About Anxiety

I recently read a really fantastic article by Emma Gray in the Huffington Post, entitled "15 Things Anyone Who Loves a Woman With Anxiety Should Know". I would like to comment on parts of that article here.

"Anxiety impacts over 40 million adults in the U.S. alone. And while certain anxiety-related disorders like Social Anxiety Disorder are split evenly between the genders, women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder."

There is no doubt, from my perspective, that anxiety is a huge problem for a great number of people. I'm seeing it in my office more now than ever before, even in very young children. It feels like its getting more prevalent although I only have anectdotal evidence to support that claim. What is important to note, however, is that there are very effective ways of managing it.

"Anxiety is physical. Your chest tightens, your head feels cloudy and you are acutely aware of the effort behind every breath. When you feel as though you have a small child made of frenetic negative energy trying to beat her way out of your body, it becomes impossible to ignore. [It is] impossible to think about anything else."

A great description of the physical part of anxiety. Along with this, many people also experience abdominal distress, numbness, tingling, and even feel that perhaps they're having a heart attack! Its extremely uncomfortable, although I would say it is not "impossible" to think about anything but the anxiety you're experiencing. It is certainly very difficult without a lot of practice, but not impossible.

"It can be treated, but not 'cured.' Anxiety disorders require management [...] Treatment is more about giving people with anxiety the tools to help themselves than making the anxiety go away forever."

This is where I come in. I give my clients the tools to help themselves. Much like a parent teaching their child life skills, I try to teach my clients these life skills that we don't usually learn at all or that we learn and don't think about applying in different circumstances like the management of anxiety. Parents teach their children skills like how to do the laundry in the hopes that one day they'll be able to do it on their own and won't "need" their parents to be there to do it for them. That's how I feel about therapy. I don't want my clients to be dependent on me. I want them to be independent. I want to work myself out of a job!

"Therapy, exercise, and anti-anxiety medication can all help. But each person needs something different."

Finding out what it is that works for each individual person may take a little bit of time but that's my area of expertise as well. I like to teach LOTS of tools in therapy because maybe one tool is effective in one circumstance but not in another, so having lots to draw from is the best course of action. Exercise is an important addition to anxiety management--one that many people don't think about either. Anti-anxiety medication is always an option but I like to use it more as a last resort because most people I've worked with don't want to be reliant upon medication if they have other tools available to them. Sometimes, it is the best option, though, and that's okay, too. When this seems to be an appropriate avenue to investigate, I make a referral to a local psychiatrist. If a psychiatrist feels medication is appropriate for a particular client, the decision to fill the prescription and actually take the medication is still up to the client. 

"[Anxiety] can be a great survival mechanism [...] it can make you more empathetic, driven and aware of the dynamics around you." 

I especially love this because I think its very helpful to reframe the anxiety  in a positive way. The qualities of empathy, determination and awareness of what is going on in and around you are things that are difficult to learn. I have also noticed that many people with anxiety are much more aware of their own physical reactions. They're great at noticing subtle changes in their breathing, heart rate, muscle tension, etc. These are SKILLS! These are ASSETS! How wonderful to have this awareness! These are traits that I think make pretty great friends and parents.

"Mental health issues are still stigmatized, so it can be awkward to open up about them." 

This is unfortunately still true even in the 21st century. I would like to believe that it is changing for the better--becoming less stigmatized--but that could just be because I live in Los Angeles! When we reframe the anxiety as a survival mechanism, we begin to see that people experiencing anxiety are obviously "not 'crazy.'" This kind of judgemental statement is the most unhelpful belief that one can have about anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. Ms. Gray states that it "invalidates" our thoughts and needs. I agree. 

"Just let us cry [...] and show your support -- and your patience [...] Just let the wave of anxiety ride out, and be by our side while it does."

Especially if you've never experienced anxiety, seeing someone go through this can be scary. Many times it is true that what triggers anxiety can be "irrational" and sometimes feel like it literally comes out of nowhere, but that doesn't mean one can completely "logic" one's way out of it, so trying this method of "helping" is probably going to be unhelpful. Even when using the tools learned in therapy to help manage anxiety, there are times when crying and riding it out are the treatments. Having a safe environment in which to do that is so important. Knowing that the only thing you need to do is say: "Just breathe. I'm here and you're okay."

This article does a really nice job of summarizing not only what anxiety often looks like (and feels like) but also what to do if you are with someone that is experiencing a panic attack or severe anxiety. She also reminds everyone in a very subtle way that this experience, although extremely uncomfortable (not just physically but mentally and socially) does pass. Most people have discrete periods of anxiety--most panic attacks don't last beyond 10 minutes. One important goal is to "get through it" by using the tools that can be learned and practiced in therapy.

For the entire text of Ms. Gray's article, please go to the Huffington Post here.