Everyone is familiar with the stomach flips that come from having to make a high-stakes decision or meet an important deadline. But if you have an anxiety disorder, the worry and restlessness continue after the stressful situation is over. The symptoms may get worse over time and can interfere with your life if you don’t address them.
“Anxiety is like the check engine light in your car,” says Roger Hollingsworth, LCSW, a therapist at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. “It says there’s something wrong. It may be based on false information, but it's your body’s way of trying to keep you safe. It’s important to at least look under the hood and determine why you’re experiencing it.”
A licensed therapist can help you understand what’s causing your worries. Here’s how to find a therapist, plus information about the signs and treatment options for anxiety.
Who’s at risk for an anxiety disorder?
“Anybody can develop clinical anxiety if they experience a trauma or have ongoing fears due to past events,” says Mark Hutchinson, LCMHC, also a therapist at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. However, some people are more prone to anxiety disorders, including women and those who:
- Are widowed or divorced
- Have financial problems
- Had a traumatic experience in childhood
- Experience continued or prolonged states of stress such as those induced by bullying, harassment or stalking
A close family history of anxiety disorders or other mental health conditions is also a risk factor.
What are the symptoms of an anxiety disorder?
“Anxiety symptoms include restlessness, having racing thoughts or physical symptoms like a rapid heart beat,” says Hutchinson. Other symptoms include:
- Upset stomach
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle tension or tension headaches
- Irritability, tiredness, trouble concentrating
You may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder if you worry excessively on most days for six months or more, along with some or all of these symptoms. But don’t wait six months to get help. If you don’t have insurance, local health departments offer counseling on a sliding scale to match your budget. Also, many colleges and universities offer free counseling from supervised graduate students who are pursuing psychology or social work degrees, says Hutchinson.
How anxiety is treated
“Your general practitioner is a good place to begin,” says Hutchinson. He or she may recommend antianxiety medication and refer you to a talk therapist.
“Medication is often used to get anxiety symptoms under control, which allows talk therapy to help you more readily,” he explains. Medications could include:
- Antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs: Don’t be discouraged if an antidepressant takes a few weeks to start working, or if you need to try different drugs before finding the best one. Tell your healthcare provider if you experience side effects or if your symptoms get worse when you start a new med.
- Beta-blockers: These heart medications can also treat anxiety by controlling symptoms like blushing, sweating and shaking.
Along with medication, a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can teach you new ways to think about and react to stressful situations. “CBT is based on the idea that negative thoughts promote negative behavior. Your therapist can help you work through those stressful or inaccurate thoughts,” says Hollingsworth.
Tips for living with an anxiety disorder
There are some steps that anyone can take to bring down their anxiety level during a stressful situation. “They’re called T.I.P. skills,” says Hollingsworth. T.I.P. skills include three ways to reverse your fight-orflight response, or the physical process that takes place when your body senses danger. These steps can trick you into feeling calm and remind you that you’re safe. T.I.P. stands for:
- Temperature: When you’re stressed, blood rushes to the organs and muscles that could help you run away like your brain, eyes, ears and legs. That makes you sweat and causes your temperature to go up. “If you start to panic at home, bring down your temperature by putting ice and water in a big bowl, then splashing or briefly submerging your face in it,” recommends Hollingsworth. “If you know you’re going to face a stressful situation away from home, plan ahead. Bring a frozen water bottle with you and hold it up to your neck or face.”
- Intense exercise: Five minutes of vigorous exercise can immediately lower your anxiety level. It reduces tension and causes the release of feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins
- Paced breathing: Your breathing speeds up when you’re stressed to help bring more oxygen to your heart and brain. “Convince your body that you’re safe by breathing in for six seconds and then exhaling for eight seconds,” recommends Hollingsworth. The “P” in T.I.P. can also stand for progressive muscle relaxation, which involves briefly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group in your body.
Your therapist can provide additional relaxation techniques and coping methods for your individual fears. So don’t continue to suffer in silence—get help if worry is keeping you from enjoying life.