Do I Have an Anxiety Disorder? 4 Tips on How to Cope

Are you a constant worrier? Do you often find yourself worrying or stressing over things that have not yet occurred? Do your friends and family ever tell you to “stop worrying” or “just relax”? If so, you may suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). It’s finally time to put that worry to rest. As a San Diego counselor, I have seen and treated many individuals with a wide range of Anxiety Disorders, including GAD. In fact, did you know that 1 in 4 Americans meet the criteria for an Anxiety Disorder at some point in their lifetime? While stress, anxiety and worry are all very common and “normal” feelings, too much of them can be problematic and may end up taking a toll on our overall health – both physical and mental. Whether you reside in the central San Diego area or the suburbs, such as La JollaOceanside, or Carmel Valley, the stress of our day-to-day lives can have an adverse effect on our bodies and our minds.

It is normal to feel anxious in certain situations, such as giving a speech in front of a large audience, or attempting to complete a big work or school project by a certain deadline. However, stressing out about the “what-if’s” and the probabilities or the likelihood of something bad happening is unnecessary as well as potentially harmful to your health and well-being. A Swedish Proverb describes excessive anxiety well by saying “Worry gives a small thing a very big shadow”. People with Anxiety Disorders can relate to this saying well, even though the “small thing” may seem very big and as something that requires immediate concern and attention. Constant and chronic worriers tend to magnify situations, seeing themselves as people who need to be responsible for the issue that demands worry. People with GAD differ from individuals with Phobias, which are fears of specific things or situations. People with GAD are also unlike those who experience frequent panic attacks, where the worry is intense, but only lasts for a few minutes or so. Instead, people with GAD suffer from worrying thoughts and feelings for a prolonged period of time, and tend not to worry about one specific thing. GAD sufferers usually worry about a multitude of situations, and they are often ones that have not even occurred yet! It may sound silly, but it is believed that people with GAD are attempting to “protect” themselves in some way, by worrying about the “what-if’s” and focusing on the negatives in preparation for something bad to happen. This is unproductive worrying, and individuals with GAD will tell you that it takes away from their time to enjoy friends, family, and significant others.

People with GAD also have difficulty keeping their worries under control. As I said, a “normal” degree of stress and worry is necessary for our daily functioning. For instance, if we never worried about anything, nothing would ever get accomplished! Therefore, it is good to have feelings of anxiety and stress over some situations, since this worry motivates us and pushes us to get things done. But when worry starts interfering with your life (i.e. your relationships, your ability to work/concentrate, your social life, etc.), it becomes a problem and needs to be addressed.

So when does it go from “normal” worrying to problematic worrying, you ask? Here are a few questions to ask yourself in order to determine whether or not your worry is realistic/”normal” or perhaps a symptom of a larger problem.

1. Do you worry excessively about things that are beyond your control? (i.e. “what-if’s”)

2. Is your worry debilitating (meaning it is negatively affecting one or more aspects of your life)?

3. Are your symptoms of anxiety and worry so intrusive that you find them uncontrollable?

4. Do you tend to expect the worst possible outcome in most situations?

5. Do you find yourself unable to tolerate uncertainty? In other words, do you feel the need to know what is going to happen in the future?

6. Is your worry constant, occurring every day for the past 6 months?

If you have answered “yes” to any of the above questions, you may indeed have an Anxiety Disorder, or specifically Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). GAD is also accompanied by several other physical/bodily symptoms, such as excessive sweating, increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tightness, body aches, diarrhea, nausea, and trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.

As we have come to learn more about worry, anxiety and stress, we have also learned that anxiety is a very treatable condition. Depending on the type of anxiety you are experiencing, therapies such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Psychotherapy may be helpful for you. Please do not hesitate to contact me about Anxiety Therapy for a free consultation, where I will be better able to help you target the problems you are having and address them accordingly. In the meantime, and in between therapy sessions, there are several ways you can go about attacking your worry-symptoms on your own!

