Anxiety is something I find myself talking about a lot. It comes up in session with my clients, of course, but it also comes up a lot in everyday conversations with friends, colleagues, and family members. Anxiety is one of the most common reasons people give for seeking mental health treatment. The NIMH reports that 25% of adolescents and 18% of adults in the U.S. will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. While those numbers may be surprisingly high to some, they only represent the people whose anxiety symptoms are severe enough to be diagnosed. If we were somehow able to poll every person on the planet to see if they'd ever experienced any anxiety symptoms, the number would be closer to 100%. This is because anxiety is actually a helpful, adaptive function that we've evolved in order to deal with danger.
I'm going to give a brief, general overview of anxiety, for anyone who's interested. If this is something you're already familiar with, feel free to skip ahead! If you've ever heard of the fight or flight response, this is a kind of anxiety that humans experience in reaction to a threat. Our brains are very adept at sounding the danger alarm and focusing all of our energy on survival. Now, this comes in handy if you're being chased by a large predator, less so if you're worrying about something like a first date or an upcoming school presentation.
While the fight or flight response has evolved to keep us safe, it hasn't evolved at the same pace as the world around us. Though we are much less likely to have to dodge a hungry lion than our prehistoric ancestors, we do face things that trigger an anxiety response on a regular basis and an anxious brain doesn't do a great job of distinguishing between a perceived threat and a real one.
Anxiety comes in many forms. Some common cognitive and emotional symptoms include: irritability, racing thoughts, an overwhelming sense of dread, uncontrollable worries or fears, obsessive or intrusive thoughts, an inability to relax, etc. Physical symptoms are also very common and include things like tension headaches, GI issues, increased heart rate, fatigue, frequent urination, sleep disturbances, sweating, muscle aches, and others. (For a more exhaustive overview, head on over to the aforementioned NIMH website.)
So what do we do about this? The good news is that increasing your awareness and understanding about how you experience anxiety is one of the best ways to begin to manage it. Recently, it has become quite common for mental health practitioners to "prescribe" meditation and mindfulness as a means to help reduce anxiety. There's a lot of solidresearchoutthere that has shown both meditation and mindfulness to be effective forms of treatment for anxiety, in part because they teach you how to control your thoughts, instead of feeling controlled by them.
If you're looking for a quick and easy introduction to the concept of mindfulness, you might want to try the following exercise: sync up your breaths with the shape below - breathing in deeply in time with it as it builds up and then exhaling fully as it folds down once again.
I've seen this gif in a couple of different places recently and I was struck by how simple, yet effective it is. It forces you to focus on your breathing, which is a tried and true method of calming down during times of stress and anxiety. We get overwhelmed when our thoughts become frantic, unfocused, and uncontrolled. And in this fast-paced world we live in, where we are often expected to be doing multiple things at once (i.e. reading emails while talking to a friend as you both wait to pick up lunch) it's often difficult to avoid feeling that way. Taking a few moments to be mindful of your breathing is like hitting the reset button on your anxious mind.