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Anxiety: The Worry Monster that is Under Everyone’s Bed

First of all, let me say that anxiety is a normal human experience. It is common for us to feel nervous, worried, or uptight when we have deadlines, schedules, or upcoming changes in our lives. This happens to everyone, regardless of who you are, how much money you have, or where you live. In other words, we all get anxious sometimes.

In fact, a little bit of pressure can be a good thing. For many of us, we need a certain amount of anxiety (or stress) in order to get things done. There is a principle in psychology and business called the Yerkes Dodson law, which illustrates this point in the following chart. This law states that feeling a moderate level of anxiety can actually be helpful because it motivates performance. Too little anxiety, and you might lack motivation to do things. Too much anxiety, and you can feel overwhelmed and upset, to the point where you cannot get things done.

We perform best in the moderate range of anxiety. You can gauge where this is for you based on how you feel inside. A moderate level of anxiety feels like just enough pressure to be slightly uncomfortable, but not enough to be debilitating. This amount of anxiety is controllable, situational, and has a clear beginning and end. For example, you might feel anxious if on the same day as a big work meeting, your spouse falls ill and cannot provide the children with school transportation or pick up the groceries for tonight’s dinner party. The amount of things on your “To Do” list require planning and effort, but you are able to complete them if you sit down and create a schedule.

It is when anxiety crosses this threshold between feeling manageable to unmanageable that we begin to experience emotional and behavioral consequences that persist beyond a short period of time. Unmanageable anxiety is hard on our bodies, and creates problems that grow over time, including sadness, high blood pressure, weight gain, weight loss, exhaustion, insomnia, depression, and anxiety disorders. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that anxiety disorders occur in approximately 18% of the population, which means it is not uncommon to struggle with anxiety to the point that it feels out of control.

So how do we manage anxiety when it starts to feel impossible? There are a number of ways, including in the moment exercises and practices that are preventative. In the moment ways to control anxiety largely include: distraction, breath work, writing it down, and thinking through. Distraction, breathing, and writing are described in the Tips for Reducing Anxiety chart below, but the biggest one of these in the moment is breathing. You will hear me say this again and again, because breathing is not only essential to human life, it is essential to feeling good no matter what is happening. Controlling our breathing reduces our physical experience of anxiety, including shortness of breath, racing heart, dizziness, tingling, and nausea.

Preventative skills to control anxiety include getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, finding joy, focusing on control, and practicing mindfulness, all of which are described in the following chart. These are simultaneously the smallest and the biggest things we can do to manage anxiety. They are the smallest because they do not really take extra time from our day (we all have to sleep anyways), and they are the biggest because they are essential to feeling good both emotionally and physically, which improves our mental health and of course, naturally reduces anxiety.

If you find that like almost 20% of people, you are unable to get your anxiety under control on your own, please speak to your medical doctor and schedule an appointment with a mental health therapist. Medical doctors can provide some temporary symptom relief through prescriptions, advice on lifestyle changes, and rule out medical causes. Therapy can not only enhance in-the-moment coping skills to control anxiety, but it can help you examine where your anxiety is coming from and reconfigure your thinking to manage overwhelming emotions. In other words, therapists can help you learn how to effectively reduce and manage your anxiety on a long-term basis by helping you understand how your anxiety manifests and what skills will target your symptoms best. This will help you prevent problems into the future and help you gain back control and freedom in your life. And who wouldn’t love to feel good again?


Dr. Nelson

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