By Olivia K. Pitkethly, MA, LMHC
It is crunch time. You are facing a work deadline and hurtling toward zero hour. You can feel sweat dripping down your brow and your heart beats a tad faster as you keep pushing forward. You will be glad when this project is over because you can finally sit back and relax.
The description above is a normal stress reaction to an extraordinary situation. Now imagine there is no work deadline, no project, and yet you still find yourself feeling this way. All. The. Time. That, is anxiety.
The difference between stress and anxiety is that the stress reaction is usually temporary. People recover pretty quickly from stress, being able to leave work at the office or separating themselves from toxic people.
Anxiety, however, is not so simple. It can be hereditary or developed from a traumatic event. If allowed, anxiety can take over your life and have an enormous impact on your daily functioning and relationships. It can rob you of your sleep and appetite and cause you to turn to unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse.
Symptoms of anxiety may include, but are not limited to, heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, uncontrollable worry, fear of losing control or fear of dying. It can cause you to avoid people or situations, which could lead to isolation and depression.
Anxiety looks and feels different for every person. For instance, I have a strong fear of heights. On a road trip last year, my family and I decided to stop in Atlanta for lunch and sightseeing. And what better way to see Atlanta than from the top of a 20-story Ferris wheel?
I tried to be strong for my kids, who really wanted to go on this ride. But the higher we traveled, the faster my heart raced. My breath became shallow, my chest tightened and I had to close my eyes because I just KNEW this ride was going to roll right off the hinges and into downtown Atlanta. I was thinking irrationally and unraveling into a panic attack. Lucky for me, there was an emergency button inside the gondola and I was quickly brought down to safety. And now, a year later, I still experience those same symptoms just thinking about it. This is anxiety.
Granted, I can always avoid a Ferris wheel. But, if someone has a similar anxiety experience in day-to-day situations, such as interacting with others, completing assignments and tasks, or even falling asleep at night, then utilizing healthy coping skills to manage anxiety can be very helpful.
Deep breathing, exercise, yoga and art are all effective tools to help you reduce your anxiety. You just have to find the right tool that fits into your toolbox. Prescribed medications like Valium and Xanax can also help ease anxiety, but they may not always do the entire job. Wanda Curnow, age 65, had her first panic attack in the 1970s while at work. She said she was so embarrassed that she could not go back. Her primary care doctor prescribed Valium, but it did not always do the trick for her. Years later another doctor recommended she see a therapist.
“The doctor told me, ‘I can prescribe you the Valium, but have you ever asked yourself why you have panic attacks?’” she said. “The therapist I saw diagnosed me with agoraphobia [anxiety about being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult] and recommended a workshop.” Curnow said that the workshop helped her overcome her fear of public places and it has been years since she experienced a panic attack.
In my practice as a counselor (and in my own personal life), I like to utilize a grounding technique called “3-2-1.” When you find yourself unraveling, you are either caught up in the past or worried about the future. 3-2-1 helps bring you into the present. Start by naming three things you can see around you. Then, three things you can hear and three things you can reach out and touch. Continue with two different things you can see, two things you can hear, and so on. By distracting your mind and making you more fully aware of your surroundings, you will be able to think more clearly and rationally. If you feel like you are losing grasp of your anxiety, it may be time to call a professional counselor for help. Learning to manage your anxiety will put the control, and the power to overcome, back in your hands.