According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in three U.S. adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. Chances are, you know someone who has, or will, experience anxiety. We sat down with anxiety disorders expert, Trish Carlson, MD, to learn more about this surprisingly common mental illness.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a biologically-programmed emotion that we’re all meant to have – it’s normal to experience some anxiety. As humans developed, it was helpful to have some anxiety or fear so they could be alert and prepared for threats in the environment. Today, we’re comparatively safe – we don’t have the same life or death situations facing us regularly – but many people still experience high levels of fear, worry, or concern about daily occurrences.
What does anxiety look like?
Anxiety often presents as a set of physical feelings. Having a racing heart, feeling shaky or sweaty, or having nausea or an upset stomach are all common complaints from people who are feeling anxious. Some people may experience insomnia, fatigue, trouble concentrating, or drastic changes in appetite as well.
What are the risk factors for anxiety?
There are elements of both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture.’ Anxiety has a strong genetic component – anxiety disorders will often ‘run in the family.’ There are several recent studies that found genetic variations associated with specific anxiety diagnoses. Environmental factors also have an impact: if you have a stressful situation at work, at school, or at home, that can exacerbate feelings of anxiety.
When should I worry about anxiety?
If your worry or concern is extreme or persistent and leads to avoidance of activities or changes in your ability to function as you would like, it is probably time to seek treatment. Also, if the anxiety is compounded with ongoing insomnia or changes in mood, such as feelings of depression, it’s time to see a professional for help.
What are some things I can do to try and tackle my anxiety?
Try avoiding things that you know will make you feel worse, like caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine can trigger the same physical feelings you get when panicked. And, alcohol may mask feelings in the moment, but when the alcohol wears off, the stressor is still there. These short-term approaches aren’t doing you any favors in the long term.
Make an effort to consciously limit things that have the power to trigger your anxiety. Do push notifications from the news app on your phone have you on edge? Turn them off.
Pay attention to who you spend time with – when we are around people who are fretting and worrying, we can easily absorb those same feelings. Let’s say you have a test coming up and you’re well prepared for it, but you talk with classmates who are panicking and cramming. You can quickly go from a mental state of confidence and feeling calm to doubting yourself simply by spending time with your worried classmates.
Do you have any suggestions for quick activities I can do to tackle my anxiety in the moment?
- Physically remove yourself from the situation for a few minutes. Literally changing the scenery will help you get perspective.
- Do a quick body scan. Start at the top of your head and go all the way down to your toes; pay attention and self-monitor tension in the body. As you move down the body, release the tension limb by limb.
- Try journaling. If you’re in the midst of an obsessive spin, try slowing down your thoughts by physically writing them out. Journaling can also provide the opportunity for you to get distance and a different perspective.
Dr. Trish Carlson is a board-certified adult psychiatrist at Sheppard Pratt Health System.
Service Chief, TMSSpecialties:Adult Psychiatry, Anxiety Disorders, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Eating Disorders, LGBTQ+ Mental Health Issues, Mood Disorders, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), Transference-focused Psychotherapy, Treatment-resistant Depression