We’re moving at lightning speed. We’re maxed out, overcommitted, and exhausted. It’s no wonder that one in eight Americans ages 18 and older suffers from an anxiety disorder, and over the last decade, the rates of anti-anxiety and insomnia medication use have skyrocketed.
Anxiety is rooted in a fear of what might happen in the future. I mean think about it—there are so many good things to worry about. They usually start with the words what if followed by some sort of catastrophic thinking:
- What if the deal doesn’t go through?
- What if I get sick?
- What if I can’t get it all done?
- What if others don’t approve?
- What if I fail?
Anxiety can bring on a range of symptoms—from mild physical discomfort like tense muscles or heart racing to more pronounced ones such as shortness of breath or dizziness. Anxiety can be the root cause of an executive’s sleepless nights, a public speaker’s repetitive finger tapping, a parent’s nail biting, and a child’s tummy ache. I’ve treated dozens of physical ailments that were a result of prolonged anxiety: hives, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma attacks, to name a few. By the way, now would be a good time to check in: Has merely reading this list provoked some anxious thoughts or feelings in you?
Are you solving the underlying problem?
Once anxiety sends clear physical signals, people will often turn to physical strategies, such as prescription drugs, to alleviate them. Since most people don’t know what to do with their worrisome thoughts or fearful emotions, it can seem easier to control their physical bodies instead. And often people become dependent on these short-term reprieves. The irony is that anxiety has a mental and emotional basis. Physical strategies serve to get you through the moment—but have you noticed they don’t solve the underlying problem?
In an effort to combat their anxiety, some people turn to smoking, others work long hours, and still others numb themselves with food, alcohol or drugs in order to function. When these behaviors go on too long, they can lead to health problems or burnout. By the time I see patients suffering from anxiety, they’ve usually already found a coping method, or several, to temporarily alleviate their physical symptoms.
And then there are the folks who use “healthier” options to cope. They use yoga, running or some sort of physical exercise to relieve their discomfort. The interesting part is that focusing on their physical body alone helps in two ways—it relieves muscle tension and allows the person to be in control of something (while they feel somewhat out of control emotionally). There’s no doubt that exercising is good for your health, but remember, any of these strategies only last until the next time you feel anxious.
Let’s see how this might play out: If you have a new boss who keeps close tabs on your work, this may cause you to have a glass of wine (or three) to “take the edge off” your day. Your anxiety may even lessen after a few drinks, but tomorrow, it will be time to head back to work and nothing will have changed. You’re merely getting by.
On the other hand, if you choose to manage your anxiety by running a few miles after work each night, you will probably feel stronger and be in better shape. That’s a good thing. After a few months, you’ll likely get compliments from your friends and colleagues about your stellar physique. Except your relationship with your micromanaging boss will still be the same each morning—as if it were Groundhog Day.
Both scenarios demonstrate that coping strategies can have a beneficial impact in the short run—and to some degree, even longer-term, as in the yoga-running example. However, neither of these strategies solves the underlying problem: feeling powerless and trapped. Until you commit to leaving your job or having an honest conversation—with yourself and with your boss—your anxiety will continue each time the meds wear off.
What to do when you experience anxiety
Next time you experience anxiety, notice if you stop breathing. Many people do. Instead, pause so you can ground yourself and make sure you take three slow deep breaths. (Watch my quick tutorial on soft-belly breathing to make sure you’re not doing anxiety breathing by mistake!) This will help you pause long enough to address what’s happening in your head.
Now, it’s time to pay attention to the internal conversation driving your worries and fears. Notice any what if thinking. Name your fear—writing it down often helps. Then get curious about whose voice it reminds you of (a family member, teacher or someone growing up) and challenge those beliefs. Next to your fear write, “What I know for sure in this moment is that…”
Focus on the present moment—not what might happen in the future. Once you are in the present, you can tap into your creative thinking to expand your possibilities. Then you can ask yourself, “What would self-trust and courage do now?” Trust the first answer that comes to you.
Slowing down may seem counterintuitive, especially when you’re uncomfortable. But actually it’s the fastest way to stop anxiety in its tracks.
Send me your questions—drop me a tweet at #AskDoctorNeha or write your question and comments down below.
Your TalkRx Prescription
- Pause and manage your physical symptoms.
- Focus on the present moment.
- Identify your fear.
- Challenge your thinking.
- Ask yourself, “What would self-trust and courage do now?” Trust the answer.
To accessing more Zen,