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Anxiety is a prevalent and serious medical concern. When an anxiety disorder is a possibility, it is important to understand what anxiety is, its root causes and symptoms, and how to cope with anxiety both in the short and long term.
Anxiety is a common medical concern. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that over 19% of U.S. adults have an anxiety attack every year. On top of that, while anxiety makes someone as much as five times more likely to go to the doctor, just over a third of those with anxiety receive treatment.
To put it another way, anxiety is both widespread and under-addressed.
If you or someone you know is showing signs of an anxiety disorder, it’s wise to take action. Below is a basic breakdown of what anxiety looks like and recommendations for how you can treat it, both in the short and long term.
What causes anxiety?
To properly address a medical condition like anxiety, you should always start with a basic understanding of what it is in the first place. What is going on when you experience anxiety? The multi-faceted answer has to do with multiple parts of your body.
Anxiety is often seen as a physiological response (i.e., a reaction that affects you physically). However, anxiety doesn’t begin there.
The bodily responses associated with anxiety (more on those further down) start in the limbic system. This is the part of your brain that manages behaviors and responses, especially on an automatic and often subconscious level. The limbic system (which consists of the amygdala and hippocampus) oversees survival elements of behavior, such as the need to eat, reproduce, and protect and care for offspring. It’s also a major part of a person’s “fight or flight response,” which is where anxiety comes into the picture.
When you perceive a threat (perception is important, as something doesn’t have to be dangerous for you to see it as a threat), your mind can trigger your body to respond. As is the case with other natural reactions, such as pain or stress, a threat triggering the limbic system is a normal and important part of everyday life.
However, when perceived threats trigger the limbic system too often or for unnecessary things (i.e., perceived threats), it can lead to an overactive limbic system and excessive emotional processing — which is a fancy way of saying it can make you feel anxious.
Most people experience anxiety from time to time. When anxiety becomes excessive or chronic, though, it can develop into an anxiety disorder, such as a phobia, social anxiety disorder, or GAD (general anxiety disorder).
Anxiety disorders tend to develop before or in early adulthood. They are slightly more prevalent in women than men and can have a familial or genetic component . They can also develop out of individual conditions and circumstances.
For example, research has linked irritable bowel syndrome to significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression. Other medical conditions, such as diabetes, thyroid issues, heart disease, and even asthma, can contribute to an anxious mental and physical state, as well.
Pre-existing medical conditions aren’t the only areas of concern, either. Past trauma can also stoke anxiety in an individual, as can the most common anxiety inducer of them all: stress. Stress is a normal part of life. Nevertheless, there are times when circumstances can inordinately increase stress levels, resulting in higher anxiety levels in the process. For instance, it’s estimated that the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic generated an additional 76.2 million cases of anxiety disorders around the world.
Recognizing the signs of an anxiety disorder or anxiety attack
Anxiety disorders and individual anxiety attacks can take place in a variety of ways. Some of these are mental in nature. Others happen in the physical body. Still others are associated with changes in behavior.
Mental symptoms of anxiety
When anxiety becomes an issue, it can manifest in your mental activity through:
- Excessive fear
- Perpetual perceived dangers that aren’t grounded in fact or reality
- Restlessness or nervousness
- An inability to focus on things outside of the source of your anxiety
- Feeling out of control, especially in regard to revisiting worrisome thought patterns
Physical symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety is most well-known for a smorgasbord of physical symptoms, including:
- Flushed skin
- A rapid heart rate
- Fast breathing and shortness of breath
- Tense muscles and trembling
- Dizziness and fatigue
- Chest pain
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
Behavioral symptoms of anxiety
Finally, anxiety can lead to changes in various behavioral activities and patterns, such as:
- Poor sleeping quality and quantity
- Avoiding social interactions, such as going to work or social situations
- Dodging specific people or places, especially if they trigger anxiety
Short-term ways to cope with anxiety
If you have any of the symptoms above, you may be dealing with unusual levels of anxiety or an anxiety attack. This could be a one-off event, or it could be part of a larger anxiety disorder.
The good news is that many people are able to successfully treat their anxiety and see a marked improvement in symptoms and quality of life. This boils down to one of two time-based forms of treatment. One of those is the long-term treatment of symptoms (see the next section).
