Lately, depression is an especially popular topic on all media. This is very good. People need to know what it really looks like (#faceofdepression), how to deal with it, especially with people close to us who suffer from it. However, today I feel like talking about anxiety. In the world of constant change, informational overflow and excessive expectations, anxiety disorders become ever more common. According to some studies (Prevalence of mental disorders in Europe: results from the European Study of the Epidemiology of Mental Disorders (ESEMeD) project), up to 14% of healthy Europeans without any history of mental illness have suffered from anxiety in one of its many forms at some point. Universal data, gathered from analysing broad sample groups, states numbers as high as 1/3 of the population (Epidemiology of anxiety disorders in the 21st century).
According to my personal clinical observations, about a third of the people I attend come directly because of anxiety or panic states, and the rest have experienced them at some point in their lives.
We can imagine anxiety quite clearly. Recall how you felt before or during an exam, while waiting for important lab results or a call from a loved one, who might be in danger. Apart from the emotional component, there are distinct physical signals of worry/anxiety/panic. Take a moment now to remember these sensations in your body. What did you feel? Usually there is muscular tension, changes in breathing and acceleration of the heartbeat. Then, depending of the intensity of one’s experience, comes pain and tightness of the chest and/or head, perspiration, vertigo, dizziness. Does this all sound familiar?
Anxiety, fear and even panic per se are harmless and normal, moreover, they have useful purposes. So how can you understand, if what you are experiencing is not normal? And, especially, how to decide when to ask for help? I always pose the same question to my clients: does this interfere with your ability to live as you want and find appropriate? If it does then it is a problem. If not, than there is nothing to worry about. States of anxiety become a disorder when they exceed the limits of what you can withstand calmly and productively. I will give you some examples:
- A shy man always had trouble making friends, because he avoids all social occasions and meetings, including those he is potentially interested in and is invited to. He does not want to party or to be the centre of attention, but his life becomes difficult when there is no one to talk to. It has never been a real problem in his perception until the time his best and only friend from school left the country to live in a far away place. Our man became extremely lonely, and now his social anxiety is a real torture.
- A woman, prone to worrying for her grown-up son always found this to be uncomfortable, but also was secretly proud of such a strong maternal instinct. However, lately she has trouble falling asleep if she cannot contact her son, and he does not always pick up the phone. Insomnia made her sensitive nervous system even weaker, and she began experiencing panic attacks without any apparent reason.
I just invented these particular people. But they are very much like those who come into my office. Sadly, most people come, when they cannot stand it any longer. My primary recommendation is to ask for help before, when it becomes uncomfortable or unpleasant, and not wait until it becomes absolutely unbearable.
It is worth mentioning, especially for family members and friends of people, who suffer from anxiety disorders, that these conditions can be truly agonizing. The vast majority of people, who come to me because of problems related to anxiety, at one point or another share having suicidal thoughts.
The good news is that anxiety, panic, phobias and other disorders of this spectrum are highly treatable. There is a wide variety of methods, effective drugs and great techniques that do not involve any medication. The main thing is to understand and accept that anxiety is getting out of hand, and a good specialist will help you put it back in its place.
As an end note I want to leave you with some recommendations for prevention of anxiety disorders:
- Find time for emptiness and quiet. Most likely you are not going to like it at first. It might even provoke a certain degree of anxiety. But in the long run it will make an invaluable contribution to your emotional health. My personal choice lies with mindfulness meditation, but even a slow walk in nature could do the trick.
- Limit the information you consume. Pay attention to the time you spend, ingesting information (Internet, TV, books, conversations) and tone it down.
- Do nice things for yourself. Just because. Whatever way you want. Whatever way you can.
- Get enough rest and sleep. At least from time to time. Reach a compromise with yourself, your family and work, and get plenty of sleep at least couple of times a week.
- Release physical tension. You can use whatever way you want: dance, run, jump, swim, walk. You can even skip or swing on a swing as long as you do it regularly and feel tension leave your body, while you do it.
- Pay attention to what you eat and drink. If you see that it makes your anxiety level rise, think twice whether you really need this.
- Take care of your circle of support: family, friends, colleagues. Having people you can count on in certain difficult situations is one of the major factors in emotional wellbeing.