Anxiety is a common ailment. Estimates are that at any one time approximately 20% of the population is struggling with anxiety. Anxiety comes in many forms, from social anxiety at dinner parties or Board meetings, to chronic anxiety that underlies everyday living. There can be anxiety around intimacy, relationship, or emotional intensity. Anxiety can be situational or chronic. Chronic anxiety is sometimes linked to a nervous system primed for threat; one might have a generalized sense of unease or feel a lack of safety being in the world. Anxiety is sometimes thought of as a kind of fear. In fact, in German, the words for fear and anxiety are the same.
There are many approaches to easing anxiety. First, it is important to understand the type of anxiety at issue, whether it is situational, chronic or both, as well as the intensity of the anxiety. Specific symptoms are discussed, as well as the ways the anxiety may be affecting one’s quality of life, including at work or in relationships. It is important to distinguish low-level anxiety from more serious anxiety disorders such as those involving panic attacks and agoraphobia.
One approach to easing anxiety is to reduce systemic fight/flight priming by helping the nervous system relax. This can be done through therapeutic techniques that specifically address the nervous system, how it operates and what it pays attention to. Techniques in this category that can be effective include mindfulness-based exercises, grounding and increasing body awareness. Expanding emotional regulation capacity is key to increasing one’s tolerance and minimizing anxiety. If one is in a relationship, it can be helpful to discuss ways the relationship can help ease anxiety. Finally, if anxiety is linked with a specific intense trauma it can sometimes be helpful to see the assistance of a therapist who specializes in the treatment of serious trauma.
When anxiety is more serious, such as in the case of panic disorder, it may be important to seek immediate medical treatment. Panic attacks should be alleviated as soon as possible because each one makes the nervous system more predisposed to having another one, and because a person can develop significant fear of having an attack, aggravating the underlying anxiety. Repeated panic attacks can lead to agoraphobia as people begin to avoid common situations they fear might increase anxiety. Treatment of intense anxiety may include a combination of medication in the short-term and counseling.
Anxiety can be thought of as an overactive nervous system exaggerating threat when such hyper-arousal is unnecessary. Anxiety can be particularly prevalent among those who grew up in unpredictable, dangerous, or emotionally unsupportive households. One way to ease chronic anxiety is to build a life that is emotionally secure, predictable and nurturing. Building such a life is complicated by serious anxiety, but working with a therapist can help support movement in that direction. Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in decreasing anxiety, and other lifestyle considerations such as exercise and certain dietary changes can help. A good relationship with a nurturing psychotherapist, including regular appointments, can also help re-pattern a suspicious nervous system, helping that part of the brain believe the world is a safe place to be.