The Quiet Storm: Weathering Your Anxiety & Birth Control
Everyone gets anxious. You’ve definitely felt butterflies on a first date and you’ve definitely sweat while giving a presentation at work.
That’s totally normal. But sometimes anxiety takes on a life of its own, and suddenly, things aren’t just butterflies and sweat, they’re something more. If you’ve just started birth control pills and you’re experiencing anxiety, you’re not alone. When coupled with the other side effects of birth control, we know how hard these feelings can be to cope with.
Is this anxiety I’m feeling?
When you’re anxious, you most likely will experience some of the following:
- You can’t get any Zzzs. Anxiety and sleep is inextricably linked, and insomnia or trouble sleeping is one of the most obvious signs you’re suffering from anxiety. Are you having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? Anxiety could be to blame.
- You’re feeling unexplainably scared. You’ve heard of the flight-or-fight response, right? Well, it goes into high gear when you’re anxious. Why? Your fear switch is turned on. Fear is at the core of stress and can become a vicious cycle: you’re anxious and suddenly everything becomes scary and stressful, and because everything is scary and stressful, you become anxious, and because you’re anxious, everything is scary and stressful…you get the idea. When you’re anxious, you’ll feel like you're constantly running from lions, even though there are none.
- You’re worried about nothing in particular. Not only are you afraid, you’re worried, too. You may begin to worry that you won’t get to work on time or that you won’t finish a project by the deadline or that your date didn’t like you as much as you liked him. These are totally normal worries, but if they become intrusive and start to affect your daily life, they may not be so normal anymore.
- You’re getting annoyed with your friends. Another telltale sign of anxiety? Irritability. If you’re picking fights with friends or family members for no reason, you’re probably anxious. Anxiety causes stress to be unbearable, and that stress puts a strain on our physical and emotional selves.
- You can’t stop fidgeting. If you’re fidgeting, ie. playing with your hair, tapping your pencil on your desk, taking your rings on and off, your system is probably in overdrive due to anxiety. When does fidgeting become a problem? If your hands or body are shaking uncontrollably, it could be a bigger problem.
- Your heart races. So, your heart pounds when you’re about to see your crush or when you’re scheduled to give a presentation at work, what’s the big deal? That happens to everyone right? But if your heart starts beating out of your chest even when you’re lying in bed, you could have major anxiety. If you’re also noticing shortness of breath and feelings of claustrophobia at the same time, you may be having a panic attack.
- Your tummy hurts. Did you know that your gut and your mental health are friends? But sometimes they don’t communicate very well and signals are crossed. When you’re anxious, the relationship can take a nosedive. Your emotions can affect the bacteria in your gut, and that’s a reason why anxiety goes hand and hand with digestive distress.
How is my birth control making me anxious?
As with most side effects of birth control, it’s all about your sex hormones. Both estrogen and progesterone play a part in not only your reproductive health, but mental health as well.
Ever notice the mood swings (hey, PMS!) you experience during your menstrual cycle? That’s because our moods are affected by fluctuating hormone levels.
When you start birth control pills, synthetic hormones are added to your bloodstream which cause changes in hormone levels.
Combination pills add both estrogen and progesterone to your system, and when you first start birth control, the two go up and down before stabilizing. Progestin-only pills affect progesterone levels only.
High levels in estrogen can correspond with elevated moods as it affects the levels of “happy” neurotransmitters in your body, most notably serotonin.
Estrogen increases the production of serotonin, making it more available in your system, and making you feel happier and more at ease. (In fact, some studies show that estrogen can actually help people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.) But, if you’re adding estrogen, what’s going wrong? It’s all about the fluctuation.
When you first start birth control, your levels of estrogen are going from high to low, low to high, and this can cause you to become anxious and depressed.
Estrogen affects the levels of your “feel good” neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. For example, estrogen increases the production of serotonin, which works as a mood stabilizer.
So when estrogen levels dip, our serotonin levels dip as well. That’s why too little of it can make us sad: we begin to stop making those happy little chemicals. When your estrogen levels dip, your ovaries stop making as much estrogen, which then exacerbates your down-and-out mood. This can lead to a vicious cycle.
Progesterone is known to have a calming effect on your body. The hormone affects sleep and relaxation, and too little of it can lead to insomnia as well as heightened feelings of fear and agitation. (Sound familiar?) When progesterone levels fluctuate, anxiety increases and that messes with your mind and body, creating a vicious cycle.
Sex hormones can also alter your brain. Studies show that specific regions of the brain appear to be thinner in women on the pill than women not on the pill. One of these regions is your lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which helps us regulate our emotions. If this part of the brain isn’t working as well, your emotions can go haywire and you may react to situations inappropriately (like feeling fear and panic for no apparent reason). Another region affected is your posterior cingulate cortex that helps evaluate our inner state of mind.
