When I was invited to be a blogger for PBS.org, as part of the upcoming series This Emotional Life, I was so honored and excited. Once those feelings wore off, I found myself obsessing about what to write. I want to sound professional, but not full of jargon, yet not condescending. I want it to be relevant and helpful. Oh my goodness! What should I write about? So, of course, I did what many of us cyber extroverts do. I updated my Facebook status with this news and asked people for suggestions of topics for my first post. A wide range of ideas came in, but there was one common thread: worry.
Worry is so prevalent in our society. It feels like every decision is some kind of deal-breaker, from where to send your kid to school, what food to buy, and even what color wood finish the kitchen cabinets should be. We get overwhelmed. These are things you ACTUALLY have control over. Imagine when we don’t have control, such as with the economy, terrorism and swine flu.
Why do we do this? Worry is the mind’s way of having the illusion of control. It is like the mind says “Well, I can’t do anything in this situation, let me worry about it so at least I can feel like I am doing something.” We think worrying somehow keeps something on our mind so we can solve the problem. Well, guess what? Worrying drains you to the point where you have less emotional, mental or physical resources to actually generate solutions. Obsessing about the flu won’t keep you from getting it, but washing your hands just might. A little bit of stress can lead to optimal performance, while too much is damaging.
For many people, the solution may be more lavender bubble baths, prayer, meditation, exercise, vacations or decreasing caffeine. For those struggling with a true anxiety disorder, these activities may help, but not provide full relief.
You know what happens to your mind and body when you come close to being in a car accident and avoid it by inches? Your heart is racing, your chest is pounding and you worry about what could have happened. You may think about it later in the day, but generally, after a bit of time, gratitude may come over you and we move on. Someone with an anxiety disorder may spend much of their life feeling that way. Imagine how exhausting and scary that would be? How much would it interfere in your life?
People with anxiety disorders can have a more difficult time with decisions. They can’t seem to stop the tornado in their head, despite wishing they could. It can affect their sleep, appetite, job performance and relationships. In an attempt to medicate these feelings, anxiety can ultimately lead to compulsive behaviors such as drinking, overeating, overspending, hoarding and drug use, which then create their own set of problems.
The good news is that most anxiety disorders respond well to treatment. A combination of therapy to look at thinking patterns and relaxation techniques to quiet the mind and body can be soothing. Sometimes medication is needed. Ultimately, becoming aware of our thoughts, challenging anxiety, provoking assumptions and learning to be in the present is the goal. Anxiety keeps up focused on the past and worrying about the future. Staying in the present, connecting to the here and now and taking action are powerful antidotes.
Sometimes worry or anxiety is a red herring, distracting us from what we are trying to avoid. A good question to ask yourself is: If I weren’t worrying about this, what would I be thinking about? It may be that you’re feeling disconnected from your spouse, stuck in a job that feels meaningless, or not sure why you are here in the world. These are issues worth exploring. Obsessing about what others think of you – not so much. Sometimes, I find myself saying to patients what I myself most need to hear. In this case, I’ve written a whole blog post about it.