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Anxious? Here’s what you can do

Anxiety is common, but if unchecked it can be harmful. Certain skills can help individuals manage anxiety, but if it persists or is severe, seek help.

If you're feeling anxious right now, you're certainly not alone.

The good news is that anxiety can be effectively treated and managed. To better understand anxiety and what can be done to help alleviate it, BeWell Stanford spoke with Rosan Gomperts, LCSW, director of the Stanford Faculty Staff Help Center.

Is it short-term anxiety? Or worry? Or stress?

While the symptoms of anxiety, worry and stress can be similar, it's important to understand the differences to determine the best form of treatment. 

Stress is commonly described as having inadequate time or resources to accomplish specific objectives. While it's uncomfortable, it's often manageable and passes as circumstances change.  

Worry is primarily a cognitive experience that helps us analyze risk and formulate solutions to problems. It is generally helpful in navigating and managing challenges.

However, if you are exposed to stressors on an ongoing basis, without the proper skills and support, worry (and stress) can develop into anxiety. 

It is common to experience short-term anxiety related to specific actions, such public speaking or test taking, or during major life events, including relationship changes or job transitions.

These situations can trigger symptoms -- changes in appetite, sleep or concentration, for example -- that make it difficult to function well during specific, anxiety-provoking times of life. However, the symptoms are tied to a specific action or issue, and the anxiety state usually has an end.

In contrast, chronic anxiety manifests into an inability to control thoughts, emotions and physiological responses on an ongoing basis. People with this form of anxiety experience a persistent fear or an underlying sense that something could go wrong at any moment. 

Such anxiety is severe and persistent, and it can impede your ability to focus at work or engage in healthy relationships.

Why am I anxious?

Anxiety can have a genetic component; many people with clinical anxiety can identify one or more family members who experience symptoms or related behaviors. Anxiety is also tied to personality type and is affected by physiological changes.

For example, anxiety is a common symptom of perimenopause for women; and some men can experience chemical shifts at certain times in their lives, especially around middle age. 

Habits that include skipping meals, frequent media exposure, procrastination and overcommitment can create or increase anxiety. Anxiety develops over time and is something we have a degree of control over.

Anxiety can cause discomfort and fear that can negatively impact work, sleep, nutrition and other aspects of our lives. Over time, its toll can contribute to the development of depression.

In severe cases, anxiety can lead to panic attacks -- sudden episodes of intense fear that come on without the presence of immediate danger.

There is help for anxiety

Treatment is critical for anxiety management and is highly effective in early stages. Being entrenched in worry might make it tough to have a clear perspective about your own anxiety symptoms, so listen when family, friends or colleagues suggest getting professional help.

Anxiety can come on suddenly in people who have never experienced it or be chronic for longtime sufferers, who might start to feel like it's a normal state. No matter the experience, it is never too soon or too late to seek treatment.

Anxiety treatment involves increasing your self-awareness by paying close attention to your thoughts, behaviors and emotions and using skills to navigate the experience. 

According to Gomperts, the most important strategy is to learn to identify the first physiological state associated with anxiety, such as muscle tension or shortness of breath, and manage symptoms before the anxiety develops further. When anxiety develops into a hard-to-break psychological or cognitive state, people have to wait until the symptoms decrease naturally over time.

Here are a few strategies for managing symptoms as they come on:

  1. Deep breathing can help to calm the nervous system, especially when focusing on the exhale.
  2. Progressive muscle relaxation consists of tensing and releasing various parts of the body. 
  3. Exercise, such 10-15 minutes of walking or yoga, relaxes your body and allows you to better use cognitive strategies.

Anxiety is such a strong experience that even people with strong skills can have a hard time managing it. To ride out a wave of anxiety, it can be helpful to practice self-compassion by acknowledging the difficulty of the situation, and remembering that you are not alone and it will pass.

Medication may be helpful

Sometimes people with chronic anxiety or panic attacks consider medication, especially if their condition is impeding their functioning and has not responded to non-medical treatment interventions that include therapy and using management skills, Gomperts said.

"It's easy to learn about skills, but it's hard for people to use them when they're really anxious. Short-term medication can be particularly helpful to calm the nervous system and help people remember the state that they are striving to achieve," she said.

"Especially now, there should be no stigma," she continued. "I hope people recognize that anxiety is a normal response. It is just a response that could use some outside support to manage."

This post originally appeared on BeWell Stanford in a longer form.

Image by Steve Johnson

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