Most of us have experienced the apprehension of getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time, or the nervousness of a social engagement. What if you experienced heart palpitations, restlessness, fear or worry, with daily activities?
Fear and anxiety are normal emotions in certain circumstances and can even be beneficial. But when fear or anxiety interferes with your ability to function normally or is out of proportion to the situation, you may have an anxiety disorder. These are the most diagnosed mental health disorders, affecting 6.8 million adults and over one third of Americans in their lifetime (according to the National Institute of Mental Health).
May is Mental Health Month. Mental health is comprised of our emotional, psychological and social well-being; hence it influences the way we feel, think and behave. Mental illness affects the individual as well as their family members, close contacts and community. It impacts the choices we make in life, the way we manage stress and how we relate to others. More importantly, mental illness is treatable.
Anxiety disorders range from general, social or separation anxiety disorders through phobias, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some risk factors for anxiety disorders include childhood trauma, chronic illness, inherited traits from family members and depression.
Women have a higher prevalence of anxiety disorders than men. People aged 18-29 years have the highest rate of anxiety, which decreases as they age. Thyroid disease, heart arrhythmia and other health conditions can aggravate anxiety as can some medications and caffeinated drinks.
Anxiety may be treated with therapy and/or medication. Avoid self-medicating as substances such as alcohol, marijuana and nicotine can increase anxiety. Opioids may decrease anxiety but are also addictive and dangerous if used improperly.
You can also try self-help techniques to improve your anxiety. Daily exercise such as walking or yoga can boost your mood by the release of endorphins, or happy hormones. Eat a healthy diet and get adequate sleep. Journaling to identify triggers or patterns may be of help. Meditation and breath control can shift your focus from anxiety-provoking situations. Try box breathing to calm the flight or fight response, a technique used by Navy SEALs:
• Breathe in through your nose over a count of four
• Hold your breath for a count of four
• Breathe out for a count of four
• Hold your breath for count of four
• Repeat for four cycles
Anxiety levels have risen in the past few years, but there is help available. See your health care provider for guidance if your anxiety does not seem manageable.
Meredith Ulon is a licensed clinical social worker at West Pines Behavioral Hospital.