A Closer Look at Anxiety (And How to Treat It)

Anxiety is a condition that begins with unconscious thoughts of danger that then manifests into episodes or even a chronic condition diagnosed as Panic Disorder, Anxiety Disorder and others.

Treatment may include medication to stabilize severe panic disorders until work can be done to discover underlying causes of the condition. Therapy will assist in establishing ways to dismantle the thought processes that lead to anxiety.

Anxiety may be experienced in episodes of varying severity. It can range from mild apprehension to panic attacks that simulate heart attack. Symptoms include irrational fear or dread, repetitive thoughts, insomnia, chest pain, irritability, sweating, muscle tension and tautness, headaches and an increase in heart rate, as well as heightened sense of awareness or agitation.

What Causes Anxiety?

As humans, we have a natural defense mechanism that alerts us to danger. This alert system is called the “fight-or-flight” response. It is a healthy way for our minds and bodies to prepare for defense in a critical or life-threatening situation.

Anxiety is the product of this response. Even though we are seldom in life-or-death situations, we may experience anxiety. This is due to a heightened sense of alarm in our brain. It is a programmed response that has backfired for those who repeatedly react in this fashion. These responses are often caused by ongoing trauma responses or other malfunctions of the central nervous system.

Episodes of anxiety are most often caused by perceived threats to our well-being. Chronic anxiety is a more serious situation and needs to be addressed with a therapist to examine underlying perception of danger and decrease anxiety. Responding to daily life with fight-or-flight ideas or behaviors is not appropriate. Seldom during the course of daily life is our life at stake. Yet, many who suffer from high levels of anxiety react to all situations with this response. Therefore, it is necessary to reduce and regulate stress and anxiety.

Harmful Effects

Anxiety response mechanisms in the body cause an increase in stress hormones, rapid heart rate and heightened awareness. Over time, these can create permanent damage to both body and brain.

A flooding of neurotransmitters causes an excitement response. Norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine are increased while levels of calming neurotransmitters (serotonin and GABA) are decreased. This imbalance produces a constant state of impending doom, depression and panic disorder. Severe anxiety disorders, such as PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) and OCD (Obsessive-compulsive disorder) cause permanent damage because of the severity of the responses and their ongoing nature.

Treatment Options

Medication should be a short-term process. Because they are habit-forming and reduce symptoms, they do little to treat the causal conditions. Therapy will assist the anxious person to work through their responses to stimuli and thoughts. Automatic responses in PTSD and OCD are formed when a serious and/or ongoing trauma creates a trigger that causes the person to respond with anxious thoughts, over and over. There are many triggers. Finding these will begin the recovery process of coping without high anxiety and fight-or-flight.

Most forms of anxiety are easily treated. Here are five tips to reduce the amount of excitement going on in your body.

1. Reframe Emotional Responses to Various Life Situations

Life-threatening situations create a flood of hormones, causing the body to react without thought. Learning to reframe a situation means to recognize its potential for actually causing physical harm or damage. Many people who have abused drugs and alcohol have increased sensitivity to stimuli that is not truly life-threatening. They can learn to decrease the response from their autonomic nervous system by reframing the situation by possibly asking themselves: Am I really in danger? What is the danger? How can I stop the idea of being in danger?

2. Regulate Intake of Caffeine, Sugar and Simple Carbohydrates

Lowering the consumption of stimulants will decrease the heightened sense of awareness and increased heart rate that they produce. Many addicts have an additional addiction to caffeine, sugar and even nicotine which creates these results. It is important to recognize the effects of all substances on the user. Those who have abused stimulant drugs are particularly vulnerable to anxiety because they have produced dramatic shifts in production of excitatory neurotransmitters and reduced production of relaxed neurotransmitters. They are, therefore, extremely vulnerable to high anxiety and stress, along with the health complications that ensue such as cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.

3. Maintain a Healthy Diet and Exercise

These two activities are simple regulators of anxiety. Eating regularly is important as life endangerment can be experienced with as simple of a process as hunger. Hormone regulation requires balanced energy and healthy food. Eating well can regulate all symptoms of anxiety. A healthy diet and regular exercise will strengthen the calming influence of neurotransmitters that create a sense of peace and well-being. As health conditions improve, fewer situations arise that trigger fight-or-flight response in the brain.

4. Perform Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing stops the racing thoughts and heart rate, allowing the practitioner to lessen anxiety (almost immediately) by increasing oxygen to the body and brain. Learning to breathe through the nose instead of the mouth is important, as well as learning to breathe deeply into the diaphragm (lower abdomen) instead of the chest. Even taking a single deep, cleansing breath before reacting to situations that cause anxiety can help stabilize anxious thoughts.

5. Learn to Meditate

Meditation helps lower anxiety because of the focus on breathing and sitting quietly. It is also beneficial because it shifts the concentration from the problem (cause of anxiety) to quieting the mind. Racing thoughts lead only to deeper levels of fear and anxiety. When not controlled, they become full-blown panic attacks and create deeper thought patterns that develop into panic disorders. Meditation will also create opportunities to practice reframing and exploring the responses to stimulant ideas.

Kelly McClanahan has an MSW/ASW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 25 years, she has a CATC-IV credential. She is also a lecturer and workshop provider for meditation, mindfulness and issues arising in long-term recovery. Kelly is currently writing a book about the spiritual principles in 12-Step recovery.

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