Stress and worry fill our days—from feeling anxious about finances to fretting over personal relationships. Sometimes, that worry serves as a motivator for “fight or flight” in a tough situation. Other times, anxiety interrupts daily activities. And if it persists for months at a time, it can be exhausting.
Roughly 40 million adults in the United States have experienced an anxiety disorder, ranging from generalized anxiety to severe. That’s 18% of the population.
Anxiety Disorders Included
- Generalized anxiety
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
In people age 18 and over, Janine Darby, MD, physician at Penn Family Medicine Phoenixville, says, “It’s important to address anxious feelings as they come up because anxiety can worsen your mood and cause somatic symptoms, such as muscle tension and fatigue. In severe cases, it may become debilitating, and may also lead to substance abuse or suicide.”
Dr. Darby says her patients frequently inquire about anxiety and adds that their worries include:
- Marriage and relationships
- Race relations
- Health and illness
- Death of family and friends
To help assess the degree of anxiety, Dr. Darby uses a tool called the GAD-7 anxiety scale to score patients for mild, moderate, or severe anxiety. The scale focuses on the past two weeks, and includes questions about how often the patient has felt worried, how difficult it is to relax, and whether they have a general fear that something awful might happen.
The scale gives patients a chance to open up about their recent feelings. It also helps because the symptoms of anxiety aren’t always straightforward. Some people worry, while others feel restless, have difficulty concentrating, or become irritable. Tense or sore muscles can also be indicators. And over-planning or making excessive lists can be signs of anxiety, too.
Some symptoms may result from the way in which people cope with their anxiety, whether they realize they’re doing so or not. The key is to make sure coping mechanisms are healthy and not fueling the anxiety cycle.
Healthy Ways to Manage Anxiety
Try some of the following tips if you experience anxiety in your daily life, and see what works best for you.
Take a time-out: Practice yoga. Meditate. Get a massage. Listen to calming music. Find ways to slow your mind and center yourself, even if you can only spare 15 minutes at a time.
Exercise every day: Ideally, make time for 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least three times a week. This could include walking, biking, or other low-impact workouts that leave you feeling refreshed and help you sleep better at night.
Count to 10: Counting slowly is a great way to move your mind from a racing rollercoaster of thoughts to a steady progression of neutral numbers. Count to 10 or 20 and repeat as necessary.
Volunteer: Get to know your community and give back at the same time. You may not feel like scheduling social events, but volunteering regularly will help you step out of the stresses of your own daily life and build a support system.
Eat a healthy diet: A diet rich in protein, fruits, and vegetables (and low in sugar) will help keep you feeling steady and grounded. It will also ensure that you’re getting proper nutrition to keep you functioning at your best mentally and physically.
Get some rest: Sleep gives your body and mind a chance to recharge. Don’t underestimate its importance. Even if you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, try not to panic. Just keep resting.
Breathe deeply: Deep breathing gives you something to focus on while at the same time carrying oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. It also signals to your nervous system that the body is at rest and not in stressful fight-or-flight mode.
Explore your triggers: Whether on your own or through talking to a therapist, try to figure out which people, events, or things in your life make your heart rate speed up and start your thoughts racing. Once you know your anxiety triggers, you can find ways to best respond to them.
Why Fidget Spinners Aren't on the List
Back in the early 1990s, chemical engineer Catherine Hettinger set out to provide people with a constructive way to cope with anxiety. She invented a three-pronged, handheld device that people could spin in the palm of their hands, channeling their anxiety.
She called it a “fidget spinner.” But the tiny toy didn’t take off until more than 20 years later in April 2017. While marketed to people with anxiety as well as ADHD, fidget spinners instead exploded in popularity among pre-teens looking for a distraction during school.
Regardless, psychology experts claim the trinkets don’t have scientific data to support claims about curbing anxiety. They recommend finding more sustainable ways to manage anxiety, like those listed above.
While trying different techniques to manage anxiety can be helpful, also remember: Nobody has to go through this alone. Your physician can help you identify worried thought patterns, learn management skills that suit you, and focus on relaxation training.
“People should seek professional help if their anxiety is affecting their day-to-day life—if they’re unable to communicate, concentrate, or sleep—or if it’s debilitating. But the goal is for them to seek help before it gets to that point,” Dr. Darby says.
She adds that studies have shown success in the combination of therapy and medication. However, if anyone feels hesitant to try medication, they should still consider therapy. Try to stay open to different approaches, and talk with your doctor to develop a plan that works for you.