In small doses, worry, stress, fear and anxiety can be motivating. Excessive anxiety or stress, however, can leave you moody, unproductive and unable to make decisions. Anxiety can also make your heart race and your muscles tense, weaken your immune system, cause insomnia, substance abuse and eating disorders. It can also trigger headaches, depression, heart disease and a whole host of other serious health conditions.
“Anxiety is a natural, normal part of life,” says Dan Gillette, behavioral health consultant for Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “But anxiety is very different from an anxiety disorder. Sometimes it may not feel that way, but it’s normal to feel anxious. The key is to learn how to manage that anxiety.”
There’s a big difference between being anxious in a situation and being anxious all the time, says Gillette. A person with a generalized anxiety disorder can go undiagnosed well into adulthood. But symptoms are likely present from a very young age.
“Many adults with anxiety disorders will recall being anxious as a preschooler,” says Gillette.
Anxiety is usually short lived, related to a specific life event, and doesn’t dramatically interfere with other aspects of your life. Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, cause pervasive, ongoing anxiety in all areas of life: with your family, in social situations, and at school or work.
The conveniences of our modern world have cushioned us from the worries of previous generations. Today, most of us do not have to worry about starvation or extreme poverty. Yet, every generation has its own set of pressures.
“The difference is that today’s world comes at us constantly,” says Gillette. “There’s a lot more noise and commotion.”
We have 24-hour news stations, emails and smart phones. We’re bombarded with all this information to sort through, which puts more stress on our nervous systems than we can sometimes deal with.
The result, says Gillette, is that our society has become so highly mobile that we don’t develop supportive relationships that were the norm a generation ago. “We have a wider variety of relationships that are superficial and fewer relationships that are really deep and emotionally supportive.”
Every day, Jul Bruns works to help people overcome life’s difficulties. As a workplace services consultant with Employee and Family Resources in Des Moines, Iowa, she sees another source of anxiety, particularly for women.
“I think this generation has a unique stressor. We’ve been told over and over again to live our dreams — to have it all — the family and the career. And, do it while having a beautiful home, perfect children, a fit and fabulous body and the wardrobe and accessories to go with it. These types of values simply do not leave us happy or satisfied.”
At the heart of all of our anxiety is fear, coming from thoughts, feelings and storage of our life experiences, notes Bruns. “There is a fear that no matter how hard you may work to achieve these things, you will somehow fail.”
“What every person really needs,” says Bruns, “is a set of genuine personal values to fall back on.”
“Think about the values of an older woman you admire — a grandmother or teacher from your childhood. It’s likely you admire this person for values such as perseverance, confidence or warmth of character. Think about the values you want to emulate and don’t let the distractions of the outside world define who
“If you believe you can cope with your anxiety, then you will.”
Learn your triggers. Carefully note what sets off your anxiety and limit your exposure to it.
Once you spot it, stop it.
Avoid going to a place where worries consume you. Imagine a light switch turned to “off” or anything else that symbolizes that these types of thoughts are off limits.
“Reset” your mind with positive affirmations.
Keep motivational or spiritual literature close by, or repeat a phrase such as “Be at peace” to help resist the pattern.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling anxious. A certain amount of stress is unavoidable.
Avoid worst-case scenarios.
Most of what we fear never comes to pass. When or if a crisis hits, options will turn up to help you deal with it.
Remember that worry is unproductive.
The world will not change because you worried or because you were unhappy. It’s okay to be cheerful in the face of adversity.
Worry is undirected energy. Put it into something positive and productive.
Develop supportive relationships.
Find positive, uplifting people. Your happiness is directly related to your influences.
If you’ve got to worry, set limits. Focus on lowering the intensity and length of worrying, rather than eradicating it completely. For example, give yourself permission to worry “for just five minutes.”
1. thought stopping.
With this technique, you consciously take control of your anxiety by simply being aware of its trappings and stopping the energy drain and panic-provoking thoughts.
2. Rule of five
If worry has got you consumed, ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that can happen?” Then, write it down. Sometimes, just the process of writing it down will help you see how irrational it might be. If you don’t feel as though the fear is unreasonable, continue by asking yourself:
1. Is this still going to bother me in five minutes?
2. Is this still going to bother me in five hours?
3. Is this still going to bother me in five days?
4. Is this still going to bother me in five weeks?
5. Is this still going to bother me in five years?
When you realize how short-lived your anxiety might be, perhaps you will be able to put it into perspective.
3. Controlled breathing
As you do this exercise, imagine yourself inhaling calm energy and exhaling your anxiety. Exhale for double the amount of time you inhale, until you feel relaxed:
1. Inhale two seconds, exhale four seconds.
2. Inhale three seconds, exhale six seconds.
3. Inhale four seconds, exhale eight seconds.
4. Inhale five seconds, exhale 10 seconds.
Think of yourself as “resetting your thermostat” or anchoring yourself in calm waters.