Things that have been running through my head like a ticker tape when my eyes pop open at 3:30 a.m., as they have every morning for the past few months: How will I juggle Zoom learning and work if my sons’ school closes because of Covid? Should I press pause on my freelance writing career? But how will my husband and I pay the mortgage? Will we have money for retirement? What if the market crashes? Should I just hide our savings under a mattress in case our investments tank?
In the past, I might have thought this much worrying makes me abnormal. But I now know that similar middle-of-the-night spirals are probably happening in bedrooms across the world. Anxiety is the most common mental illness, affecting 40 million U.S. adults every year, with women twice as likely to experience it as men, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Even if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, you can experience situational episodes when under duress, like many of us are right now. Issues like social and racial injustice, the threat of increasing natural disasters, and the day-to-day angst that comes from being overworked and burned out can make waking up in the morning difficult for anyone in 2021. I went in search of ways to ratchet down my own worry and found hope in solutions that can benefit all of us.
Your early-warning system
Before we get to the surprising solutions, you need to know why worry even exists. Experts say worry serves an important purpose and can be harnessed to great benefit. Unless what you’re experiencing has been classified as an anxiety disorder by a doctor (see “When to Get Help,” below), feelings of anxiousness are normal, healthy, and part of an ancient biological system designed to keep us safe, says psychologist Lisa Damour, PhD, cohost of the Ask Lisa podcast and author of Under Pressure. Think of it this way: If you’re nervous about driving on the highway, that unease can remind you to keep your distance from other cars to avoid an accident. Protective parents have alarm bells to help them mobilize if, say, their 3-year-old is trying to scurry up a ladder.
Yet despite these benefits, we’ve been encouraged to view anxiety as problematic, says Damour. She attributes some of this programming to the commercial wellness industry, which has given rise to a proliferation of products promising to help squash these feelings. Anxious? Take a mood-boosting supplement. Crack open an adult coloring book. Do anything but dwell. “But a big part of getting a handle on your anxiety is understanding it can be a useful thing,” Damour says.
Make anxiety your ally
The first step is to identify that you’re experiencing an anxious episode. While we typically think of anxiety as constant worry, it’s far more wide-reaching. “Anxiety is an umbrella term that encompasses emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical reactions,” says Damour. “Those range from nervousness and irritability to rumination and the heart pounding, muscle tension, and quick breathing we associate with the fight-or-flight response.” Once you’re able to identify these feelings, take stock of what you’re experiencing. Are you frightened because there’s a true threat, or because something challenging or even exciting is coming your way? Often, it’s the latter, which is why Damour suggests pausing to breathe deeply. This activates stretch receptors on your lungs, triggering nerves that can counteract your brain’s acute anxiety response; you can then think more clearly to see if you can make those feelings work for you.
How? By taking action. “The healthy function of anxiety is to stimulate preparatory behavior,” explains Manhattan psychologist Chloe Carmichael, PhD, author of Nervous Energy. Transform that energy into productivity. Fire off a few emails or make some exploratory calls. Start a project instead of procrastinating.
Anxiety over bigger issues—poverty, climate change, racism, sexism—can certainly feel different. After all, you alone can’t fix them. But you’re not powerless: Redirect these feelings and use them to help better the community around you, says Carmichael. Can you attend a rally? Help people register to vote? Gather your friends or family to collect supplies for people affected by natural disasters? I’ve been dealing with some major eco-anxiety lately. (I’d like the planet to still be around when my children grow up.) So I joined a local solar and wind farm to support renewable sources of energy. And when it was time for us to get a second car, I purchased the smallest electric vehicle I could find (a two-door red Mini Cooper that’s also dealt handily with my budding midlife crisis). These small steps have helped stop me from lingering in a state of helplessness, which only exacerbates worry and fear.
Flip the internal script
It’s also important to manage the catastrophizing inner monologue that can make threats appear bigger than they are, says Carmichael. Let’s say you messed up at work. Make sure your self-talk is similar to a chat you’d have with a dear friend. You’d never tell her the screw-up happened because she’s stupid or that her career is over. You’d say “It was a mistake, and you’re smart and resourceful, and I know you’ll fix it.” Why not have the same kind of chat with yourself instead of being your own harshest critic?
Personally, I’ve come to welcome parts of my anxious tendencies and have begun to listen to what my anxiety is telling me I need. That might be connecting to a financial planner to give me a better idea of how to shape my career. My father has been living with cancer for more than two years: I try to use my worry for him to push me to make more plans together as a family. These actions, I find, are not just productive—but life-giving.
WHEN TO GET HELP
Typically, when what’s causing feelings of anxiety goes away, so does the anxiety. If not, or if these feelings are cutting into your sleep significantly, affecting your desire to connect with others, making it difficult to concentrate, or causing physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, and stomachaches, it’s time to see a professional. You may be dealing with an anxiety disorder, a diagnosis that encompasses several conditions, from generalized anxiety to panic- and phobia-related disorders. The good news: There are many excellent, effective treatment options, including therapy, medications, and relaxation strategies, or a combo of all three.
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