Tip #1: Understand Your Worry: While worry can disguise itself in many different ways, most worry stems from our perceived inability to control our future, leaving us feeling powerless and vulnerable. We often blame the external environment for our worries when in fact we are the ones perpetuating the anxiety and worrisome thoughts around and around in our brains. An external event may trigger the anxiety, but we are the ones who allow the circular internal dialogue to keep going inside of our head. Remember the “what-if’s”, and think to yourself: “Has this situation actually happened yet?” If the answer is “no”, then you are worrying about something that has yet to occur, and essentially wasting your time and energy which could be put to better use elsewhere. This is perhaps the most difficult challenge for GAD sufferers, however, the first step in every Disorder is to understand it and educate yourself. Once you realize how common it is and how irrational your thinking may be, you will be better able to keep you worries in check.

Tip #2: Practice Relaxation Exercises Regularly: Think about it – it is impossible to be anxious and calm at the same time, right? Therefore, you have to begin integrating relaxation techniques into your daily routine (minimum 30 minutes a day) so that eventually, your body will become accustomed to utilizing these techniques when worry does strike. Three different types of relaxation exercises you can practice are as follows:

  1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation – This technique involves systematically tensing and releasing the different muscle groups of your body, one group at a time. The focus should be solely on the tensing and then the releasing of your muscles, and your mind should be otherwise blank. You will begin to see that as your body relaxes, so will your mind!
  2. Deep Breathing Exercises – Most people, particularly anxious people, do not breath deeply (from the diaphragm). Anxiety can involve short and fast-paced breathing, which can exacerbate your anxiety symptoms and make you feel worse. Try breathing very deeply and slowly, focusing on your diaphragm. After all, when you are breathing deeply, it is impossible to hyperventilate!
  3. Meditation – Mindful meditation in particular has been shown to be successful with people suffering from GAD. In fact, mindful meditation can even change your brain! If you practice it regularly, mindful meditation can increase the activity of the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for feelings of serenity).

Tip #3: Learn to Self-Soothe: This involves activating your different senses (touch, taste, smell, sight and sound). For ‘Touch’, pet your cat or dog, or get into a comfortable pair of sweat pants and wrap yourself in a soft blanket. To activate your ‘Taste’ sense, you could either cook or purchase a delicious meal, and while eating it, make sure to savor every last bite! For ‘Smell’, you could simply light a scented candle in your home, visit a local bakery, or walk along the beach and take in a huge breath of fresh ocean air! For ‘Sight’, you could take in a gorgeous view by going hiking, walking along the beaches of San Diego, or simply by visiting a local art museum! And for ‘Sound’, throw on some of your favorite tunes on your iPod or CD player (just make sure the type of music you are listening to is soothing!)

Tip #4: Change Your Lifestyle: This is a big one, and includes things like your diet and exercise habits. Make sure you are eating (for the most part) nutritious meals that are high in vitamins and minerals. And be sure not to skip any meals, as this can lead to low blood-sugar, which in turn can increase anxiety levels. Try to avoid consuming foods that are high in refined sugar, as these foods will only temporarily elevate your blood-sugar and then cause it to plummet. It is also wise to avoid alcohol and caffeine if you experience a lot of anxiety, as both of these can intensify your symptoms. Also make sure that you are getting regular exercise (aim for 30 minutes per day) that is a combination of cardiovascular exercise and weight-training. Aerobic exercise in particular releases chemicals in the brain known as endorphins, which are the brain’s natural “feel-good” chemicals. And last but not least, make sure you are getting enough sleep! Most of us don’t get enough sleep – we need 7-8 hours per night. Adequate sleep promotes physical and mental health and helps reduce anxiety by keeping our emotions balanced.

Above all, please remember that Anxiety Disorders are manageable and treatable! While some of our anxiety symptoms may be deeply rooted in the events of our past and our upbringing (in other words, things we cannot change), it is comforting to know that our brains are flexible and adaptable. This means that with adequate practice and training, you can alter the way you react to situations and events that once provoked high-anxiety, and learn to respond in a more productive and healthy manner.  Call me at 858-481-0425 for more information.
Copyright ©2012 Jan Rakoff. All Rights Reserved.

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