Many researchers have shown that anxiety and depression are related and some of them are arguing over whether they are really two separate conditions. Even so, we can think of anxiety as dread, fear or tension about things that might happen, so it’s about probability and the ‘What if?’ question.74
When does anxiety become unhealthy? When it disrupts your life. It’s unhealthy when it’s a series of false alarms that activate your sympathetic nervous system, which governs your body’s response to danger. Once your brain senses the danger, it signals your adrenal glands to produce adrenalin, your blood pressure rises, blood shits from your stomach and nervous system to your heart and muscles, your digestion stops and the liver provides reserves of sugar. You are ready for ‘light or ight’. It’s useful in times of real danger, but being on a constant state of alert is very debilitating. Prolonged anxiety is a contributing factor to serious depression.
Here’s a disturbing discovery: By the 1980s the average American child was more anxious than the average child psychiatric patient in the 1950s. There’s strong evidence that young adult Americans also became significantly more anxious in the same period.77
There are good reasons to believe that anxiety is growing in other countries too. A study published in 2000 links anxiety with likely ‘environmental’ factors – particularly with crime rates, the number of AIDS cases and to a lesser extent the threat of nuclear war. (We can now add the threat of terrorist attack.) Surprisingly, economic conditions didn’t seem to be strongly linked to anxiety. The real issues may be social rather than environmental. The same study also shows that we can also use measures of ‘social connectedness’ such as the divorce rates, the number of people living alone and lower ratings of trust to predict changing levels of anxiety.78
Beyond a certain point, being on alert doesn’t improve our concentration; it makes it worse. A little nervousness when giving a speech helps us focus. Real anxiety makes it diicult to remember what we want to say and it’s easy to be distracted by intrusive thoughts. Researchers at Cleveland State University believe that the intrusive, anxious thoughts reduce our brain’s working memory and with it our ability to process information.
Anxiety tends to feed on itself unless you can break the cycle of worry and catastrophic thoughts. Fortunately, anxiety is very treatable because there are so many effective ways to interrupt the cycle, but if your anxiety is seriously disruptive and prolonged, you should talk to a therapist or doctor.
Recognize the symptoms of anxiety and name it. You may have tensed muscles, elevated heart rate, abdominal cramps, and light-headedness or chest pains. You may be overwhelmed by panic in response to particular events or you may have ‘free-floating anxiety’ where you can’t find any cause for constant worry. Free-floating anxiety would be difficult to treat yourself.
Think about what caused your anxious response and apply some healthy scepticism. Do some ‘decatastrophising’. How much evidence do you really have that your job is under threat? Is it reliable evidence? Is it possible that instead of being eliminated your role will simply change?
If the cause of your worry is something you can deal with directly, do it. If it’s not, develop realistic action plans to cope if your fears turn out to be justified.
Let’s work through an example
Worst case scenario: I lose my job soon.
Possible good outcomes Action I can take now.
I ind another job with a rival company. Visit all the rival companies in the city.
Agency has some work to give me time to ind a new job.
Make appointments with all the temporary employment agencies.
I use the severance money to start a business from home.
Investigate how much I will need to set up business at home and draft a marketing plan.
I use the severance money while I advance my qualifications.
Investigate the fees and the minimum income we would need while I am studying
Maybe you’ll choose to visit the rival firms and the agencies as your best action plans and keep the options of starting your own business or more study in reserve.
The problem-focused approach improves our confidence and the feeling that we are in control, but sometimes we are so swamped with anxiety that it’s very difficult to focus on dealing with the problem. Choose to do it anyway because the research is showing that it’s the most effective strategy of all.
You could also try some physical treatments for anxiety. ‘Progressive muscle relaxation’ involves tensing then relaxing all the controllable muscles from your head to your toes. Many people find visualizing soothing experiences effective too. Focus on the experience, give it a storyline and embellish it with vivid detail. The breathing exercises work for anxiety as well as anger.
If your anxiety is based on a single fear, say of heights, birds or spiders, you could try systematic desensitization. The principle is to replace the fear with relaxation. You must learn how to relax first, then you compile a list of situations that would make you fearful and rank them.
Next, imagine the situations. You start with a very low level of exposure to your fear and work up, using the decatastrophising process and preferably the relaxation exercises as you go. You might begin by relaxing in a chair then imagining a small spider in a jungle, as you remind yourself of how far away it is and how it has no poison and couldn’t possibly harm you.