There’s a lot of shame surrounding this topic and that’s why I think it’s so important to have these conversations….to shine a light, to educate, and to make sure that those who may struggle with anxiety know that they are not alone. Here’s the challenge though with this discussion…each individual’s journey with anxiety will be different – their symptoms will be different, the origin will be different, treatment recommendations will be different. Honestly, anxiety can feel like a big scary monster that looks different for a lot of people and there are a lot of ways that you can learn to tame that monster.
I will do my best to cover a wide spectrum of experiences, symptoms, and treatment approaches and to also provide some education about anxiety and some tools for becoming more grounded and more centered with the goal of promoting mental wellness for all of us – and I hope that will be really helpful…if you struggle with anxiety and even if you don’t.
In January of this year, I went through a season of anxiety. At the time, I couldn’t figure out what was causing it – though looking back now, I certainly have some guesses but what I was certain of was the inescapable and paralyzing fear. This season gave me a new perspective on anxiety - both symptoms and approaches. It gave me an opportunity to practice what I preach and to change my relationship with anxiety, such invaluable learning for the rest of my life.
I want to share with you some of what I have learned and lived in just the past 12 months.
ANXIETY – STATS
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the United States affecting 40 million adults – most of them women. Only 36.9% of the 40 million receive treatment.
Anxiety is an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of diagnosis including PTSD, OCD, Panic Disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, just to name a few.
Studies have declared millennial's the most anxious generation in history. There are a lot of hypothesis as to why this is but let me start with this encouraging information: there is mounting evidence to suggest that mental health is becoming a priority for millennial's – they’re more willing than previous generations to consult a therapist and to talk about their struggles openly, which is a powerful way to end the stigma and to shine a light on mental wellness.
ANXIETY - SYMPTOMS
Anxiety comes in many forms but almost always causes nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying. Mild anxiety is vague and unsettling while severe anxiety can seriously affect day to day living.
There is a strong connection between emotional and physical symptoms and anxiety is often stored in the body…physical manifestations like rapid heart beat, rapid breathing, increasing blood pressure, lack of focus, irritability, nausea, sleepless nights, and muscle tension. When anxiety escalates it can be debilitating and have serious effects on our physical health. By some estimates as much as 80% of all disease and illness is initiated and aggravated by stress and anxiety, diseases like diabetes, heart disease, substance abuse, lower immune system, and GI distress.
With anxiety our body is reacting to a threat and the amygdala (the lower part of our brain) is hijacked – it’s literally as if we are being chased by a bear, and we respond with a fight, flight, or freeze response.
Typically anxiety is long-term and is a very internal experience – it’s possible to hide your anxiety and for no one to know the depth of your struggles. Anxiety is often steady and consistent and there may be no awareness of what is causing our anxiety - it often feels irrational or out of proportion with the actual likelihood or impact of the anticipated event. Anxiety is synonymous with a helpless/powerless feeling, which only leads to more anxiety, leaving you feeling completely stuck.
There is a continuum with anxiety which makes this conversation incredibly difficult. There are a lot of different origins and root causes, i.e. childhood onset, adult onset, anxiety caused by trauma, and then of course there are hormonal factors, such as postpartum anxiety.
POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY
Postpartum or Perinatal Mood Disorders, also known as PMD (which includes both postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety) is the most common medical complication of childbirth and it’s estimated that it effects 10 - 20% of women giving birth globally. In Pima county alone 4,000 women suffer with PMD. Baby blues last for a couple of weeks while symptoms that last longer indicate PMD. Sadness is only one symptom and other common symptoms include anxiety, irritability, and nagging self-doubt.
Here's the key to PMD, you don’t have to suffer alone! Here are a few steps if you or someone you love seems to be exhibiting symptoms of PMD;
· Talk to your doctor
· Learn more about the symptoms
· Know that it’s a common complication and it’s not your fault
For anxiety, most often the best treatment approach is a combination of both therapy and medication. Here’s my disclaimer about medication though…so often we want a quick fix. An easy solution to a complicated problem. I want to encourage you, if you’re struggling with anxiety to not simply treat the symptoms but to discover and treat the root cause. My experience is that anxiety is often rooted in trauma and shame. In many cases, healing is possible and you don’t have to live with anxiety forever. Healing from trauma and shame is the harder path but can lead to incredible freedom and joy.
Struggles with anxiety or even depression, don’t have to define you, in fact, learning to cope and manage it well can lead to being a wiser and more compassionate human, but we have to do the hard work of healing.
Here are some important factors to consider as we work at changing our relationship with anxiety.
SELF-EXPLORATION AS A FIRST STEP
As you work with a therapist, part of the process is self-learning and self-exploration. Understanding the emotional continuum and where you land on that will help you know how to treat your symptoms - both when you are experiencing acute anxiety and then how to lower your overall level of anxiety. In addition to understanding your anxiety intensity you will identify patterns and triggers and learn to avoid them if possible. Many people identify too much caffeine, not enough sleep, or too much social media as major anxiety triggers. When you’re more aware of these triggers you can do a better job of planning and preparing for them.
LOWERING YOUR OVERALL ANXIETY LEVELS
The second important step in treating anxiety, after learning about your anxiety, is to lower your overall anxiety level. When you work with a therapist, you will learn coping skills and distraction skills for both preventing anxiety (to the degree you are able to) and to manage anxiety. Everyone is different and different things work for different people so testing this and trying new things becomes really important. While there may be no cure for your particular anxiety, there are things that can help you in your journey. Just a few of the things I often recommend;
· Meditation – head space app
In addition to these tools, mindfulness becomes an invaluable skill. Anxiety means our brains are disconnecting from our bodies. Mindfulness becomes a priority to learn to manage anxiety. Get out of your head and into your body…slow down, be present and avoid judgement. Meditation and yoga are both great tools for developing and strengthening the skill of mindfulness.
DEVELOPING RESILIENCY – HOW DO WE PROMOTE MENTAL WELLNESS
Resiliency is a critical component to not allowing these struggles – if it’s anxiety or something completely different – to define us. How do we develop this skill?
COMMUNITY/REDUCING THE STIGMA
Individuals who struggle with anxiety are more likely than the general population to feel lonely and isolated from others. Yet, close relationships are both preventative and restorative when it comes to emotional wellness. Our minds and emotions are healthiest when we maintain strong attachments to people whom we can be open, honest, and vulnerable.
I realize that there is still a significant amount of shame involved in being honest. My hope is that you will do the hard work of building a community where you can be honest about your struggles. There is freedom in honesty and honesty can begin the healing process. Freedom from shame and stigma releases us to do the work of healing – this work requires vulnerability, honesty, connection and empathy.