The Trouble with Anxiety

It’s Movember. A good time to check in with your health. How are you doing? A little anxious? Can’t imagine why you’re anxious; I’m sure the current state of rush hour traffic, politics, the stock market, the economy, terrorism, war or global warming have little or nothing to do with your state of mind…
Here’s the good news. You aren’t alone. Anxiety affects nearly 40 million US adults. Not only that, roughly 30% of those with serious anxiety issues go untreated. So, welcome to humankind. Now let’s do something about it.

Physics of Worry

Anxiety is a reaction to stress. At it’s worst, it’s called panic. It starts in the amygdala, a brain region chock full of emotional responses. As the nervous system gets involved, heart rates rise, breathing gets faster, and muscles tense up. Our body is on alert. You know what it feels like when you get anxious. It sucks. But what happens when there’s nothing to run from, like cavemen from woolly mammoths?

Bodily Woes

When anxiety lasts long enough, it becomes a different beast. In fact, we now know that chronic anxiety is linked to several medical conditions. Whether it perpetrates, or assists the perpetrator of, these illnesses isn’t clear, but here they are in full view:

  • Substance abuse
  • Physical addiction
  • Susceptibility to infections
  • Depression
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Heart disease (anxiety doubles the risk of heart attack)
  • Asthma
  • Migraine headache
  • Sleep disorders

But there’s more. The latest evidence suggests that anxiety is linked to higher death rates from cancer. Following 15,938 British citizens, researchers analyzed men and women with generalized anxiety and death records over 15 years. Men with anxiety were twice (2.1x) as likely to die of cancer as men without. Further, this relationship held true when age, major diseases, mental illnesses, smoking, alcohol, physical activity, and medications were taken into account. Good God, on top of all else, more to worry about.

Get a Grip

So, now more than ever, is a great time to get a grip on anxiety. But how? Start simple:

  • Remind yourself: anxiety is an emotion, like any other. Just accept it as reality. That alone is empowering.
  • Take a break, focus on the now, and smile. Better yet, go out and play.
  • Exercise. Enough said.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Get some sleep. You probably need more than you’re getting.
  • Learn to breathe and then learn to relax. Really deep abdominal breathing, meditation, calm music, yoga and tai chi can work wonders.
  • Trying meditating instead of worrying. A great way to get “unstuck.”
  • Engage your social network, in person.
  • Disconnect! No phone, emails, texts, TV, news. Carve out a sacred time for vegging or just hanging out.

Our antiquated, “fight or flight” nervous system, perfectly suited for us as cavemen 50,000 years ago, running for our lives, is now simply an overused reflex. Although we needed it to live longer then, we need to turn it off to live longer now.