What’s the Best Way to Deal with Anxiety?
Are you worried, restless, or having trouble concentrating most of the time? It could be anxiety. This common mental health disorder is treatable with the right combination of medication, counselling, and self-care—but first you need to understand what it is and how it's affecting your life.
If you have anxiety, you’re definitely not alone, although you probably feel pretty isolated. This common condition, which can cause everything from panic attacks to intrusive thoughts to complete avoidance of everyday activities, can be successfully treated. Here’s what you need to know about anxiety and getting the help you need for yourself or a loved one.
(Related: How Mental Illness Shapes Our Identities)
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of fear, which everyone has from time to time, and an expression of your natural “fight or flight” response to danger. What’s the difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder? Anxiety in response to an actual threat (there’s a tornado heading to your town, or you’re nervous about a test) is healthy, not a disease. Anxiety in response to imagined threats (you feel like everyone is mocking you, or you shake uncontrollably when the phone rings) is considered a mental health condition. Most cases exist on a spectrum. For example, it’s normal to be concerned if your boss asks you to be more responsive to emails, but if you’re prone to anxiety, you might overreact and assume you’re about to be fired. Anxiety-related issues that are persistent and interrupt your ability to live your daily life are considered a cause for concern.
Generalized anxiety disorder, sometimes called clinical anxiety, is one of the most common psychiatric disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, affecting nearly 3 percent of the general population and twice as many women as men. While experts agree anxiety disorders are common, their true prevalence may be higher because people with anxiety don’t always seek help, and many doctors don’t make a formal diagnosis, especially since it often appears with other health conditions. Moreover, “anxiety disorders” is an umbrella term to describe many conditions, including social phobia and separation anxiety disorder and various phobias. “General” anxiety, while serious, often gets overshadowed by its more debilitating cousins.
What Are Anxiety Disorder Symptoms?
Symptoms of anxiety are uncomfortable and often interfere with normal functioning. Here are some signs you might have this condition.
- Cognitive symptoms may include fear of losing control, fear of “going crazy,” frightening thoughts, poor concentration and memory, and difficulty speaking.
- Physical symptoms may include sweating, racing heart, chest pain or pressure, shallow breathing, and upset stomach and diarrhea.
- Behavioural symptoms may include avoidance of situations, restlessness, agitation, pacing, and hyperventilation.
- Affective symptoms may include feeling nervous, tense, and frustrated.
Anxiety is getting a lot of attention these days because younger people are opening up about it. The median age of onset for all anxiety disorders is a tender 11 years, with prevalence rates highest in the 20s and 30s. While anyone at any age can develop an anxiety disorder, rates drop off in the 50s, and, even without treatment, most people are symptom-free after age 65.
How Is Anxiety Treated?
Despite this optimistic note, no one should wait until old age to get their anxiety under control. Generalized anxiety disorder is treatable and can be successfully managed with a combination of therapy, social support, medication, and other methods. Treatments include:
- Therapy, especially cognitive behavioural therapy, which focuses on behaviour change, or exposure therapy, which can help people deal with irrational fears in a safe and controlled environment. These are considered highly effective for anxiety. You can find a therapist who practices these specific methods at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
- Stress reduction methods, such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, have been shown to be effective in controlling symptoms of anxiety. Best of all, you can often practice these at home, at no cost.
- Exercise is another free way to manage anxiety symptoms. Even a brief walk can boost mood and reduce stress.
- Medications such as antidepressants for mood, mild tranquilizers to reduce panic, sleep aids, and beta-blockers to treat shaking and racing heart symptoms are all considered tools for managing symptoms, though they don’t treat the underlying causes. Learn more about the most common types of anxiety medications doctors prescribe.
- Herbal supplements and natural remedies such as omega 3 fatty acids can also be helpful. With your doctor’s permission, you might consider trying one of these home remedies for natural anxiety relief.
- CBD and other types of medical marijuana may take the edge off anxiety, though many doctors urge caution. Don’t turn to alcohol or recreational drugs, because they can lead to addiction and make your anxiety symptoms worse.
