Anxiety and mood problems

Everyone gets worried or down from time to time, but if anxiety or mood problems are having a significant impact on your life, it’s important to take a proactive approach to turning the situation around. Along with seeking help from your healthcare professional, taking nutritional supplements and herbal medicines may help, especially when combined with a healthy diet and lifestyle.

What are the symptoms of anxiety and mood problems?

Anxiety is a specific form of stress characterised by apprehension and worry that something negative and uncontrollable is going to occur in the near or distant future.

Such feelings may be warranted for short periods when stressful circumstances in your life occur, but in anxiety sufferers they tend to be more persistent and/or intense, and to be out of proportion to the actual level of risk involved. The affected person is sometimes unable to name the perceived threat, and instead feels a generalised sense of apprehension.

The degree of anxiety experienced varies widely from person to person, from persistent feelings of concern and an inability to stop thinking about possible negative events to overwhelming and debilitating panic attacks.

These inner symptoms often lead to outward physical and behavioural manifestations of anxiety, many of which are characteristic of the body’s fight-or-flight responses to acute stress, and which may include:

  • A tendency to be restless or agitated (e.g. fidgeting or pacing the room)
  • Irritability and a short temper
  • Insomnia and sleeping difficulties
  • Palpitations (a racing heart beat)
  • Concentration problems
  • Muscle tension, tics and twitches

In contrast to the hyper-aroused state of anxiety, problems with low moods tend to be experienced as feelings of listlessness and an inability to get moving physically, mentally or emotionally. Symptoms may include:

  • Feelings of heaviness, sadness or melancholy
  • Feeling weighed down by stress or tension
  • Mood swings
  • Withdrawal from and/or disinterest in recreational and social activities
  • Fatigue
  • Slow or clouded thinking

More serious manifestations of anxiety and mood problems that are beyond the scope of this article may include extreme highs and lows, episodes of mania, and deep periods of depression. If you or someone you know is experiencing such symptoms, seek medical advice immediately or reach out for help online via beyondblue.

What causes anxiety and mood problems?

Anxiety and other mood problems are usually caused by a combination of factors.

They are often (but not always) triggered by situations of trauma, loss or ongoing stress, including bereavement, relationship problems, work issues, illness and abuse – especially if these issues occur at a time when ongoing difficulties are already present.

Other contributing factors may include family history (including learned behaviours, negative childhood experiences and genetic factors), substance abuse (e.g. alcohol), nutritional imbalances and in-built personality characteristics.

In some instances, anxiety and mood problems may also be associated with underlying health conditions and physiological imbalances, including stress, premenstrual syndrome, menopause, chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid problems, irritable bowel syndrome, heart problems and blood sugar issues.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) uses the term Shen to describe that intangible quality within each of us that encompasses our minds, consciousness, spirit and capacity for love.

According to this ancient philosophy of medicine, Shen is a form of Qi (life force energy) that flows through both the brain and the Heart organ-meridian system as part of our natural circadian rhythms.

Disturbances of the Shen and its smooth movement around the body can be both a cause and a consequence of physical, mental and emotional stress, and often manifest as feelings of anxiety, mental agitation, tension, and disturbed sleep. An agitated Shen may also interfere with the normal functioning of the Stomach organ meridian system, causing digestive difficulties.

Diet and lifestyle recommendations for anxiety and mood problems

  • When you’re worried or anxious, you may not be inclined to discuss your concerns with your family or friends, but talking things through often makes you feel better, so counselling may be beneficial
  • Behavioural therapy (such as cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT) is also effective for some forms of anxiety and low moods and may help you adopt improved coping strategies
  • Avoid stimulants and mood-altering substances, including caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and drugs. Despite giving you a buzz in the short-term, they often lead to slumps later
  • If you need a pick-me-up, exercise is an excellent tonic. Moderate-to-strenuous activity is best for boosting your levels of feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters, but even a brief walk may help to lift your mood or calm your stress. (As a general rule, aim to get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week)
  • Your general nutrition plays an important role in your mental and emotional wellbeing and ability to cope with stress, so look after yourself by sticking to a nutritious, balanced diet based on fresh fruit and vegetables, lean sources of protein and a variety of wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds
  • In TCM, green vegetables and culinary herbs such as lettuce, celery, baby fennel, cucumber, basil, coriander and dill are regarded as having calming and relaxing effects on the mind and nervous system. Other beneficial foods to include in your diet for similar reasons include wholegrains such as rice, oats and wheat, and fruits such as mulberries and lemons
  • The omega-3 fats help to maintain healthy brain function and stable moods, so try to include fish in your diet several times a week, or alternatively consider taking a fish oil supplement
  • Avoid sugary foods and refined carbohydrates, which may aggravate your mood problems and contribute to blood sugar imbalance
  • To help you relax, consider taking up meditation, tai chi or qigong

When should you see your doctor or other health professional about anxiety and mood problems?

  • If you’re concerned about your own wellbeing or that of someone else, seek immediate medical advice or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 (in Australia)
  • Persistent, recurrent or severe anxiety, low moods and mental health problems require ongoing management by your healthcare professional and are not suitable for self-treatment