As a therapist I get asked a lot about anxiety; what it is, how to avoid it, how to stop being anxious. We therapists do tend to study anxiety quite a bit, but I’m actually motivated to write to you about anxiety for an additional reason. Can I share a secret with you?
I’m an anxious person. Have been as far back as I can remember. My anxiety has long sat there deep in my chest, like a beagle ready to bark at anything. I’m happy to say that while I still have my little guard dog, it takes a much bigger commotion to get him to yap much at all these days.
Since I have an idea what you’re going through, I want to give you some insights based both on my formal training and based on a lifetime of experience in living with and dealing with anxiety.
Let’s start with a simple definition right out of the DSM-5: Anxiety is anticipation of future threat. It does not have to do with here-and-now concerns such as having a gun pulled on you. That’s fear. Rather, it has to do with that feeling you get, and the thoughts that accompany it, when you miss the train and realize you’re going to be late to work again. In my experience the most tell-tale symptoms of anxiety are muscle tension, a jittery stomach, and racing thoughts that spiral from worrying about 1 potential problem to just knowing the world is falling apart.
For much of my life I worked very hard to hide my anxiety levels, but eventually I got to the point where I felt I was being too restricted, too tense, and just generally felt worn out due to my anxiety. Therapists would call that a ‘clinically significant’ level of distress, which raises it from run of the mill anxiety to something that’s diagnosable, and happily, something that’s treatable.
One common diagnosis for people suffering from anxiety is Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It’s called ‘Generalized’ because there isn’t a specific thing or situation that causes the anxiety, rather the sufferer’s anxiety colors their whole world-view; rather than looking at the world through rose colored glasses the person with GAD sees everything through a hazy lens of negative expectations. The person with GAD feels a constant low-level restlessness, tension, agitation, and tiredness, and can even have issues like sweats, heart palpitations, and hives.
I have found various tools to be useful in treating anxiety, both in myself and for clients. Mindfulness techniques, breathing exercises, and muscle relaxation exercises are all great because they can be relatively quick, and done almost anywhere.
Here’s one that can literally take about a minute: Set your favorite timer for 1 minute, take 1 raisin, and look it over for a few second, rolling it around between your thumb and pointer finger. Then place it in your mouth and close your eyes, and just roll it around. Focus on its texture and how it feels against your tongue, against your gums, the roof of your mouth, and so on. If your thoughts drift (they will) just bring your attention gently back to the raisin’s texture. When the timer goes off, bite into the raisin and focus on its taste for a moment, then just enjoy your tasty treat.
While that sort of exercise is great n the short term, the fact is that anxious people, especially those whose suffering reaches a clinically significant level, are probably living lives that aren’t balanced in terms of work, family, and leisure. And underlying that is probably one or more problematic beliefs, the exact sort of thing a therapist can help you sift through, particularly ones trained in styles like REBT and Adlerian therapy. Talk therapy definitely worked for me, and it can work for you.