Worried Sick: Managing your anxiety
Brad Kennington, LMFT, LPC is a therapist in private practice in the Westlake area of Austin. He is also an associate faculty at the Austin Family Institute. Brad provides therapy to individuals, couples and families and specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, relationship issues, anxiety and grief & loss. For more information or to contact Brad please visit www.bradkennington.com.
“Chronic and generalized anxiety not only affects how we feel emotionally, but also how we feel physically.”Special Contribution to Austin MD by Brad Kennington
“Mama, where are you? I can hear you but I can’t see you!” These are the anxious words I heard one recent Sunday as I left my church’s sanctuary. I looked down to see a school-age girl frantically make her way against the flow of traffic of all the grown-ups in search of her mother. Her face and tone of voice said it all—“I’m scared!” Young or old, I think we can all identify with this girl’s immediate feeling of fear.
Anxiety is a normal part of life. Speaking in front of an audience, a job interview, a first date, flying—all of these normal, everyday experiences can certainly produce anxiety or what is known as acute anxiety. Acute anxiety is fueled by the immediate situation. The good thing is that the stressful situation that produces the anxious feeling is usually short-lived. When the situation is over, such as when the young girl reunites with her mother, the anxious feeling goes away and the person feels better.
Anxiety, however, can also be long lasting and sustained and more generalized. This type of anxiety is more chronic and could be the result of an anxiety disorder. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common behavioral health issue in the country, affecting 40 million adults, or 18 percent of the adult population. And people struggling with an anxiety disorder are also three to five times more likely to visit their doctor.
Chronic and generalized anxiety not only affects how we feel emotionally, but also how we feel physically. Our bodies take a direct hit from prolonged anxiety and stress. When stressed, we experience a physiological reaction as our brain quickly moves us into a “fight or flight” mode and dumps stress hormones into our bloodstream.
The longer the anxiety lasts, the longer we remain on heightened alert. The longer we are on high alert, the more stress hormones remain in our bodies, which can lead to a decrease in bone density and muscle tissue, lowered immunity and fatigue. More mental tension can lead to more physical tension resulting in upset stomachs, tightened chests and headaches.
What causes an anxiety disorder? It is usually a mix of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, certain personality traits and stressful life events all coming together to put these disorders in motion. But there are things you can do to help ease your mind and regain control of your anxiety:
· Exercise: With your doctor’s permission, develop a regular regime consisting of moderate aerobic and strengthening exercises. This can help boost your immune system and energy levels while limiting the effects of stress. Remaining sedentary allows the stress hormones to pile up in our bodies—so move!
· Eating habits: Make sure you are eating healthy, balanced meals and snacks. It is not uncommon for people to eat too little or eat too much, or to load up on sugars and carbohydrates when stressed. Also, monitor your caffeine intake—too much can certainly add to your anxious jitters.
· Relationships: Chronic anxiety and excessive worrying can negatively impact important relationships and engender feelings of loneliness and isolation. Stay connected with others, especially those who can be empathic and supportive. And talk openly with your partner about what you are experiencing and needing.
· Relaxation: There is something to be said about meditation and practicing mindfulness. Spend 10-15 minutes each day paying close attention to what you are experiencing in that moment. Notice your thoughts and feelings without judgment or analysis. And practice breathing slowly and deeply. Distracting yourself with a funny movie or book, or doing something playful can also help you relax. Laughter really is good medicine!
· Therapy: Having a trained professional helps you identify your particular triggers, and developing healthy coping mechanisms can help you manage your feelings and worries.
· Medication: If the feelings of being overwhelmed are getting in the way day in and day out, you can always consult a psychiatrist about medications. Although medications will not “cure” the anxiety, they can help you feel more in control so you can function.
Chronic anxiety can make you feel out of balance. Taking the time to take care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally can help you feel calmer while inoculating yourself against additional stress. It is crucial to remember that prolonged anxiety and stress can potentially lead to serious medical conditions, so always consult your physician first if you develop symptoms you are unsure about.