Managing anxiety is important for those in recovery. Everyone can relate to the idea of feeling anxious from time to time. It’s that unpleasant, uneasy feeling we get when we’re especially concerned or worried about something. Those occasional bouts of anxiety are part of everyday life.
Nervous emotions are not the same for those who suffer from an anxiety disorder. These mental illnesses produce symptoms that don’t go away and that can severely interfere with a person’s ability to lead a normal life.
Everyday Anxiety vs. Anxiety Disorders
Normal worry has to do with a stressful event or situation, like paying bills or an important job interview. When the circumstance has passed, the anxiety usually goes away.
With anxiety disorders, both the source and duration of the stress are more complicated and severe. Symptoms may be triggered by internal and external factors and do not subside after short periods of time. Consider these brief comparisons between common anxiety and anxiety disorders:
- Everyday anxiety is temporary. Anxiety disorders produce constant anxiety that lasts for days, months or years.
- Everyday anxiety involves embarrassment in a social situation. Anxiety disorders cause intense fear of being judged or humiliated, resulting in avoidance of social situations altogether.
- Everyday anxiety produces nervousness prior to an event. Anxiety disorders produce intense panic and concern about another attack.
- Everyday anxiety may prompt realistic fear of a dangerous object, place or situation. Anxiety disorders yield irrational fears or avoidance, even if the object, place or situation poses little or no threat.
Major Types of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18 percent of the population. Some of the most prevalent types of anxiety disorders are:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by persistent, excessive and unrealistic worry about everyday things.
- Panic Disorder causes unexpected panic attacks and/or preoccupation with the fear of a recurring attack.
- Social Anxiety Disorder is overwhelming concern and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social or performance situations.
- Specific Phobias involve strong irrational fear or reactions to common places, situations or objects.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) causes unwanted and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that often compel repeated ritualistic behaviors and routines (compulsions).
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur when someone experiences or witnesses a natural disaster, serious accident, terrorist incident, sudden death of a loved one, war, violent personal assault or other life-threatening event.
The exact cause of anxiety disorders is unknown, but like other forms of mental illness, they are not the result of personal weakness or character flaws. Studies have discovered numerous possibilities, including irregularities in brain circuits that regulate fear and other emotions. Additionally, genetic factors may contribute to susceptibility for developing various disorders.
Practical Strategies for Managing Anxiety
Since the underlying causes of anxiety disorders involve complex biological, psychological and environmental factors, they cannot be prevented. However, there are some practical steps you can take for managing anxiety:
- Limit caffeine. Products such as coffee, tea, soda and energy drinks may trigger or aggravate anxiety.
- Get plenty of sleep. When stressed, your body needs additional sleep and rest.
- Eat well-balanced meals. Keep healthy snacks on hand and do not skip any meals.
- Exercise daily. This will help you feel good and maintain your health.
- Take deep breaths. Inhale and exhale slowly when anxiety is building.
- Count to 10 slowly. Repeat if necessary to draw focus away from your stress.
- Do your best. Being perfect isn’t possible, so be proud of however close you get.
- Accept that you cannot control everything. Put your stress in perspective: Is it really as bad as you think?
- Welcome humor. A good laugh goes a long way.
- Maintain a positive attitude. Make an effort to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
- Focus on others. Volunteer or find another way to be active in your community, which creates a support network and gives you a break from your own stress.
- Talk to someone. Tell friends and family you’re feeling overwhelmed, and let them know how they can help you. Talk to a physician or therapist for professional help.
If you find that your symptoms are not responding well to practical coping strategies and are adversely affecting your life, there are effective treatment options available. Trained mental health professionals, using the treatment approaches summarized below, can successfully treat most cases of anxiety disorder.
Psychotherapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – Teaches a person different ways of thinking, behaving and reacting to anxiety-producing and fearful situations.
Self-Help or Support Groups – Benefits are derived from discussion, as well as sharing problems and achievements with others.
Stress-Management Techniques – These can involve exercise, meditation and other activities designed to reduce symptoms, enhance the effects of therapy and produce a calming effect.
Medication. Medication does not cure anxiety disorders but often relieves symptoms. It should only be prescribed and used under direction of a qualified professional.