Everyone feels the familiar symptoms of anxiety—the sweaty palms, the galloping heart—when facing a high-stress situation such as a job interview, public speaking engagement, or freeway drive on an icy day. That kind of anxiety can actually help us focus; it sharpens our senses and keeps us on alert to danger.
But sometimes, anxiety feels more like noise—a relentless nattering in your brain (“Uh-oh, I’m going to be late…this traffic is impossible…I should have taken the other route…now I’m going to be really late…”) that doesn’t help you address the problem.
And for some, anxiety ratchets up even when there’s nothing apparent to provoke the fear. Thoughts spin toward catastrophe—What if I’m having a heart attack? What if the plane crashes?—while the nervous system goes into overdrive, prompting symptoms that can include shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, and feelings of impending doom.
At the root of most anxiety—whether it’s a short-term surge before a first date or a chronic concern about the state of the economy—is worry. “Tackle worry and you are well on your way to reducing anxiety,” says R. Reid Wilson, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Program in Chapel Hill, and the author of Don't Panic Third Edition: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks. When a worry signals a problem (“I’m spending too much money…my job is going to be cut…I shouldn’t have yelled at my kids this morning”), addressing the problem can help. Write it down, brainstorm some possible solutions, talk about them with someone you trust, choose a course of action, and follow it.
When worry is just relentless noise, Wilson recommends challenging those thoughts (“Will I really lose my job if I’m 5 minutes late?”), then telling yourself it’s okay to let them go. One trick to snap yourself out of worrying thoughts: Put a rubber band on your wrist and snap it each time you find the worry returning. Then, distract yourself with other activities.
If your anxiety is ongoing and interferes with your work, sleep, or relationships, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. If so, you’re in plenty of company: Anxiety disorders—which include obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder—are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older. “These disorders are highly treatable,” says Wilson. The most common and effective treatments for anxiety include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), in which people learn to examine and change their anxiety-provoking thoughts while practicing relaxation, deep breathing, and other techniques to calm their symptoms. Common medications used to treat anxiety include antidepressants, such as Prozac and Zoloft, and anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax. They are especially effective when used in combination with psychotherapy that helps put perspective on life’s inevitable stresses.
What you can do: Try some self-care remedies to help you manage all three conditions.
What you can do: Acknowledge your losses, then focus on what’s really important, such as friends and family.
What you can do: Stick to your daily routine, don’t listen too much to the news, and use commonsense methods to protect yourself from getting sick.
What you can do: Talk with hospital staff before you go in; take the time to find answers to any questions or concerns you have.
What you can do: Talk to your dentist about your anxieties; bring something along to distract you.
What you can do:
What you can do: Get your water tested, and watch out for home renovations that could expose you to high levels of lead.
What you can do: Take note of sudden in your physical health to see if stress could be a factor, and then find ways to cope.
What you can do: Whether you're anxious because of a health problem or something else, try to fit 20 minutes of activity into every day.