You’re headed home from work and you see the ambulance lights ahead. As traffic slows down and you pass the accident, you crane your neck to see if any of the vehicles involved belong to someone you know – especially one of your loved ones. If you don’t get a good enough look, you may even call your partner or your children, just to assure yourself that they’re okay.
Sound familiar? Worry is a universal emotion. We worry about work, our health, our children, the bills, the state of world affairs. And worrying can even be productive in many instances, because it spurs us into action. If you’re worried about a project due at work, for example, you’re more likely to take it seriously and meet the deadline rather than procrastinate.
But if you’re constantly worrying about worse case scenarios or “what-ifs,” and you can’t seem to distract yourself from your worries, you may actually have an anxiety condition, said Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., MPH, a psychotherapist and adjunct professor at New York University and Baruch College. “When the anxiety cycle escalates to a significant degree, concentration and performance can be disrupted and an individual may begin to experience impairment in daily functioning,” she explained. ”This can be seen by avoidance behaviors, such as not attending an important business function, physical symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating or migraine headaches, or disruption in relationships with family, peers, employers and co-workers,” she added.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (adaa.org), anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety, phobias and panic disorders, are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting some 18 percent of the American population. The cost of anxiety disorders in this country is enormous, as much as $42 billion each year, spent mainly on health care visits for physical symptoms related to the anxiety. Women are more often affected by anxiety than are men, although certain types of anxiety conditions, such as social anxiety disorder, affect both men and women equally.
How to tell if you should seek treatment for your worries? “It essentially has to do with the level of suffering you’re experiencing, and how long you’ve been suffering,” said Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D., Director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and author of numerous books and CDs on anxiety disorder. “Many people react with anxiety to something that’s happened during the day,” she elaborated.” If they can move along and forget about it, they probably don’t need treatment. But if a person has difficulty controlling the anxiety and it is negatively affecting day-to-day living, it’s probably time to get some help.”
According to Amanda Burger, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in private practice and on faculty at Cedarville University in Ohio, the best treatment for any type of anxiety includes cognitive behavioral therapy and, sometimes, medications. “Medications don’t cure the problem, but they can help with symptom management,” said Dr. Burger. “Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of treatment that helps people to identify and change thought patterns that are leading to anxiety, and then begin to challenge their fears by exposing themselves to things they may have begun to avoid due to anxiety.”
For example, if you’re anxious about public speaking and have avoided opportunities to make presentations at work, you may learn to identify negative or inaccurate thoughts that cause your anxiety, such as, “I’m going to make a fool of myself,” or “I’ll forget everything and freeze up.” These thoughts are replaced with more realistic ones, such as “I work hard to prepare myself for speaking, and I’ll be using PowerPoint for the presentation, so I won’t forget what I need to get across to my audience.” Then you may work with the therapist to seek out public speaking engagements and tackle them successfully, rather than continuing to avoid them.
The best news? While many people with excessive worries or anxiety fail to seek treatment for their condition, the majority of those who do get professional care can be treated.
The Anxious Personality
While mental health professionals believe that there are a combination of genetic and environmental factors that predispose a person to an anxiety condition, there does seem to be a typical “anxious personality,” said Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D., Director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and author of numerous books and CDs on anxiety disorder. According to Dr. Daitch, three personality characteristics those with anxiety usually have are:
Overestimating the potential for catastrophe, or overreacting to negative events. A person who has anxiety expects the worst. A bit of turbulence during air travel, for example, is perceived as an impending crash. A poor grade on a test is translated as “I’m a failure.”
Underestimating coping mechanisms. People with chronic anxiety rarely evaluate a situation, come up with concrete steps to deal with it, then carry out the plan. They assume they’ll fall apart at the first sign of trouble.
Intolerance for uncertainty. Nobody loves uncertainty. But chronic worriers can’t stand doubt or unpredictability. For these people, anxiety is used as a method to predict what the future has in store and to control the outcome – but often through acting as a mind reader or a fortune teller, filling in the blanks by jumping to conclusions, such as waiting for lab tests with the thought, “I know they will show I have cancer.”
Tips to Help Put The Lid on Worrying
If you find yourself chronically stressing about multiple things in life, here are some techniques from the health experts that can help you to put the lid on your worries:
Make a time for worrying, rather than trying to banish it completely or allow it to take over, suggested Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D., Director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders in Farmington Hills, Michigan. “If you have an anxious thought, write it down, put it in an envelope and put it away for a certain worry time,” she explained. Then, if the worry pops up again, she added, “remind yourself that you can think about it later, so there’s no need to worry about it now.”
Define the worry, advised Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of “It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction.” “If you’re feeling anxious or worried, or you can’t stop thinking about some event that hasn’t happened yet, take a few moments to write down whatever is worrying you. If you can’t write it down, think it through carefully until you can clearly say what you’re worrying about. Clarifying your worries will stop the free-floating sensation of anxiety with no basis,” she explained.
Take your worries to court, in order to test their reality, said Dr. Daitch. “Worry is like that reel to reel tape – it goes round and round,” she explained. “Ask yourself: ‘What is my worry?’ ‘What is the evidence to support it?’ ‘How would I deal with it if it were true?’” Many times this type of an exercise helps to distinguish between a realistic or “what-if” worry and also help to define whether you can do something about the problem or prepare for the problem – or whether it is out of your control.
Take action to solve your worries. “Sometimes worry is a way to procrastinate,” said Dr. Tessina. “If there is something you can do, do it.” Making a call to an ill friend or relative, getting an estimate of costs for a repair you’re worrying about, or making a doctor’s appointment to check out a worrisome symptom helps to decrease anxiety – because you’re taking action to solve the problem.
Hone your skills in accepting uncertainty. Many things in life are out of your control, which can fuel a worrier’s intolerance for uncertainty. But that doesn’t mean that all uncertain events will turn out in a negative way. And even if they do, you will be able to handle it. To test this theory, think about something in the past that you were uncertain about. Perhaps you failed to call a friend when her mom died, and you were worried that she would be angry at you. When you finally called her, how did it turn out? If she was happy to hear from you and accepted your condolences, however late – the worry was groundless. If she was hurt or angry and you apologized to her – you were able to handle the situation.
Be mindful, advised Dr. Daitch. When your mind keeps focusing on worries, bring it back to the present. Pay attention to your surroundings, the rhythm of your breathing, your changing emotions and thoughts. Acknowledge your anxious thoughts, but don’t get stuck on them.
Learn relaxation techniques. According to Dr. Daitch, it’s impossible to be relaxed and anxious at the same time. If your body is revved up by the emotional part of your brain, you can relax your body with yoga, deep breathing or meditation, which will calm your brain, too.