Things that run through my head like a ticker tape when my eyes open at 3:30 a.m., like they’ve been doing every morning for the past few months: How am I going to juggle Zoom learning and work if my sons’ school closes because of Covid? Should I press pause in my freelance writing career? But how will my husband and I pay the mortgage? Will we have money for retirement? What if the market collapses? Do I just hide our savings under a mattress in case our investments accumulate?
In the past, I might have thought that this made me abnormal. But I now know that similar spirals in the middle of the night are probably happening in bedrooms around the world. Anxiety is the most common mental illness, affecting 40 million American adults each year, with women twice as likely to suffer from it as men, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, you can experience situational episodes under duress, as many of us currently are. Issues such as social and racial injustice, the threat of an increase in natural disasters, and the daily angst that comes from overwork and exhaustion can make waking up in the morning difficult for anyone in 2021. I have been to finding ways to alleviate my own concerns and I found hope in solutions that can benefit everyone.
Your early warning system
Before you come to the surprising solutions, you need to know why the worry even exists. Experts say that worry serves an important purpose and can be exploited to great advantage. Unless what you are going through has been classified as an anxiety disorder by a doctor (see ‘When to get help’, below), feelings of anxiety are normal, healthy, and part of an ancient biological system designed to protect us, says psychologist Lisa Damour, PhD, co-host of the Ask Lisa podcast and author of Under pressure. Think of it this way: If you’re nervous about driving on the freeway, this discomfort may remind you to keep your distance from other cars to avoid an accident. Protective parents have a wake-up call to help them mobilize if, for example, their 3-year-old tries to climb a ladder quickly.
Yet despite these benefits, we’ve been encouraged to view anxiety as a problem, says Damour. She attributes some of this programming to the commercial wellness industry, which has resulted in a proliferation of products promising to help crush those feelings. Anxious? Take a supplement to boost your mood. Open an adult coloring book. Do everything but stay. âBut a big part of controlling your anxiety is understanding that it can be a helpful thing,â says Damour.
Make anxiety your ally
The first step is to identify that you are going through an anxiety episode. While we generally think of anxiety as a constant worry, it has a much broader scope. âAnxiety is an umbrella term that encompasses emotional, cognitive, behavioral and physical responses,â says Damour. âThese range from nervousness and irritability to rumination and heartbeat, muscle tension and rapid breathing that we associate with the fight-or-flight response. Once you are able to identify these feelings, take stock of what you are going through. Are you afraid because there is a real threat, or because something difficult or even exciting is happening to you? Often it is the latter, which is why Damour suggests stopping to breathe deeply. This activates the stretch receptors on your lungs, triggering nerves that can thwart your brain’s acute anxiety response; you can then think more clearly to see if you can make these feelings work for you.
How? ‘Or’ What? Acting. “The healthy function of anxiety is to stimulate preparatory behavior,” says Manhattan psychologist Chloe Carmichael, PhD, author of Nervous energy. Turn that energy into productivity. Send a few emails or make exploratory calls. Start a project instead of procrastinating.
Anxiety over bigger issues – poverty, climate change, racism, sexism – can certainly be different. After all, you alone cannot fix them. But you’re not helpless: redirect those feelings and use them to better help the community around you, says Carmichael. Can you attend a rally? Help people register to vote? Gather your friends or family to collect supplies for those affected by natural disasters? I’ve been dealing with major ecological anxiety lately. (I wish the planet was still here when my kids grow up.) So I joined a local solar and wind farm to support renewable energy sources. And when it was time for us to buy a second car, I bought the smallest electric vehicle I could find (a red two-door Mini Cooper which also handled my burgeoning midlife crisis). These small steps helped me not to linger in a state of helplessness, which only exacerbated the worry and fear.
Return the internal script
It’s also important to deal with the catastrophic inner monologue that can make threats seem bigger than they are, says Carmichael. Let’s say you messed up at work. Make sure your self-talk sounds like a conversation you would have with a dear friend. You would never tell her the mess happened because she was stupid or her career was over. You would say, “It was a mistake, and you’re smart and resourceful, and I know you will fix it.” Why not have the same kind of discussion with yourself instead of being your own harshest critic?
Personally, I have come to welcome some parts of my anxiety tendencies and have started listening to what my anxiety is telling me that I need. This could be connecting to a financial planner to give me a better idea of ââhow to shape my career. My dad has been living with cancer for over two years, so I try to use my worry for him to get me to do more family projects together. These actions, I find, are not only productive, but give life.
WHEN TO GET HELP
Usually, when what is causing the feelings of anxiety goes away, the anxiety goes away as well. Otherwise, or if these feelings significantly disrupt your sleep, affect your desire to connect with others, prevent you from concentrating, or cause physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, and stomach aches, it is time to seek medical attention. professional. You may be dealing with an anxiety disorder, a diagnosis that spans multiple conditions, from generalized anxiety to panic-related disorders and phobia. The good news: There are many great and effective treatment options out there, including therapy, medications, and relaxation strategies, or a combination of all three.
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