How to overcome anxiety

While it isn't your fault, you can do something about it.

The CEO of the fast-expanding organisation looked at me, despair seeping through a veneer of confidence.  With three growing children, a loving husband, and work at the top of the corporate ladder, her life ticked all the boxes.  “I’m coping OK,” she confided, “but I’ve been better.”  “Better” was before she came to be afflicted with one of the most common mental conditions in Australia and worldwide:  anxiety. 
 
What is anxiety?
 
Anxiety means feeling distress or uneasiness about what might happen.  Some feelings of apprehension – like when we psyche up for a test, competition or job interview – can be helpful, but for many the anxious feelings are severe and damaging.  Affecting about 14% of the population (some 3.2 million Australians), anxiety can have people feeling anxious for so long that they fail to recognise its characteristics.  There are psychological symptoms such as feeling frequently worried, tired, irritable, and weepy, with difficulty concentrating.  The physical symptoms include rapid breathing, rising blood pressure and pounding heart, a sense of restlessness or feeling on edge, muscle tension, sleep disturbance, and nausea/sickness with an urgent need to go to the toilet. 
You may be familiar with some types of anxiety:  panic disorder (“attacks” in public places); social anxiety disorder (difficulty socialising even with acquaintances); or specific phobias, such as fear of flying, spiders, or heights.  The CEO I have mentioned suffers from  generalised anxiety disorder which involves persistent worry about all types of things that could go wrong. In her case, she worried about health, family safety and finances - and the worries were worsened by concerns about not coping with the worries.
 
Anxiety isn’t your fault
 
There is no single cause for anxiety, but several factors contribute to its development.
 
Brain chemistry.  Medication works well to reduce anxiety, which suggests that brain chemical imbalances can create anxiety.  The two chemical messengers most strongly implicated are the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which regulate thought and feeling.  An imbalance between these two makes people feel depressed and anxious.
 
Heredity.  Anxiety disorders run in families.  If parents have an anxiety disorder, children are at higher risk of developing one.  If caregivers show fear and anxiety on a daily basis, this, too, can affect the children, as the brain and its learned behaviour are inherited.
 
Life experiences.  A life of abuse, poverty, or violence is fertile ground for the development of anxiety. 
 
Drug use.  Does one too many morning coffees make your heart pound?  Anxiety can be triggered by drugs such as caffeine  andamphetamines (the stimulant drugs).  Prolonged ampehetamine usecan cause feelings of panic and anxiety which last for years after the drug is stopped. Exhaustion and certain medications can also trigger anxiety.
 
Getting past anxiety – and why you should
 
Experiments with mice have shown that long-term exposure to stress hormones causes depression and anxiety.  Having ongoing anxious feelings can cause major issues in your life:  from seeing potential threats where they don’t exist (because you’re literally “wired” by your hormones) to relational, health, and work issues.  Recent research showed that highly anxious subjects made poorer decisions than non-anxious subjects; “burned” by past errors, the anxious people did not take on new information and their decision-making was skewed.  Anxiety is serious. 
 
So what can you do about anxiety?
 
1.       Self-awareness is key.  Learn to identify the symptoms quickly.  Ask yourself:  “What is making me feel this way?”  Sometimes you can change the anxiety-making circumstance, but even if you can’t, you can still deal with it better if you acknowledge it.
 
2.       Interpret it positively.  Anxious about a big decision?  You’re encountering something “new and important”!  Got a job interview?  How “exciting” (as opposed to “threatening”).  Positive interpretation helps reduce the anxious reactions to a more manageable level.
 
3.       A little is a good thing.  Too much anxiety can be damaging but too little can mean you might not perform to your best ability. View anxiety as a resource you can manage to keep you “in the zone”:  not too much or too little.
 
4.       Optimise your gut flora with diet.  Weird but true:  it’s as if we have two brains.  One is in our skull and the other is in our gut.  The gut “brain” (the “enteric nervous system”) gets out of balance with sugars, processed foods, starchy foods, and processed vegetable oils.  Research has shown that nourishing the gut flora by avoiding the above foods and adding in omega-3 fats, caused a 20% reduction in anxiety among medical students.  Studies of certain probiotics (which, along with fermented vegetables nourish the gut) found the probiotics lowered the stress-induced hormone corticosterone, reducing anxious behaviours.
 
5.       Exercise.  In addition tocreating new neurons which release calming neurotransmitter GABA, exerciseboosts levels of potent brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which may help buffer some of the effects of stress and reduce anxiety.
 
6.       Relaxation and meditation programs work wonders.  Regular stillness reduces stress, anxiety, and depression.  No teacher around?  Jump online, where resources abound.
 
7.       Therapy. Emotional Freedom Technique and Cognitive-behavioural  therapies have been shown to be effective at re-programming psychological and physical reactions to life’s inevitable stressors.  These therapies should be conducted by experienced therapists who can help their patients re-program irrational, unhelpful thinking.
 
Finally, if you are caring for someone with anxiety, you must look after yourself too (the above suggestions are just as helpful for you).  As the case of our CEO demonstrates, your life may tick many – or even all of -  the boxes but this doesn’t mean you will be immune to anxiety.   Anxiety is rife in our increasingly stressful modern world, but you can always take steps to reduce anxiety either for yourself or someone that you care for.

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

Please visit http://www.aipc.net.au/ for more information about AIPC