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Anxiety – What it is, What Makes it Worse and How to Cope

By Josh Harrison, PSYD, HSPP

What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a common mood state which impacts both body and mind. When anxious, the body becomes tense and the mind becomes preoccupied with the future. It’s an unpleasant feeling that can bring a sense of unease, which typically disappears with time. In moderate amounts, anxiety can be good, helping us perform better on tasks and motivating us to plan for things to come. Basically, it’s a future–oriented mood state we sometimes benefit from. Learning to cope when it gets a bit out of hand is helpful for our mental and emotional wellbeing.

What Worsens Anxiety?
In a general sense, anxiety worsens when we avoid. Avoidance gives us temporary relief from the tasks we know we should get done, such as grocery shopping. Most people would agree watching a few episodes of a favorite TV show is much more fun than grocery shopping. And it’s so easy to justify the thought, “I’m just going to watch one more episode.”, but with each episode the anxiety builds. Sometimes all it takes is to get the grocery shopping done to relieve your anxiety.

Although tackling the pesky tasks you’ve been avoiding is sometimes the best antidote, anxiety can be at its worst in situations outside of our control. For example, when we wait to get the results from a lumpectomy, or receive a phone call about a family emergency, the brain seemingly begins to go into overload worrying about what is to come. Racing thoughts, replaying the worst outcome, and having difficulty concentrating are common during these times. When in the midst of the distress, it can seem as though the anxiety won’t go away.

Does Anxiety Ever Go Away?
Anxiety, just like any other mood state, is impermanent. The level of anxiety you experience at any given moment does not stay the same over time. Therapists like to use rating scales to help track mood states like anxiety. One such rating scale is simple – 1 to 100. Level 1 represents a time when you are completely and utterly relaxed — at a spa or lying on a beach on a warm sunny day. Level 100 represents a time when your anxiety is at the highest you have ever experienced in your life — perhaps while public speaking or barely dodging a major wreck. By rating your anxiety, you can become more in tune with what activities and thoughts increase and decrease anxiety. This especially helps when learning how and when to cope with anxiety, because if you rate your anxiety level before and after using a coping skill, you can see if the skill was effective.

How Should I Begin Learning to Cope with Anxiety?
Beginning to learn coping skills with severe anxiety is like first learning how to drive a car on the highway in a major city – the pressure is too high and the end result is more punishing than rewarding. You will likely have more success when first learning anxiety coping skills in situations where you have mild-to-moderate levels of anxiety (using the rating scale above, at a level of around 50 or below). When you successfully learn to cope with mild-to-moderate anxiety, your confidence builds, making you more effective at coping with anxiety at higher levels.

Another tip when learning to cope with anxiety is to think of the coping skills as a ‘dimmer switch,’ rather than an ‘on-off switch.’ We can easily fall into the mental trap of, “Well that doesn’t work!”, when we try a new coping skill and it doesn’t completely and immediately take away the anxiety. No single coping skill will immediately reduce Level 80 anxiety down to Level 1. However, perhaps you can reduce your Level 80 anxiety to a Level 50 after a few minutes with coping skills.

What Are Some Specific Coping Skills I Can Use for Anxiety?
*Please keep in mind this list is by no means comprehensive. There are numerous other ways of coping with anxiety beyond the scope of this article.*

The human body cannot be relaxed and anxious at the same time. Like a seesaw, when anxiety is high, relaxation is low; when relaxation is high, anxiety is low. Therefore, activities inducing relaxation help counteract anxiety symptoms. Relaxing activities such as taking a warm bath, listening to soothing music, getting a massage, listening to birds chirp, or any other relaxing activity will help you decrease anxiety levels.

Deep Breathing
Taking deep, slow breaths can help induce relaxation. Take a deep breath in through your mouth until your belly extends. Hold for two seconds then release the air through your mouth letting stress go with each breath. Continue this for a few minutes.

Another helpful coping skill is distraction. If you find your mind is uncontrollably focused on all the possible negative outcomes that could occur, perhaps is when it’s best to sit down and watch a TV show or two. If that doesn’t work, perhaps you can listen to music, call a friend, or watch funny cat videos online. While distraction won’t make your problems go away, it can help ease the intensity of mental anguish severe anxiety can cause.

Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment. Since anxiety is a future-oriented mood state, practicing mindfulness by being in the present can help keep your mind off the future. Doing one thing at a time is a good place to start, such as eating dinner. Instead of watching TV and eating dinner at the same time, turn the TV off and practice focusing your attention on each bite. Notice the smells, the taste and the texture of the food. When you find your mind wandering to something else, that’s okay, just bring your attention back to the smells, taste and texture of the food with each bite. This is by no means a complete description of mindfulness, but it’s a start.

What About Anxiety Disorders?
Sometimes the mental anguish of anxiety can be chronic and it’s important to know when to reach out for professional help. If you feel your anxiety has become a major concern in your life, please reach out to your primary care provider. Your doctor can talk to you about the options available to help you with your anxiety. Additionally, Margaret Mary’s behavioral health specialists are available throughout the week to help you cope with anxiety and any other emotional or behavioral health concerns you may be going through.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, immediately call 911, report to the nearest emergency room, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255.