Anxiety disorders, which include everything from generalized anxiety, to social phobia (aka, social anxiety), to obsessive-compulsive disorders, are the most commonly diagnosed mental health problem in the US. In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million US adults. More disheartening is that less than half of those with anxiety disorders receive help for their struggles.
When I work with clients who have anxiety, I often discuss with them the cycling and self-reinforcing patterns that anxiety tends to induce. This three-part series will review common ways that we give in to, and therefore worsen, our anxiety.
Part 3: Self-Medicate It
Anxiety can be exhausting, grueling, and overwhelming. It consumes copious amounts of physical energy and mental space. Many clients describe their racing thoughts as a track running constantly in their minds at 100 miles per hour, taking up valuable room that could be used for more productive things. In Part 1, we discussed what anxiety is and the value of insight. In Part 2, we reviewed the negative effects of finding ways to avoid anxiety triggers, which only serves to make anxiety worse in the long-run. However, avoidance is only one of many less-than-helpful ways of coping with anxiety. The discomfort of anxiety offers tempting invitations to find quick fixes for relief. Those facing physical exhaustion from anxiety-induced sleep issues or fatigue may grab a few extra cups of coffee or a Red Bull to get through the day. Some who always feel keyed up or tense may look to alcohol or other drugs to take the edge off. Still others turn to what they can control and rely on - food, shopping, social media - to provide distraction or comfort. Let's break down some of these quick-fix anxiety responses that may not be so helpful for long-term symptom reduction:
Something to try: A saying I use often with clients is to strive to find your comfort within life's discomfort. We have no way to ensure life will be smooth and easy; in fact, it tends to be just the opposite - but that's what makes our lives meaningful. We are tasked with finding ways to cultivate a sense of peace even when our lives feel far from peaceful. When you are feeling anxious, practice closing your eyes, taking some measured breaths, and mentally stepping back so you can appraise your situation from a different perspective. Try to hold in your mind the realities of whatever discomfort is causing your distress, but also hold your grit - your inner strength and resilience - and remind yourself that you can lean into the discomfort with grace and persevere. Breathe through the discomfort and notice how even in the midst of our tumultuous worlds, we can still hold peace within.
I hope you enjoyed this three-part series on anxiety! Are there other topics you'd like to learn more about? Share them below or reach out.
Dr. Bethany Detwiler is a psychologist practicing in Allentown, PA. She specializes in mood and relationship struggles. She also is an adjunct professor of counseling at Lehigh University.