Whatever approach you take to managing your anxiety, have both a team and a plan. Engage mental health professionals, your doctors and pharmacists, and your family and loved ones, and get them working with you towards your specific health goals. For example, some people prefer not to take prescription medication, don’t have mental health coverage, or want to experiment with alternative approaches. These factors will influence the type of treatments you try. Communication is key: Let your doctor and pharmacist know if you are taking any natural remedies because these can interfere with prescription medications (“natural” doesn’t mean harmless). And while you may have the urge to hide your feelings, opening up to your caregivers can both educate and allow them to offer you the right support, especially on bad days or if you ever feel like harming yourself. If you or someone you know has had thoughts of self-harm or suicide, call or text 9-8-8, which provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress.
Tips for Coping with Anxiety
So many things can contribute to anxiety, from your co-worker’s social media posts to just thinking about global warming. It’s also pretty common for anxiety to go hand-in-hand with other conditions. Fortunately, though, there are lots of different ways to quiet those pesky fears and nagging thoughts. Here are some that may help you.
- Take a break. Anxiety makes you feel like you’re always running away from disaster. If you step back and take a breather, you’ll notice how smoothly the world spins without constant vigilance.
- Stay nourished. Feeling anxious can ruin your appetite or trigger junk food binges, which can make you feel jittery or worse. Try eating more whole-food, plant-based or protein-packed meals and snacks to boost your energy and keep your blood sugar even.
- Unplug. Social media is a proven source of anxiety for many people, but it can also help you stay connected. If you feel the need to go online, choose friendly, good-news sources and block those that make you feel more anxious.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol. Stimulants can aggravate anxiety and—in large doses—even trigger panic attacks. Go for seltzer, decaf coffee or hot or iced herbal tea instead. (Be sure to limit these other anxiety-inducing foods, too.)
- Get enough sleep. Anxiety can make it hard to sleep, and lack of sleep makes anxiety symptoms worse. Break that vicious cycle by avoiding caffeine and using simple tricks to get to sleep. If these don’t work, talk to your doctor about trying sleep medication.
- Exercise. It’s worth repeating: Moving can help you burn energy and release soothing chemicals in your brain. Even a little bit helps.
- Take deep breaths. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing may give you a more positive outlook. Try to make your inhales and exhales the same duration. Daily mindful breathing exercises have been shown to measurably reduce anxiety and depression symptoms.
- Laugh! Ok, you’re not seeing much to chuckle about in life—or your anxiety. But try laughing at both and see how much better you feel.
- Avoid triggers. If certain people or situations make you feel especially fearful or panicked, avoid them until you’re more in control. Not sure what’s really bothering you? Write in a journal or track your symptoms in an app.
- Connect with others. Isolation is both a symptom of and a trigger for anxiety. Talk to your friends and family, even if you’re feeling overwhelmed, or consider joining a support group. Just being around people, even if you don’t feel like socializing, can defuse your symptoms.
- There’s an app for that. Anxiety is prevalent among young people, so it’s no wonder many free apps and trackers are available to help people manage their symptoms and get access to care. Here are some that mental health experts recommend.
The Science of Anxiety
Anxiety disorders often hide in plain sight, because their symptoms are not necessarily pathological. After all, anxiety, worry, and panic are healthy responses to serious danger. Yet some people feel extreme anxiety in the absence of any threat. Why is a question psychiatric researchers are still exploring.
Here’s what we know: Certain chemicals in the central nervous system—including serotonin, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid—are responsible for managing feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear. They activate the amygdala, the almond-shaped tissue inside each cerebral hemisphere, which controls emotions. Scientists hypothesize that people with anxiety disorders have a heightened amygdala response to external cues, insufficient chemical modulators in the brain, or a combination.
Anxiety has a biochemical component, but no one thinks it’s simply a brain circuitry problem. It can be triggered or exacerbated by a number of other factors, including stress and trauma, substance abuse, certain medications, or childhood separation. Experts say genetic vulnerabilities also play a role, and emerging research suggests anxiety disorders can be inherited and passed down from generation to generation.
Anxiety disorders also tend to co-exist with other mental health conditions, including depression, bipolar disorder, and chronic substance abuse, making the challenge of diagnosing and treating people with anxiety that much more complex. If you think you have or are at risk for another condition related to your anxiety, it’s important to share that with your practitioner. So-called “comorbidity” can make your symptoms and quality of life worse, and treating both can lead to more successful outcomes.
Remember, there’s no shame in having anxiety, and there are many promising treatment options. You’re in good company, and researchers are discovering countless ways to manage and even cure this challenging condition.