Is this serious?
If your anxiety is getting in the way of living your life, yes, it can be serious, especially if you’re suffering from panic attacks. If this is the case, contact your doctor right away.
Could it be something else?
There’s hardly ever one single reason someone suffers from anxiety. Even if your birth control is causing you stress, these factors can also cause or intensify anxiety.
Gender. Studies have shown that women are twice as likely to experience anxiety. This is partly due to hormonal changes, but also due to differences in behavior. Women and men use different coping mechanisms: women tend to internalize stress while men engage in more active problem solving. We women tend to ruminate more than men, and this can lead to increased anxiety. Another factor? Women, unfortunately, are more likely to have suffered from physical, mental and/or sexual abuse, which can be linked to anxiety.
Genetics. Like with many medical conditions, if anxiety exists in your family tree, you’re more prone to suffer. If you’ve had anxiety since youth or you’re still below the age of 20, it’s most likely genetic. Scientists are studying whether specific genes make some people more anxious than others, so we may know more about what role genetics plays in mood disorders in the future.
- Childhood experience. What happens when you’re young can stay with you forever. From the death of a loved one to wetting your pants during elementary school gym, any childhood trauma, big or small, can cause us anxiety later in life. If you’ve gone through hard times as a youngster that have left you apprehensive, uncertain or humiliated, you’re at risk for higher levels of anxiety. Some scientists also believe that anxiety can be learned as a child, whether from a parent or caretaker or anyone who is important to us. As children, we gain knowledge from what is around us, and if a parent can’t handle stressful situations, we often don’t learn how to handle stressful situations ourselves.
Social media. Yes, your Instagram can be at the root of your anxiety. Too much social media can have lasting effects on your mental health, and can trigger both anxiety and depression. We basically live life on our phones nowadays, and we get sucked into such apps like Facebook and Twitter that practically take over our lives. With social media can come feelings of not only FOMO but also rejection, inadequacy, humiliation and loneliness. You know those posts showing that girl from high school on a seemingly endless vacation? Or that perfectly curated feed with perfect pictures of a perfect life? These can drive you crazy. Add in the trolls and pending friend requests, and you have a recipe for anxiety.
Lifestyle. Your everyday life could be causing you anxiety. Do you drink caffeine? You’re more inclined to feel restless and irritable, both symptoms of anxiety. Are you in a rocky relationship? Do you work two jobs? Life is stressful and it’s only getting more stressful. Nowadays, it feels as if people are expecting more and more from us constantly, and some of us struggle to keep up. Take a look at what’s going on in your life. Do you have a stable income? Good health? If not, you are more prone to being anxious.
What can I do?
There are many things you can do to help reduce anxiety. Here is just a sprinkling:
Be mindful. Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of the present. When mindful, you’re able to be in the moment without judgment. Mindfulness and meditation can interrupt thoughts that lead to anxiety and subdue your physical flight-or-fight mode. Meditation is not always easy. It takes a lot of effort and discipline, but even just attempting to be one with your surroundings can seriously help.
Exercise. Moving your body has been shown to be as helpful as medication or talk therapy. One caveat? Those with mood disorders, like anxiety, can find it hard to get up and go. Yoga may be a solution. You can practice in your own home without judgment, and with yoga videos from the internet, plus you can practice whenever you want. Yoga also focuses on the breath and teaches breathing exercises, which are known to reduce anxiety by slowing down your heart rate and making you more mindful of your surroundings.
Get probiotics. Our brain and gut are connected, so it only makes sense that having a healthy digestive system leads to better mental health. Probiotics can help by introducing friendly bacteria to your tummy. Try eating fermented foods like sauerkraut or kefir, and supplement them as needed. Our Top Up Tonic contains a probiotic complex that can get your gut back into tip-top shape by adding the beneficial bacteria it needs.
Talk therapy. If your anxiety is affecting your everyday life, you could benefit from talking to a mental health professional. There are several methods of talk therapy, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. CBT works by getting to the root of anxious thoughts and trying other ways of thinking. ACT relies more on finding meaningful activities to replace your thoughts and feelings of anxiety.
Switch your type of birth control. Because changes in mood correspond to changing in hormone levels, if not on one already, you may want to try monophasic birth control pills which release a stable exposure of hormones. Of course, if your anxiety is taking over your life, you may want to consider stopping hormonal birth control all together. If this isn’t an option, you can try the copper IUD which releases no hormones yet still prevents pregnancy.
So, in a nutshell, your hormonal birth control may be causing or contributing to your anxiety, but it may not be the only factor. Top Up Tonic replenishes the levels of vital nutrients that are known to contribute to anxiety and depression when low, such as B complex vitamins, especially vitamin B6 and B12.