Getting a grip on anxiety

Fight back against all the reasons we have to lose control


By Heidi Moore
Special to the Tribune
August 5, 2007

Crowded "L" trains, drug-resistant infections, global warming, terrorism
-- there are so many things to stress out about, it's amazing anyone
sleeps through the night. But just because we're not running around
screaming doesn't mean anxiety isn't getting the better of us.

About 40 million Americans 18 and older have an anxiety disorder,
ranging from generalized anxiety disorder to social phobia, according
to the National Institute of Mental Health.

If anxiety is interfering with your daily life, talk to your doctor or a
mental health professional. But for most people who handle life's
stresses more or less successfully but could use some help at times,
here are some tips for letting go of periodic anxiety.

Don't go with your gut. "People often assume they should trust their
instincts, but that's exactly the opposite of what they should do when
faced with anxiety," said David Carbonell, a psychologist and the
director of the Anxiety Treatment Center, with offices in Chicago,
Rolling Meadows and Oak Park. "Our gut instincts tend to be the
opposite of what would be useful because we're gearing up to treat this
[situation] like an actual threat."

First, he suggests, slow down and try to clarify what you're up against.
Ask yourself: "Is there a problem to solve? Is this useful, or some kind
of threat or problem I need to deal with, or is this unhelpful worry?"
If you don't need to take immediate action, anxiety is probably not a
useful response.

Breathe like a baby. When anxiety sets in, take a cue from a baby:
Breathe with your diaphragm. "Newborns are world-class belly breathers,
and that's a relaxing way to breathe," Carbonell said. But don't forget to
exhale first, he added. Omitting this important first step may actually make
breathing shallower and cause a panic response.

Be here now. Mental health professionals echo this mantra from the
psychedelic era. Simply existing in the moment and not worrying about
the future or dwelling on the past helps you let go of tension, suggested
Mark Pfeffer, a licensed psychotherapist and director of the Panic-Anxiety
Recovery Center in Chicago.

Skip that triple espresso. It might be unwelcome news in this grande-no-
foam-latte society, but stimulants such as caffeine can increase anxiety.
And although sugar isn't technically a stimulant, it can have similar effects.
Pfeffer tells clients to cut down on or eliminate caffeine, sugar and
alcohol, all of which can worsen anxiety symptoms.

Although maintaining a balanced, healthful diet can help you deal better
with anxiety, there's no easy diet fix. "Many clients look for the anxiety
diet or supplements, and I really try to steer them away," Pfeffer said.
"Broccoli does not help reduce anxiety. It would be nice if it did."

Exercise. People rarely look tense after completing a marathon. When
your fight-or-flight response kicks in, try going for a run, hitting the
basketball court or even taking a long walk with a friend or loved one.
Cardiovascular exercise is best, Pfeffer said, for boosting the endorphins
that "get your chemistry going the other way."

Schedule worry time. For many, managing anxiety means dedicating a
specific time of the day to accumulated worries. "We're all juggling so
many things in life, we let them pile up and have arguments with a spouse
or kick the cat," Pfeffer said. "It's helpful to take a little time in the day -- a
session with yourself and a significant other -- and have a worry time.
Come up with a list of the worries that are occurring in your life, and try to
respond to each of them. Then come up with a plan of action."

Don't beat up on yourself. It's OK to be anxious sometimes, health
professionals say. "Anxiety is a natural part of our lives. Sometimes we
think it's the enemy, but there's a primitive purpose for us having this
anxiety," Carbonell explained. "Our species evolved as prey, not
predators, so our central nervous system is designed to watch for trouble
and be suspicious. We're top dog now, but we have the same nervous
system of a scared little animal chased by tigers."

And there's another reason not to get mad at yourself for giving in to
anxiety. "Then you have worry about worry," Carbonell said, "which is
even worse than the original worry."

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

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