anxiety means to us personally. Maybe it is that tight feeling when you are late for work and you hit all red lights, or the butterflies you feel before having a serious medical test. The textbook definition is that anxiety is the sense of worry, apprehension and unease we feel about an upcoming event with an uncertain outcome. Psychologists view extreme anxiety as a nervous disorder. In fact, it is the most commonly diagnosed mental disorder in the United States.

At its heart, anxiety is an emotion, and, believe it or not, it is a good thing. It may not be a pleasant experience, but it has kept us alive for countless generations. Anxiety ticks off the warning that the night is too dark to venture into the forest, that you should lock your doors after a string of robberies hits your neighborhood, or that you shouldn’t let your small children cross the busy highway alone. Without the distress that anxiety fuels, our ancestors might have made many disastrous decisions and we might not be here today.

Unfortunately, anxiety can become problematic when it is elicited by common everyday occurrences, or even by nothing at all. There is an impending sense of doom that bad things are about to happen. The neighbor’s knock at the door starts the heart pounding, or driving over a bridge causes headaches and sweaty palms. Suddenly, you may have trouble catching your breath. Sometimes anxiety and panic attacks are so severe they are mistaken for heart attacks. In these instances, the physiological response of anxiety has become somewhat disconnected from the actual trigger. And that can cause everything from minor discomfort to paralyzing fear.

The causes of excessive anxiety are not yet well defined. There may be some brain chemical imbalances that play a role, and there is always the influence of traumatic events not yet reconciled. There are definitely some issues with inflammation and autonomic nervous system dysfunction. But regardless of cause, high levels of anxiety call for relief. High levels of anxiety can cause other health conditions, or make existing health conditions worse. A study published recently in Current Psychiatry Reports found that anxiety disorders are associated with the onset and progression of cardiac disease, including mortality. By restoring better mental balance, all health improves.

The Adrenal Connection

The adrenal glands release hormones in stressful situations that stimulate the fight or flight response. These hormones give us that strange feeling in the stomach and rapid heartbeat we associate with fear. Sometimes the adrenal glands over-respond, or respond without our awareness. One useful way to address one of the underlying causes of anxiety is to restore adrenal health.

There are many elements that support healthy adrenal function, but there are two adaptogenic herbs that stand out: ashwagandha and rhodiola.


Adaptogens are rare and precious botanicals that neither systemically increase nor decrease functions in our body—they push toward normal. If a person has low adrenal function and they are feeling overwhelmed and fatigued, ashwagandha will boost adrenal function. But if a person is highly stressed and jittery, it will gently pull this excessive adrenal function back toward normal. This herb has also been shown to play a role in modulating GABA (gamma amino-butyric acid), which elicits a sense of calm. In a review of human trial results on using ashwagandha for anxiety, it was found that on average, anxiety measures decreased between 44 and 56 percent.


Rhodiola is another adaptogenic herb that can have profound effects on mood and health. While research is ongoing, early results indicate that phytonutrients in rhodiola can bind to the GABAA-benzodiazepine site of the GABAA receptor. These technical results mean that rhodiola can improve mood and create calm without drowsiness or changes in judgment.

People living in the harshest regions of China and Russia often add a snip of rhodiola root to a bottle of vodka. Over time, the liquid turns a brilliant rosy red. People venturing out in extremes of weather often fortify themselves with a sip of the rhodiola alcohol, or upon returning, and they feel it is highly restorative. I think of both rhodiola and ashwagandha as empowering herbs that help people feel stronger and more in control, despite stressful situations.

For a full list of references, visit Cheryl Myers,

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