Coping with everyday worries is part of life, at times annoying and distracting, but something millions contend with as they move through the rhythm of work, family and activity. Stress and worry can be positive when they help motivate us to achieve goals, meet deadlines, and prepare for future events. However, when the stress response remains on high alert, and the body continues in a fight or flight mode, we can develop an anxiety disorder. In this disorder the ability to focus and concentrate is crippled by intrusive thoughts of worry and panic, and goes far beyond the garden variety feelings of everyday stress. Recent studies reveal 18% of the US population have an anxiety disorder, including popular celebrities Chef Paula Deen and musician John Mayer. (1)
While the negative impact of stress have saturated the airwaves, the ability to sense stress and risk can be a beneficial physical and biochemical reaction, dating back to cavemen. Sensing danger, the caveman would instinctively engage the body and mind to prepare for battle and then return to equilibrium. This is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ mode and was critical to the survival of the species. However, cavemen were able to turn off this physical and mental danger sensor once the threat had subsided. Today, many people are unable to transition from the ‘fight or flight’ mode and are living in a constant state of strain and worry. Irrational, uncontrollable fears about money, relationships, family, work, healthcare and everyday issues consume their worldview. This excessive worry interferes with daily activities and can indicate an anxiety disorder.
The symptoms of an anxiety disorder include ongoing feelings of unease, uncontrollable obsessive thoughts, ruminating, irritability, difficulty with concentration, forgetfulness, fatigue, trouble with sleep, sweating, pacing, rapid heartbeat, gastro intestinal distress, and unexplained aches. Speak to your doctor about these symptoms to rule out any other medical condition and the possibility of an anxiety disorder. While the exact cause of anxiety disorders is unknown, research shows that there is a strong genetic link, and biochemical and environmental factors play a role. Traumatic life events can trigger stress reactions, in addition to major life changes. A former client began therapy to deal with depression after the death of a loved one, however after several sessions, we came to understand that his pacing, stomach aches and inability to sleep were all related to a longstanding struggle with anxiety. Clearly, the major life event brought on depressive symptoms, but over time we came to understand he had struggled with anxiety most of his life, and had always written off these symptoms as part of his ‘type A’ personality.
We have all known friends or family who are branded as the ‘worry wart’ or the ‘nervous Nellies’ but these cavalier nicknames could belie an anxiety disorder, a serious mental illness that requires treatment. Anxiety disorders will not resolve on their own and normally require treatment in the form of medication, talk therapy and or group therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective therapeutic approach as it helps identify negative patterns and thinking that contribute to feelings of anxiety. Proper nutrition, exercise and relaxation techniques are also helpful and should be considered as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.