There’s no easy fix but you can take steps to get your life back
We can’t erase all anxiety from our lives, and we shouldn’t want to. A little anxiety spurs us to prepare and act, and keeps us alert to potential threats. But sometimes anxiety persists and deepens, becoming a dark cloud that dampens our pleasures and causes our world to shrink. Instead of helping us live life, it interferes with it.
When this happens, it’s time to get help. And the type of help matters because some solutions have the potential to do more harm than good. Others simply miss the mark. If you are struggling with anxiety, keep these three things in mind:
1. Antianxiety medication only does so much.
Mention your anxiety to your doctor and you are likely to leave his or her office with a prescription for a benzodiazepine such as Xanax, Ativan, Valium or Klonopin and told to “see how it goes.”
The problem is that these antianxiety medications are, at best, a short-term aid and shouldn’t be used for more than six or eight weeks. Yet far too many people end up relying on them long-term, sometimes for years, which research now makes clear is not only ineffective but also causes brain changes that can lead to tolerance and dependence. Stop the drug after extended use and the result will likely be distressing withdrawal symptoms such as rebound anxiety, insomnia and agitation.
As the chief medical officer of a network of addiction treatment centers, I can testify that this scenario, sadly, is all too common. We help many whose attempts to deal with their anxiety have led them to overreliance on benzodiazepines, which are now among the most commonly abused prescription drugs.
The lesson here is that if your doctor suggests an antianxiety medication, don’t just take the prescription and run. Make sure your use remains brief and your progress is monitored. You must also ask this vital question: What else can I do?
A number of nonmedical behavioral interventions have been shown to be effective in dealing with anxiety, including psychotherapy, biofeedback, neurofeedback, meditation, mindfulness, relaxation and breathing techniques, better nutrition, and all types of exercise, especially yoga, aerobic workouts and walking.
These interventions require time and effort before their effects are felt, of course. In the interim, antianxiety medication can act as a bridge, providing relief and reducing symptoms as you improve. Just don’t expect that prescription to be your sole solution.
2. Anxiety can masquerade as a physical problem, and vice versa.
When seeking help for anxiety, don’t assume it’s a problem apart from your physical health. A variety of ailments can be mistaken for or fuel anxiety, so it’s important to get a physical workup to rule out or rule in potential sources.
Anemia, for example, can cause dizziness and rapid heart rate. An underactive or overactive thyroid gland interacts with norepinephrine systems in ways that can prompt panic attacks or other symptoms of anxiety. Cardiac arrhythmias are often not serious but can feel like out-of-control anxiety. Diabetes and prediabetic syndromes can disrupt glucose and cause anxiety-related symptoms.
On the flip side, what seems to be solely a physical issue can turn out to be anxiety-related. Many people who seek help for what they believe is a heart attack, for example, turn out to be dealing with anxiety, which can send pulse and blood pressure soaring.
In short, if you’re feeling anxious, a physical should be part of the process of getting help so that you won’t follow paths that ultimately prove unproductive or overlook problems that need medical attention.
3. Understanding your anxiety type can help you heal.
After medical causes are ruled out, the question then becomes what is the source of the anxiety? Is it the outgrowth of a circumstance, perhaps the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, or a traumatic event such as an auto accident? Is it part of an underlying condition such as depression? Or does it seem to have no cause at all but to come and go without warning?
Answering these questions can help you and your treatment provider determine which type of anxiety disorder you are dealing with and, thus, which type of treatment is best. It may be generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder or social anxiety disorder, to name a few. Each has its own signs and symptoms, and each has a preferred course of treatment. Those diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, for example, might benefit from a type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help them challenge their ways of thinking and reacting, as well as teach skills for interacting with others.
It’s worth noting that if you’re struggling with anxiety, you are not alone. More than 18% of the adult population in the U.S. is dealing with an anxiety disorder in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Indeed, it’s the most common mental health issue in the nation. And although distressing and sometimes debilitating, anxiety has an encouraging side. It is highly treatable, and the sooner help is sought, the greater the chances of putting anxiety back in its place — as an aid to your life rather than a hindrance.