Anxiety is a normal part of life. Speaking in front of an audience, interviewing for a job, going out on a first date with someone you have been eyeing for a while – all of these are normal experiences that can produce anxiety, or more specifically what is known as acute anxiety. Acute anxiety is fueled by the fear of what actually is, the immediate situation. The silver lining to the acute anxiety cloud is that the stressful situation, which produces the anxious feeling, is usually short-lived. When the situation is over, the anxious feeling goes away and you feel better.
However, anxiety can also be long-lasting and sustained. This type of anxiety, called chronic anxiety, is fueled by the fear of what might be, the future, and often leads to excessive worrying and stress. Maybe you have seen your income drop during the recession or you are working multiple jobs because of layoffs at your company. Or maybe your long-term relationship is turning in to more of a long nightmare. Caring for a chronically or terminally ill loved one can also be extremely stressful. These types of situations are more protracted and unpredictable, and because there may be no immediate end in sight, these factors can create chronic anxiety.
Chronic anxiety not only affects how we feel emotionally, but also how we feel physically. Our bodies take a direct hit from prolonged anxiety and stress. When stressed, we experience a physiological reaction as our brains quickly move us in to a fight-or-flight mode by dumping stress hormones into our bloodstream. The longer the anxiety lasts, the longer our bodies remain on heightened alert. The longer we are on high alert, the more stress hormones exist in our systems. Higher and prolonged amounts of stress hormones in our bodies can lead to a decrease in bone density and muscle tissue, lowered immunity, fatigue and an increase in abdominal fat. Nausea, shortness of breath, twitching and dizziness can also result from increased amounts of these hormones. And more mental tension leads to more physical tension, resulting in headaches, back aches and neck aches. In an attempt to cope with prolonged anxiety and stress, some may increase their smoking and alcohol consumption and alter their eating habits, all of which can also have a negative impact on our bodies.
To understand just how powerful long-term anxiety can be, consider what a college friend of mine experienced. She had always been susceptible to anxiety and had been diagnosed with asthma in her early teens. As a young adult, she continued to experience periods of chest tightness and shortness of breath even while on her asthma medications. After ruling out all other medical conditions and adjusting her medications with no improvement, her new physician decided to test her for asthma. The tests came back negative! Her doctor told her to throw away her asthma medications and start taking care of herself. She decided to create some breathing room in her life by changing roommates, taking fewer hours in college and ending an unhealthy relationship. She also began to exercise regularly, something she had avoided because of her so-called asthma. After making these life changes and with a little time, her physical symptoms began to disappear.
So, before chronic anxiety does its dirty work, what can you do to counter its effects?
• Don’t overthink it: Do you constantly think about your weight and/or body shape?
• Exercise: After your doctor’s permission, of course, develop a regular regimen consisting of moderate aerobic and strengthening exercises. This can help boost your immune system and energy levels while limiting the effects of stress. Yoga can also be effective. Remaining sedentary allows the stress hormones to pile up in our bodies, so move!
• Diet: Make sure you are eating healthy and balanced meals and snacks. It is not uncommon for people to eat too little or eat too much or to load up on sugars and carbohydrates when stressed. Also, monitor your caffeine intake. Too much can certainly add to your anxious jitters.
•Relationships: Chronic and excessive worrying can engender feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can exacerbate your anxiety and stress. Stay connected with others, especially those who can be empathetic and supportive.
•Relaxation: There is something to be said about meditation and practicing mindfulness. Spend 10 to 15 minutes each day paying close attention to what you are experiencing in that moment. Notice your thoughts and feelings without judgment or analysis. Where in your body do you feel the stress and tension? Breathe slowly and deeply.
•Distract: When overwhelmed, do something that takes your mind off your worries. The more we think about something, the more power we give it. So read something mindless. Find some levity. And laugh!
Did you know?
Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million U.S. adults each year, with men and women suffering equally from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and social phobia.
A prolonged presence of certain stress hormones can permanently damage cells found in the part of the brain that is associated with long-term memory.