Connie Fisher, LCSW
Director of Mental Health Promotion, Mental Health America
Originally published in the October 2019 issue of the St. Louis Lawyer magazine. View in the archives.
Anxiety robs you of the present moment and places you in the future, where you have no control. Anxiety often is in response to some vague distant danger (often imagined). Eventually, with anxiety, your focus becomes more internal than external — you start to check for physical anxiety symptoms — which, of course, leads to more anxiety. In contrast, fear is in response to a concrete external object or situation that is in the range of possibility and the focus is more external – what out there is scaring you.
Anxiety has symptoms that include restlessness, being on edge, fatigue, difficulty concentrating or mind going blank, muscle tension and sleep disturbance. In its extreme, it causes a panic attack. The brain does not know the difference between real and imagined fear, so it tells the body to respond as if there is danger. Then the body goes into the Fight-or-Flight response, which includes elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, increased breathing that is also shallow and a surge in adrenaline. An exaggerated version of the Fight-or-Flight response is a panic attack.
The easiest way to correct a panic attack is to lead with the body by doing deep breathing techniques. A reminder from my Burnout article of an easy breathing technique is the 5, 5, PEACE method. Breathe in (extending abdomen) for a count of 5; hold your breath for a count of 5; breathe out and spell the word P-E-A-C-E.
When we worry for long periods of time, we begin to think in a different way, which is called ruminating. Rumination is a statement that often begins with the words, "What if…" This starts an imagined fear. Thinking like this puts you into the future and makes you feel powerless. Your only power over the future is to come up with a solution in the now. This, of course, requires that you be in the present. Ruminating thoughts often are repetitive, which increases your physical symptoms of anxiety. And with this type of thinking, you usually are focused on the thought and not on the solutions to your "What if's."
What causes anxiety? Heredity is one answer. Research shows some people can be born with a genetic predisposition for anxiety disorders. Other causes are childhood trauma, accumulated stress, personal losses and short-term triggers.
What to do about it?
- Calm the body using some relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga and deep breathing.
- Correct any irrational thoughts by asking, "What are the odds of this really happening?" "Am I looking at the whole picture?" "Does this thought promote my well-being?"
- Answer the "What if…" If this happens, what will you do? Once you have a plan, you will find your anxiety goes down to a more reasonable level.
- You also can prevent anxiety by using the same practices that help calm the body. These include staying in the present moment by using mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, meditation or guided imageries. The more you practice these techniques, the better you get at them.
- There are many apps for this. My favorite is Calm.com. Others include Headspace, Insight Timer, Stop, Breathe & Think and many more.
- Even small practices of calming the mind and body make a difference. Practice deep breathing at stoplights, do the 3-minute body scan from Calm.com — everyone has 3 minutes. These short practices will have lasting effects on your whole day.