What is life with anxiety really like? Almost everyone can answer that question. After all, life is full of all sorts of anxiety triggers.
We're asked to give a presentation at work in front of dozens of people. Or we have to maneuver through difficult freeways to get to work. Or a beloved child is playing an important baseball game, and we're sitting in the stands.
Any—or all—of these situations could cause a spike in anxious feelings. They're strong, but they're fleeting. When the situation passes, we feel stable and secure once more. That's not the case for everyone.
Some people experience too many anxiety-provoking episodes in a single day, so they always feel anxious. And some people have anxiety disorders that cause them to be flooded with anxious feelings all day.
For people like this, life with anxiety is difficult. But thankfully, there's a lot that can be done to turn the situation around.
The scope of anxiety in the United States
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that 7 in 10 adults experience anxiety or stress daily. Most of these people report that it interferes with their lives in at least a moderate way.
This is a self-reported study, meaning that the people who participated simply answered questions about their mental health. The researchers didn't followup with any kind of testing to confirm the reports. They took the answers at face value.
When researchers look for formal anxiety disorder diagnoses, the numbers are quite different.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that an estimated 31 percent of all American adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in the lifespan. This is a number sourced from mental health testing performed by experts. There was no self-reporting of anxiety here. The researchers asked specific questions to tease out prevalence of disorders, and participants were diagnosed accordingly.
It's not surprising that these two sets of figures would be so wildly divergent. Doctors tend to use very strict rules when they're diagnosing mental health challenges. They need to be cautious and careful before they provide a formal diagnosis.
But there are literally thousands of people who are dealing with anxiety who just haven't been diagnosed with a disorder quite yet. That doesn't mean their symptoms are not real. They may not experience such severe symptoms that they qualify for a disorder. Or they may not have told their doctors about the symptoms they're living with.
These people can, and often do, experience both physical and mental health difficulties caused by chronic exposure to anxiety, just like people who have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety's impact on physical health
Feelings of anxiety are caused by a complex chemical interplay between the brain and the body. When the brain senses danger or a situation that should be approached cautiously, it sends an urgent signal that causes the body to be flooded with a hormone called cortisol.
Cortisol is responsible for a variety of processes in the body, including:
Since it does so many things, there are a variety of cells within the body that are made to respond to cortisol. The adrenal glands need to send many messages, and there must be many cells that can pick up the signal.
All of those cells shift into overdrive during an anxious episode. That can lead to classic symptoms like sweating, panting and feeling faint. Stress-related cortisol can also cause nausea, heart palpitations and chest pains.
Cortisol's impact on the cardiovascular system is particularly dangerous, if anxiety persists too long or comes too often. People who experience long-term anxiety, says NHS, can develop high blood pressure.
Cortisol can suppress the immune response, meaning that pathogens once caught and handled by the immune system can pass through unannounced during a stressful episode. That could lead to viral infections, communicable diseases and more. Women are particularly vulnerable to this problem. According to a study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research,women with anxiety disorders are more likely to experience illnesses than are women who don't have anxiety disorders.
Falling asleep and staying asleep can also be tough for people dealing with anxiety. Anxiety and sleeping difficulties can also reinforce one another. ADAA says that 54 percent of people with anxiety feel anxious about falling asleep at night. An inability to sleep can also make feelings of anxiety stronger, the association says.
Losing sleep on a regular basis has been associated with a variety of very serious health issues, including:
Getting a good night's rest is vital. Cortisol's impact can make getting that sleep really difficult.
Stress and wellness
People living with anxiety have a seemingly simple solution available: They can avoid the people, places and things that cause their anxious feelings. When they avoid the triggers, the anxiety will fade.
It may sound ideal, but the truth is a little more complicated.
Anxiety can be caused by things people need to do in order to maintain their jobs, their relationships and their well-being. People with anxiety about social situations can't simply avoid work or grocery stores or crowded elevators. They may need to interact with these things daily. People who feel anxious about bridges may need to cross those bridges to get to work. People who feel anxious in the heat can't stay inside all summer long.
People who do try to avoid their triggers may find that their world grows smaller and smaller. They may not be able to go where they need to go or do what they need to do. And they may feel unwilling or unable to tell the people they love why they're not present. In time, a person like this may be physically and socially isolated, and those feelings of anxiety may still persist.
Life with anxiety can also be simply debilitating, says a columnist in The Huffington Post.She describes living with an inner voice that tells her she is worthless, a burden and hopeless. She describes how difficult it is for her to complete everyday tasks. She reports agonizing over even small decisions.
It's hard to gauge the exact toll this would take on a person's health and happiness. This is damage that's difficult to qualify or quantify. But people with anxiety experience it every day.
Conventional treatment options for anxiety
When someone has been diagnosed with anxiety by a doctor, therapist or another qualified professional, formal treatment programs are often used to ease symptoms and improve quality of life. These programs work, says ADAA, but less than 40 percent of people who need this help actually get it.
Traditional programs are built on a foundation of therapy. That can take place in group settings, in individual settings or a combination of the two. Often, therapists use a technique called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to assist with anxiety.
