September 04, 2020

When Anxiety Strikes: Recognizing & Recovering

Anxiety seems like a normal part of life these days. Political turmoil, global health crises, economic hardship—it would be more surprising if we were not anxious with all that’s going on. So how does one identify when anxiety has reached the threshold of meriting diagnostics or requiring treatment? First, let’s take a look at what anxiety is.

Anxiety is a bouquet of feelings that include worry, nervousness, and a sense of foreboding or dread. Anxious feelings can provide useful signals to us that something in our lives isn’t right, leading us to safety and provoking meaningful change. As such, it is informative, a guide dog that helps us toward stable ground.

Anxiety becomes deleterious, however, when it refuses to go away, humming along in the background (or foreground), preventing us from fully participating in life. This type of anxiety, which we might define as disruptive rather than instructive, is the kind for which treatment and diagnostics may be appropriate. Important signs of intrusive anxiety include constantly feeling restless, irritable, and quick to trigger. Physically, one may experience sleep disruption, stomachaches, headaches, muscle tension, trembling, and unshakeable fatigue. 

You can also identify unhelpful anxiety by accessing your intuition and asking yourself:  am I worrying to an excessive degree? Do the worries center around a logical, real-world issue—like imminent eviction or a recent job loss—or are they shape-shifters, whack-a-mole woes that seem to pop up just when another was just resolved? All these inquiries can help you access your own inner wisdom as to whether anxiety has gone too far. If all else fails, the fact that you’re even wondering whether your anxiety requires treatment is an indicator in itself.

As for treatment, your therapist or psychiatrist has many approaches at her disposal and should customize a program that works best for you. Besides talk therapy, I often employ cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in treating anxiety. CBT allows me to teach clients how to challenge their own distorted thinking and create new response patterns for the future. It’s somewhat akin to the teach-a-man-to-fish model as, after a time, the client can employ this method on her own. This feeling of empowerment alone can be an antidote to anxiety.

In some cases, medication can also be indicated for the treatment of anxiety. For this, clients must consult a doctor to understand the benefits and drawbacks of each medication and employ a thorough and methodical approach to finding one that works. Always share your side effects with your treating professional so you can move on from or adjust any medications that might not gel with your constitution. 

All people, whether their anxiety rises to treatable thresholds or not, can use some simple strategies to manage anxiety themselves. Exercise, even—especially—simple things like walking, can work wonders. I’m also a huge advocate of sleep hygiene: going to bed early, without a device in your hand, television off, preferably after a hot bath and a cup of tea. Sleeping at least 7 hours a night can alone be hugely protective. Also limiting the amount of caffeine and alcohol you consume and eating a healthy, balanced diet. Contrary to some pretty negative social messaging, make sure you eat enough! That includes carbohydrates, which help keep serotonin levels regulated. Finally, mindfulness meditation and paying attention to your breathing are a few additional suggestions that continue to work for ourselves and our clients.  

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