Coping with Anxiety

By Ann Wlazelek

Do you worry about work, paying bills, how you will care for an aging parent or any of life’s other countless challenges?

If so, chances are you are experiencing one of the most common phenomenons known to man: anxiety.

“Anxiety is like the common cold of psychology,” said Dr. Robert Gordon, an area psychologist for more than 40 years. Everyone is anxious at times, he said. The good news is that anxiety is normal and not especially harmful unless it escalates and interferes with everyday life.  For example, the stress of a deadline for this article caused me some anxiety until I could complete my research and write my story. If the same anxiety became extreme enough to keep me from eating, sleeping or leaving the house, it would then be considered abnormal or in need of attention.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older – about one in four adults – suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. And the condition appears to be getting worse. According to the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey, 44 percent of adults in this country said their stress had increased during the past five years. And the top reasons, Americans cited, were money, work, the economy, relationships and family responsibilities.

With the average age of onset of anxiety at 11 years old, children are affected as well.  Evidence suggests genetic and environmental influences contribute the disorder.  For children diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, psychologists suggest starting with the parents. Parents who get treatment for underlying anxiety disorders they may have themselves can then act as role models in coping with anxiety. Instead of telling a child, “We are a family of worriers,” experts say it is better to turn that around with, “I can be confident and brave no matter what.”

The key, Gordon said, is to become aware of the signs, symptoms and triggers of anxiety and learn how to keep them from becoming full-tilt disorders. “Anxiety is like the mind’s smoke alarm,” he said. “It offers a warning to pay attention.” Look for irritability, anger, fatigue, lack of interest or motivation, headaches, upset stomach, loss of appetite for food or sex.

Because there are different types of anxiety disorders, Gordon said it helps to identify and understand how they can affect you. General anxiety disorder is a term applied to those who worry and dread everyday circumstances. Panic attacks can mimic heart attacks with pain or pressure in the chest in response to a devastating loss or fear.  Obsessive-compulsive disorders are marked by persistent compulsions and repetitive behaviors, such as frequent hand-washing to avoid germs.

But do not stress over stress. Effective treatments can be as simple as learning how to relax, medicines and/or therapy. Remedies are best targeted to the specific triggers.

For example, holidays can be particularly stressful for people who want the perfect Norman Rockwell family get-together instead of the more normal “Christmas Story” gatherings.

“Holidays are times we see people we generally try to avoid the rest of the year: in-laws or others who are toxic. We must deal with them but sometimes we make matters worse in our minds,” Gordon said.

Anticipation can be a healthy mechanism, he said, if, for example, you know Mom always asks “are you ever going to get married?” or “why do you stay in that job,” and Dad drinks too much and gets insulting. Instead of drinking or smoking, Gordon suggests learning to use self-soothing activities, such as regulated breathing, meditation, pleasing music. “Or, just know when it’s time to leave,” he said.

Mental Health America, a national advocacy group, recommends the following suggestions for coping with stress:

Breathe. The easiest one to do is to inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. Do this two to four times, but don’t take in too much air too quickly because it can make you feel light-headed and dizzy.

Take one thing at a time. Pick one urgent task and work on it. When that’s done, move on to the next.

Be realistic. If you’re overwhelmed at home or at work, learn to say, “No!”

Don’t try to be superman/superwoman. No one is perfect, so don’t expect perfection from yourself.

Visualize. Use your imagination to see how you can manage a stressful situation at work or home more effectively.

Meditate. Five to 10 minutes of quiet reflection can bring some relief. If you’re having a stressful day at work, close your door and meditate or go for a quick walk to clear your mind.

Exercise. Thirty minutes of physical activity per day helps both body and mind. If you have an hour lunch break at the office, use half of it for a walk or a jog. Make plans with a coworker to do this a few times a week.

Hobbies. Take a break and do something you enjoy.

Adopt a healthy lifestyle. Get adequate rest, eat right, exercise, limit your use of caffeine and alcohol, and balance work and play.

Share your feelings. Don’t try to cope alone. Let friends and family provide support and guidance.

Be flexible! Whether you’re at home or at work, arguing only increases stress. If you feel you’re right, stand your ground, but do so calmly and rationally. Be prepared to make allowances for other people’s opinions and to compromise.

Don’t be overly critical. Remember, everyone is unique and has his or her own virtues and shortcomings.

If nothing seems to help, it is best to call your family physician or mental health professional.

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