Anxiety (Photo credit: Rima Xaros)
Of all the clients I have seen over the years, one of the most common problems people have come to counseling for anxiety. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issue, affecting approximately 40 million adults each year. To a certain degree, anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction to stress. For example, if you have a big exam coming up at school or an important presentation at work, anxiety and nervousness are natural responses. However, if an anxiety response causes substantial emotional impairment or distress, a person may be dealing with an anxiety disorder. For more information on anxiety and how to help ease the symptoms, keep reading.
While anxiety has many forms (listed below), this article focuses on anxiety in the general sense. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes Generalized Anxiety Disorder as extreme and frequent worry that is difficult to control and causes impairment in functioning in at least one area of a person’s life (that is not caused by a medical issue or substance use). Symptoms can include feeling edgy, cranky, and drained; having difficulty focusing, muscle tension, and trouble sleeping. Remember that each individual is different so anxiety may not look exactly the same from person to person. This can be exhausting to deal with for ourselves and our loved ones. In addition to the mental and emotional response to anxiety and stress, our bodies also have a physiological response to stress and anxiety.
Naturally, our bodies respond to stress by trying to avoid or eliminate the stressor. The hypothalamus kicks into gear. The pupils dilate, the adrenal glands drive cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine throughout the body, the heart rate and blood pressure jump, our bodies burn stored fat for energy and constrict blood vessels in certain parts of the body. This readies us to respond to and survive the threat by fighting, fleeing, or freezing (i.e. the fight-or-flight response). While these automatic functions in the body are invaluable in protecting us from threats, anxiety can enable them by even a perceived threat.
If we get stuck in an anxious mindset, anything can become a perceived threat. This can leave our body in survival mode around the clock, when it is only meant to turn on in an emergency. Operating on this mode all the time can actually have toxic effects. No wonder you are having difficulty concentrating and sleeping with all of this going on inside your body! But how can a person get off the anxiety roundabout? We have to engage our minds and bodies for the solution.
- It all starts in the mind. Ask yourself when the anxiety first started. What was happening at that time? What were you responding to? Sometimes anxiety is (and other mental health issues are) a result of something we’ve been ignoring within ourselves that is trying to get out. We can only stuff it down for so long before it manifests itself. Identify how you respond to the trigger emotionally, physically, and mentally. What are your thought responses to stress? For example, if a teacher or an employer asks to speak to you privately after a presentation, are you assuming that what they have to say is negative? Jot the answers to these questions down. Take your time. If you are having a difficult time answering some of these questions just relax and give yourself a break; you may have to revisit these questions repeatedly, and that is completely normal. Now that you have identified the stressors and your initial responses, let’s get your body under control.
- When you feel the anxiety start to creep in, the first thing to do is maintain a low heart rate. Take slow, deep breaths. Under stress our bodies want to huff and puff; these shallow intakes can encourage the stress response in your brain. By maintaining your breath you can cut off the anxiety hormones at the pass. Relax any muscles that may have tensed. Try some progressive muscle relaxation; you may be surprised at how many of your muscle groups have been activated. Participate in regular exercise. When we sweat it releases many of the toxins in our bodies and leaves our brains and bodies in a much more restful state. One of the most effective ways to relax the mind and body is through prayer and meditation. Studies show how powerful these are, as people who identify themselves as religious are less likely to become anxious and depressed. In one study, 20 out of 22 participants who practiced prayer or meditation to reduce moderate to severe anxiety showed marked improvement after three months. When we pray and meditate, we use the most advanced part of our brains that is responsible for thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving. These functions are dampened by anxiety from the activation of more primal instincts for survival. Let’s not underestimate the power of our Lord. He designed us this way for a purpose.
- Now back to our thoughts. Once the anxious thoughts have been identified, challenge and replace them along with any fearful self-talk; exchange them for empowered, positive ones. Analyze how likely the feared event is to occur. You see, our fears are like a plant. They start with one seed, and then we water it by continuing to think and speak fearful thoughts which, many times, are unrealistic. What can you do to control the outcome of the dreaded situation? Remind yourself that you are not as helpless as you may feel. Identify how you might respond to the feared outcome in order to return to a normal level of functioning. And try to stay in the present moment. Anxiety is usually brought on by thoughts of the dead past or the imaginary future. Most of the time we are safe and should not have to feel worried. This can be incredibly difficult at first, but patiently keep returning your focus to the here and now. However, if there is a question of physical safety in your life, contact a helping professional to assist you in getting you to a safe place or situation as soon as possible.
- Have a loved one or close friend to talk with about the anxiety. Sometimes another person can give us a fresh perspective on how probable a feared event is. They can also hold us accountable to our coping strategies. If possible, this person should not have an anxiety problem as anxiety can be contagious; if we are in close proximity to an anxious person, our brain picks up on their elevated heart rate and will send a signal to the body that something is wrong. This can stimulate an anxious response within us. Also, exposing ourselves to anxiety-provoking material can do this: reading crime novels, watching disturbing movies or television, etc.
Again, we are all unique so some techniques may work better for you than others. It can take time to overcome anxiety, so celebrate every small victory you have. The good news is that anxiety is very treatable. Continue to educate yourself on the causes, symptoms, and solutions of and to anxiety with many available books on the subject. If your anxiety is serious, get in touch with a good counselor or licensed therapist. Trained professionals have many additional resources and treatment exercises to help you reclaim control over your thoughts and feelings. I am confident you will find freedom from the plague of anxiety and find your way back to a place of rest.
If you would like to see an article about other specific types of anxiety or anxiety in children/adolescents, or for questions, please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading.
“If any of you are having trouble, pray.” James 5:13
“Cast all of your anxiety on God because He cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7
Anxiety types or disorders:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Panic attacks and Panic Disorder
Phobias (ex. Agoraphobia)
Acute Stress Disorder
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
Resources: A great workbook to check out is The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne
American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth ed., Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
Anxiety, Prayer, and Spirituality: Clinical evidence to the power of prayer and faith as an antidote to emotional diseases. (2007). In Holistic Online. Retrieved August 2, 2013, from http://www.holisticonline.com/Remedies/Anxiety/anx_prayer.htm
Facts and Statistics. (2010). In Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Retrieved July 2, 2013, from http://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
Howard, P. J. (2006). The Owner’s Manual for the Brain: Everyday application from mind-brain research (3rd ed.). Austin, TX: Bard Press.
Jongsma, A. E., & Peterson, L. (2006). The Complete Adult Psychotherapy Treatment Planner (4th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2012, June 30). Anxiety: Symptoms. In Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 2, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/anxiety/DS01187/DSECTION=symptoms
Nevid, J. S., Rathus, S. A., & Greene, B. (2006). Abnormal Psychology in a Changing World (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Statistics: Any anxiety disorder among adults. (2013). In National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved July 2, 2013, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/1ANYANX_ADULT.shtml
My video on this topic: