Anxiety is an incredibly common emotion. You may feel anxious waiting for the results from an important test, or you may feel anxious about getting to work on time. And in these isolated scenarios, anxiety is temporary and will impact your life only minimally. But when anxious feelings begin to follow you around day in and day out, it may be time to speak with a healthcare professional. Anxiety can be a symptom of a different medical condition or a condition all its own. In fact, anxiety is the most common psychiatric illness in the United States—about 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders each year. The good news—anxiety is highly treatable. Even a few simple lifestyle changes can minimize the sensations associated with anxiety and help you reclaim your most vibrant self.
Anxiety can be complicated because it is subjective: each person has a different way of feeling and responding to anxiety. If you visit a healthcare professional, they will likely ask you several questions about your experiences with anxiety and follow up with a physical examination. This may seem overly comprehensive, but it helps them get a fuller idea of what you may be feeling and how to best proceed.
Some of the sensations associated with anxiety include panic, fear, terror, uneasiness, trouble sleeping, cold or sweaty hands and feet, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, unrest, dry mouth, nausea, muscle tension, dizziness, and sometimes even numbness and tingling in the hands and feet. The symptoms of an anxiety attack can even be mistaken for a heart attack.
Anxiety is a subjective and highly personal emotion, characterized by negative feelings (tension, worry, and fear) and physical changes (high blood pressure, tight muscles, and increased heart rate). It is classified as either its own malady or a symptom of another condition.
The umbrella term “anxiety” can be used to classify various disorders, including:
• General anxiety disorder (GAD)
• Panic disorder and panic attacks
• Agoraphobia and other specific phobias
• Social anxiety disorders
• Selective mutism
• Separation anxiety
Excessive anxiety requires physical and psychological evaluation by a healthcare professional. From there, doctors can determine the appropriate course of treatment (medication, therapy, exercise, meditation etc.).
Note that while obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are closely related to anxiety (and depression), they are classified as separate maladies.
Anxiety is a complex, multidimensional symptom that is highly individual, and therefore, it differs from person to person. Anxiety can affect both adults and children, and it is more common among women than men.
Those who suffer from anxiety often have an imbalance in their serotonin levels. Serotonin helps relay information from one part of the brain to another, and is critical to regulating mood. Some people are genetically predisposed to low serotonin levels, leading some experts to hypothesize that anxiety is, in part, hereditary.
Conversely, social anxiety is likely caused by environmental factors. The body is designed to recognize patterns. If a person repeatedly gets anxious every time they are in the same scenario, the nervous system creates a “neural pathway.” This pathway makes anxiety a habitual response.
Though it’s often impossible to know the exact cause of anxiety or understand what is specifically happening, treatment is based on how the body responds to physical, mental, and environmental stressors.
- Eat a healthful diet! Limit salt intake, cigarettes, alcohol, and red meats, and instead opt for fresh, whole foods. This maintains balance in the body and decreases the risk for developing or worsening high blood pressure.
- De-stress! Stress is a major contributing factor to anxiety. Practice stress reduction daily with breathing techniques, journaling, or meditation.
- Exercise! Add in at least a half an hour of exercise five days a week. In addition to making the body feel stronger and healthier, exercise promotes the creation of endorphins—the happy hormone—while also distracting you from your worries.
1. Ground the Feet. Press the bases of all ten toes and the heels into the floor, and equalize the weight distribution between the bases of toes and heels. Now, equalize the weight between the right foot and the left foot. Feel the earth supporting you. The feet are the basis for support of the entire body. Grounding the feet brings your attention back to the body. Anxiety generates a feeling of isolation and loss of connection with the present. So concerned with what might happen in the future, all of your attention is being spent on your thoughts. By drawing the attention down to the feet, you feel the support and stability of the earth beneath you. With this exercise, you can get back in touch with your body, and gain a sense of presence necessary for inducing calm.
2. Mobilize the Ribs. Place hands on either side of the ribcage with the fingers facing each other and the thumbs wrapping around the back body. Inhale; expand the ribs east and west toward the palm centers. Notice how the fingers move away from each other. Exhale; contract the ribs toward center. Notice how the fingers move toward each other. The breath is directly related to the nervous system. When you deepen and slow down your breath, you trigger a rest and digest response in the nervous system to ease anxiety.
3. Broaden the Brow. Take heels of hands to the brow line—just above the eyebrows. Let the head fall heavily into the hands. Inhale; pull heels of hands east and west toward the temples (ironing out the brow). Exhale; come back to center. Notice how the compression helps the muscles in the brow release. When we feel anxious, the muscles in the brow often overcontract. Releasing muscular tension in the face—particularly the brow and jaw—inspires other parts of the body to release, including the neck, shoulders, even the hips and legs. Releasing muscular tension often translates to a release of mental tension as well.
Rest. Whether you sit in a quiet place or attend a restorative yoga class, be as consistent as possible. Rest triggers the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, which reduces stress, slows down the heart rate, and decreases blood pressure. Since anxiety is a symptom of an overactive sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system, this relaxation response releases muscular tension and calms physical and mental “nerves” to focus the mind and ground the body in a safe and nurturing environment.
1. Kneel on the center of the mat.
2. Bring big toes together, knees hip-width apart and sit on your heels.
3. Lay your torso down between your thighs. Stretch arms out in front of you, palms down.
4. Rest your head on a block or the mat.
1. Come to All 4’s position. Position hands under shoulders and knees under hips.
2. Round the spine like a Halloween cat, set gaze to naval and push hands into mat. This is Cat Pose.
3. Flex the spine like a seal surfacing for air, set gaze to the sky and pull fingertips long. This is Cow Pose.
4. Exhale; Cat Pose. Inhale; Cow Pose.
5. Move through Cat and Cow for 5 more breathes. Each exhale, push the hands into the mat. Each inhale, pull fingertips long.
6. Push hips back to child’s pose. Rest.
1. Start on hands and knees, with hands under shoulders and knees under hips in All 4s.
2. Equalize weight on the hands, lift knees, and push the hips up toward the ceiling into an inverted V shape. Bend knees, pull heels high, and keep neck and head aligned with the spine. This is Inverted V.
3. Inhale; fill the space between the shoulder blades with breath. Exhale; empty by drawing the belly in toward the lower back and up toward the ribcage.
4. Hold the position and continue for 5-10 breath cycles.