The other is developing coping tools and skills that help address anxiety in the present. This could be as an anxiety attack happens as well as shortly before or afterward. When that is the case, consider the following short-term anxiety treatments:
- Breathe slowly: Deep breaths can counteract the panic that comes with short breathing. It can also help you regain a sense of calm and control in the very moment when the anxiety is at its peak.
- Use relaxation techniques: Take deep breathing to the next level by integrating an entire progressive muscle relaxation script into your de-stressing toolkit.
- Stay mindful and in the present: Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help you regain control over your thoughts and avoid runaway fear-mongering in your mind.
- Use visual aids: Your eyes can also help you cope with anxiety. Closing your eyes can bring a sense of calm and inner focus. Choosing a focal point in the room can also provide stability.
- Memorize a mantra: Short, empowering phrases, like “this too shall pass” or “all is well,” can recenter the mind and provide a healthy dose of perspective in the midst of an anxiety attack.
Long-term strategies for coping with anxiety
Recurring anxiety can be destructive. Fortunately, there are many ways to address anxiety over the long term. Below are some of the best ways you can begin to reclaim the peace and serenity of an anxiety-free life.
Tend to the basics
Before you start experimenting with the latest medical treatments or take a trip halfway around the world to meditate on a mountain, start by reclaiming stability in your daily life. This includes three key areas:
- Sleep: Make sure you’re getting at least seven hours of sleep each night. In addition, consider the quality of your sleep. If your slumber is restless, you may want to take steps to improve your sleep quality, too. Use black-out curtains, avoid blue light before bed, stick to a bedtime routine, and so on.
- Diet: As already mentioned, gastrointestinal conditions can directly contribute to an anxiety disorder. Healthy food choices can also be a major factor in preventing an anxiety disorder. For instance, a good quality diet can improve mood, reduce stress, and boost cognitive function, all of which support strong mental health.
- Exercise: Consistent exercise isn’t just good for physical health. It’s also a proven way to address mental strains, such as those that come with chronic anxiety. Regular activity can boost mood and confidence levels. It can also relax the body and improve sleep. The release of endorphins also brightens emotions and helps cope with stress.
While it’s important to utilize many of the coping mechanisms on this list, you always want to start with a healthy foundation built on good sleep, a healthy diet, and plenty of exercise.
Work with a professional
Mental health concerns are often best addressed with the help of a professional. An informed, trained, and non-emotional third-party can help you make sound decisions as you look for long-term treatment.
Professional help can be sought in-person by finding a therapist or counselor or even online via telehealth options. Regardless of the route you take, working with a professional starts with a comprehensive screening to determine what treatment options would work best for you. They’ll ask plenty of questions, but it’s just so they’ll be able to understand how to help.
Whether you’re looking for someone to talk to or get a consultation for medication support, finding a dependable source for mental health support is important. It gives you the ability to seek counsel when making challenging decisions regarding your mental health.
Consider anxiety medication
If basic anxiety treatments aren’t enough, you may want to try using anxiety medication. This is something that requires serious consideration and should involve a medical professional.
Anxiety disorders vary in nature. They’re also intimately connected to the functioning of the limbic system. With that said, the kind of medications that you can use also differs from one situation to the next.
SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) antidepressants are a common option. Benzodiazepines (benzos for short) and buspirone are also frequently used. Beta blockers can make it easier to manage short-term or “situational” anxiety, as well.
Choosing the right anxiety medication for your circumstance takes time and consideration. Nurx can help you connect with a medical provider online, from anywhere, for a personalized treatment plan. If medically appropriate, that provider can prescribe medication and provide ongoing support on your schedule.
Overcoming anxiety with the right coping skills
Anxiety is a normal struggle. It also has a fantastic recovery rate for those who choose to actively address it.
This starts with an understanding of anxiety and its symptoms. If you find that you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms on a regular basis, you may want to take steps to get a formal diagnosis.
In the event that you do have a clinical anxiety disorder, take some time to commit the above coping skills to heart. Start with the short-term tools. This, like breathing, meditation, and mantras, can help you maintain a clear and calm mindset when anxiety strikes. From there, adding tools like a healthy lifestyle, medical support, and medications can give you the upper hand in the long-term fight for your mental health.
The results speak for themselves. When you can address chronic anxiety in your life, it can have countless benefits. Physical health and longevity, mental clarity, and overall higher quality of life all start with knowing how to cope with anxiety in the first place.