Coping with anxiety in troubled times
Did you know anxiety is now considered by the National Institute of Mental Health today’s most common mental health problem? Anxiety is more prevalent than depression.
In fact, since 2001, the NIMH estimates nearly 18 percent of the U.S. adult population is experiencing some form of anxiety each year. And, unfortunately, children are also developing anxiety disorders at record rates.
It is hypothesized that anxiety has increased as people perceive that the world around them is more dangerous: We are exposed to terrorism, war, murder, rape and other violence on a daily basis through television, the Internet and newspapers.
Of course, we all feel anxious from time to time, and not all people develop anxiety disorders. But how do we know if sweaty palms, a pounding heart, racing thoughts, fear, dread which can bother anyone is an actual “disorder”? Fear of flying, public speaking and germs are pretty typical, right?
Whether someone develops an anxiety disorder is usually a combination of three factors. The first is biological sensitivity. Those individuals with overactive limbic systems and amygdalas (parts of the brain) are easily overstimulated and over-aroused. The second is stress overload. A period of high stress typically precedes an anxiety disorder unfolding; this explains why anxiety comes and goes. Finally, are personality traits. Perfectionism, difficulty relaxing, being easily exploited, being a “pleaser” and “feeling responsible” make people vulnerable to intense anxiety.
Ironically, it is these same personality traits that make many anxious people overachievers, both as children and adults. Anxious people tend to be cooperative, good students or employees and diligent workers.
There are different types of anxiety disorders. Most of us experience some of the following symptoms, but those with anxiety disorders experience them more frequently and intensely, to the point that they can become debilitating.
• Social phobia: A feeling of extreme self-consciousness when interacting with others. Socially phobic children experience anxiety when separated from parents.
• Phobia: Extreme anxiety around certain things or places.
• Post-traumatic-stress disorder: An extreme emotional reaction in situations that remind you of being abused or traumatized.
• Generalized anxiety: Worrying for most of the day about multitudes of things.
Recent research indicates that as early as 4 months of age scientists can predict an anxiety disorder by age 7. In studies, those babies who had strong reactions to unfamiliar sounds and lights typically developed anxiety as children. Parents who helped their babies to either cope with or ignore the overstimulation had children less likely to develop anxiety. Parents who helped their children avoid the overstimulation had children more likely to developed anxiety.
The old adage of “Get right back on that horse” is right. The best remedy for conquering a fear of something is to do it – a lot. It’s best to start out slowly and progress toward your fear. For example, if you are afraid of spiders, first look at pictures of spiders then touch the pictures. Next, look at pretend spiders then touch them. Finally, look at real spiders then touch them (avoid poisonous ones). As we expose ourselves to something more and more, we get increasingly used to it, and it stresses us less.
On the other hand, if you cope with your anxiety by avoiding the thing that makes you anxious, you don’t overcome your fear; you just circumvent it. For instance, someone who is extremely shy may start to avoid social situations. Because their anxiety goes away when they avoid people, they learn to soothe their anxiety by avoiding things that make them anxious. So, later, work becomes too much, then they quit work. Finally, even shopping and going to the bank is too much, so they eventually never leave their home. This may sound hard to believe, but 1.8 million Americans suffer from this type of anxiety, known as agoraphobia, and are in effect prisoners of their own minds.
While this is an extreme example, people with anxiety disorders oftentimes unintentionally teach themselves to avoid things rather than cope with them. Using drugs and alcohol are common ways anxious people avoid stressors. And don’t forget, avoidance makes anxiety worse.
Treatment for anxiety disorders is specific for each type of anxiety. If you experience anxiety, it is best to consult with a mental health professional for help. Medications are available for some forms of anxiety disorders, and have proven to be quite effective, especially when combined with learning how to face a fear.
Prevention is vitally important: Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, and don’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, tai chi, deep-breathing exercises and positive visualizations. There are many good self-help books and computer programs for adults and children for each type of anxiety.
Whether you experience fleeting anxiety or a full-blown anxiety disorder, it is important to manage anxious feelings. For all of us, the goal is to replace worrying and fear with peace, relaxation and high self-esteem. And if anxiety is troubling you, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. The good news is that anxiety disorders are very treatable.
• Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.