It’s getting late and you are getting ready for bed. You lay back, relax, and then all of a sudden a thought pops into your head. Suddenly you feel a significant urge to take care of a task right away because it feels as though if you do not you will never get to sleep. It happens to all of us at one time or another.
Now imagine if you felt that way throughout the entire day. Imagine that every task presented to you felt like it needed to be handled urgently or bad consequences would follow. That’s anxiety. And whether the task is a homework assignment or a medical concern it carries with it the same amount of fear and angst.
Where does anxiety come from? Is it nature versus nurture? Why do some people seem to manage stress and anxiety so well while others seemingly struggle with what many view as basic tasks? Like any mental health problem, the answer is never as simple as black or white response. What is important is to begin to understand whether the anxiety is related to something specific or whether it is an ongoing feeling that doesn’t have anything directly attributed to it.
Anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction to stress. Let’s think of the stressful situations we encounter on a near daily basis. A first date, a dance, tests, final examinations, college prep, GPA, peer pressure, sports, competitions, a class presentation. Basically the list could take up another several pages. It is perfectly normal to have some worrisome thoughts about these things. And it is our response to these triggers that can help shine a light on whether or not there may be a problem.
If, when faced with these types of incidents, you have a restless night of sleep, some worry or apprehension but it lessens after the task has been completed, it is probably manageable. If, when faced with these types of incidents, you drink alcohol, isolate, become unable to communicate with others, experience ongoing insomnia, or other effects that are physically or mentally debilitating, then it is quite likely that there is a problem that requires more attention.
So how do we manage anxiety? There are several ways.
The first, and sometimes simplest thing we can do is admit that we are worried. The analogy that many of us are familiar with is when we are having trouble falling asleep. We can do one of two things; we can admit that it’s going to be a rough night and try to take some deep breaths or we can tell ourselves angrily “I need to get to sleep”. Guess which one is more effective? Being aware that I’m going to be anxious before a game allows me to anticipate and manage it a bit more proactively.
Sometimes that is not enough and we have to work on why we are worried about specific events. A licensed therapist can help you work through this and also help you develop coping skills to more effectively manage the anxiety symptoms when they pop up. In other cases a medication may be required to help effectively manage anxiety or potential panic attacks. However, a full evaluation by a licensed psychiatrist should occur prior to going on any medication.
Beyond these measures it is also important to remember to unplug. We are constantly bombarded with information and, in our brave new world of digital media, are being constantly triggered unlike any generation prior to this one. It is important that you do put down the phone, try some basic meditation to refocus your thoughts. This can be particularly useful prior to going to sleep. Recent research has shown that those who are on their phones until the moment they go to sleep often suffer from increased anxiety and difficulty getting to sleep. Above all else, when you are experiencing a bout of anxiety, remember that it will pass. A former high school teacher once told me, as I was in a near panic attack about a physics final, that five years from when I took the test, there would be no one in the world who would care about what grade I received. That has stuck with me because in many cases our anxiety is triggered by the weight we put on a situation.
Anxiety does pass in most cases but maintaining a level of awareness is critical to how much it can influence your behaviors. Stay self aware, seek help if the symptoms become problematic or are recurring. Remember we all deserve peace of mind and the ability to enjoy life and that happiness can be found in an hour of meditation as easily as in an A on a test or from winning a game.
Written by Steve Smith, MS, LCPC, CRADC, LPHA, Director, Aspen Counseling and Consulting and Rosecrance Berry Campus