The primary lesson of CBT: The brain is the center of all emotions. Control that brain, and you will control emotions. During CBT sessions, people learn to listen to their inner voices, which might tell them that situations are dangerous when they are not. Later CBT sessions help people calm their minds when anxiety begins to sweep, so they'll be able to stop a situation almost as soon as it begins.
Some therapists combine talking sessions with medications, so they can rebalance brain chemistry while teaching vital skills. The medicine these therapists use are quite powerful, but most come with side effects that could be troubling. ADAA reports that typical anxiety medications include:
For people with significant anxiety, the side effects of these medications may very well outweigh the risks. But for people dealing with intermittent, mild or moderate anxiety, these side effects can seem to deliver much more harm than good.
Alternative therapies for anxiety
While formal treatment programs can offer relief, they're not the only tool in the toolkit. For many people, alternative therapies can be a great help.
ADAA reports that yoga can help to relieve feelings of anxiety. This ancient practice, which combines controlled breathing with gentle stretches and meditation, has been shown to help calm the mind and soothe the body. Techniques learned in yoga can also be applied in everyday life. Deep breathing done in yoga could come in useful during an episode that seems particularly stressful or upsetting. And meditation work done in yoga could help people learn to tune out unwanted thoughts and feelings, which could help to reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Aromatherapy may also be effective for people dealing with anxiety. In a study in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine,researchers provided an essential oil blend of lavender, chamomile, and neroli to people in intensive care units. Those who received the therapy had significant changes in blood pressure when compared to people who did not get the therapy. Researchers interpret that change as proof that aromatherapy reduces anxiety.
Aromatherapy is easy to deliver. Mixing essential oils with water and distributing the solution via spray bottle or diffuser is all that's required. Some people find the scent pleasant as well as therapeutic.
The main issue with these methods is that they provide external, temporary relief. Unlike therapeutic medications, yoga and aromatherapy do not impact brain chemistry, and that is at the root of anxiety disorders. Supplements, which are considered an alternative therapy, do that.
Anxiety supplement basics
To be effective, an anxiety supplement must target the same, or similar, chemicals that are elevated by or tainted by ongoing exposure to anxiety. Ashwagandha is one such supplement.
Ashwagandha is considered an adaptogen, meaning that it is designed to help people deal with stresses of all kinds. Adaptogens can help people deal with stress caused by:
True adaptogens cause no side effects. Instead, they help the body to achieve balance when something has gone amiss.
Ashwagandha can significantly reduce cortisol concentrations within the body, and that is primarily why it delivers real relief. Remember: feelings of stress are caused by a flood of cortisol. This supplement reverses that flood, and that is why it helps people to feel calm in the face of a common stressor.
Since ashwagandha reduces cortisol, it can also reverse the immune-suppressing impact of anxiety. When cortisol levels drop, the body can deal with invaders and toxins as planned. That could mean a lower incidence of infections and illness.
Supporting a healthy lifestyle
With the proper therapy, either via conventional methods or alternative methods, feelings of anxiety can fade. Supporting that relief with a healthy lifestyle can help to ensure that a relapse to anxiety doesn't take hold.
Nutrition is at the core of this healing process. The body needs good food, a good mix of nutrients and the proper amount of hydration to continue healing. Processed or fast food—filled with salts, preservatives and chemicals—won't do the trick. Salads, smoothies, lean meats and fresh fruits should make up the majority of meals.
Those meals should be eaten frequently and on a regular schedule. As Psychology Today points out, low blood sugar levels can lead to feelings of anger and anxiety. The brain does not have enough fuel to keep working, and it sends out panic signals that are interpreted as anxiety. Keeping blood sugar at a consistent level helps keep that panic away.
Slipping sets of exercise into everyday life can also be helpful. During exercise, the body releases endorphins, which can help to boost the mood, and fatigued muscles send out signals of calm that prompt rest. Regular exercise can bring about all sorts of health benefits, including weight loss, lower blood pressure, reduced risk of diabetes and improved heart health. It's also just good for overall mood.
ADAA says some people don't experience all the anxiety-busting benefits of exercise, while others claim that fitness helps their minds to stay fit. Either group probably benefits from the health benefits of exercise, however.
Current guidelines suggest that adults should get at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise each week, paired with 1.25 hours of vigorous-intensity exercise. A combination of walking and running, or biking and swimming, could do the trick. Finding an activity that seems fun is key, so the sessions keep on, week in and week out.
Similarly, it's vital to get enough sleep each night. That can start with preparation. The bedroom should not be used for work or reading or study. It's a place for rest, and it should be:
An hour or so before bedtime, all cell phones should be placed in sleep mode and put away. Lights should be dimmed, and music turned down low. A calming drink of warm tea sets the mood, and a bath can help to complete the picture. Sleep should come quickly, and if it doesn't, reading with a warm drink may help.
How will you deal with anxiety?
It's easy enough to assume that anxiety is a common part of modern life. Each day, we read stories about wars, crimes and suffering. Those stories follow us on our phones. And they're in front of us on every computer screen. It's enough to make anyone feel anxious.
But there are very real things you can do to help take control of your emotions. And each step you take can make you stronger, so you'll be well positioned to handle the next challenge that comes your way.
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