Probably more than mere coincidence, the jacked-up pace of our technology-driven lives seems to be traveling alongside a rise in anxiety disorders. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1 percent of the population every year.” You probably don’t have to look too far to find a friend or relative who has suffered or currently suffers from some form of anxiety. In fact, therapists like Colleen Kradel, LICSW, focus the majority of their working hours helping those afflicted with anxiety. Kradel owns and operates a private counseling practice located in Martinsburg, W.Va.
Far From Home
A couple of years ago, I found that my own usual worry about the kids, family, work, and so forth had slowly but significantly expanded to the point that I felt exhausted and overwhelmed. A “perfect storm” of events and physical changes had spun me up into a pattern of worry and exhaustion, common symptoms of anxiety. It took some digging and support for me to work my way out, but the payoff was worth the effort. On the other side, I found myself much lighter and more energetic, a return to my usual self. After this experience, and indeed after continuing to hear stories from so many people in my orbit about their own struggles, I have applied some attention to the sometimes silent issue of anxiety, which often leads to depression and other more severe conditions. Every person’s path home is unique to his or her own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual attributes, of course, but some recognition of common symptoms and remedies can prove helpful to many.
As part of a corporate wellness series addressing mental and emotional well-being, therapist Colleen Kradel presented a primer on anxiety to my colleagues at American Public University System (see webinar link in sidebar). I’ll share the major takeaways with you, in the hopes of shining a light on a worthy cause.
The first step to unraveling the hold of anxiety lies in understanding what it is, Kradel said. Our bodies have natural, and healthy, responses to stress. These mechanisms keep us safe and help to motivate us. The stress responses we are wired with have helped us historically “to deal with intense survival situations,” Kradel said. But nowadays, our bodies haven’t quite adjusted, and we’re often left with a cycle of intense reactions to simple everyday hardships. “We are not being chased by lions…but we do have the 24-hour news cycle, and we do have so many expectations placed on us,” Kradel said, adding that anxiety is both genetic and can come from one’s experience.
Kradel offers an anxiety self-test. If you can check most or all of these conditions, you might have something going on.
Persistent & Disproportionate Feelings of Worry
Restlessness / Difficulty Relaxing
Overthinking / Overanalyzing Plans, Solutions, or
Indecisiveness / Fear of Making the Wrong Decision
Beyond the mental and emotional indicators, the physical symptoms one might experience with anxiety run a pretty long gamut, including fatigue; trouble sleeping; muscle tension or aches; trembling; nervousness; nausea; diarrhea; irritable bowel syndrome; and irritability, to name a few. Kradel emphasizes that understanding your body’s physical responses to anxiety can provide you with a powerful tool of awareness that can drive change.
Anxiety can take on many forms, Kradel said, and understanding its manifestations can help both those who might be afflicted, as well as loved ones who want to better understand the condition. Kradel highlighted five major types of anxiety, from general anxiety disorder (GAD) to obsessive-compulsive disorder, to post-traumatic stress disorder, including symptoms of each one. (see webinar for full definitions)
The good news, according to the ADAA, is that anxiety is a highly treatable condition. Indeed, Kradel believes that acceptance and the incorporation of healthy lifestyle practices can go a long way toward managing anxiety. She recommends a breathing technique, specifically for generalized anxiety and panic attacks. The technique goes like this: Inhale and expand your belly while you count to 4. Hold your breath in while you count to 2. Exhale for a count of 6. This technique is effective, she says, because it keeps you in the present moment and calms your sympathetic nervous system, which is what triggers your “fight or flight” responses. Try this out in your car, before meetings, appointments, any difficult situation you might encounter.
Kradel also advocates for yoga as a salve for anxiety, primarily because it increases body awareness. “Anxiety is very physical; it actually lives in your body,” Kradel said. “If you can figure out how to bring some bodily awareness to yourself — connect your mind and body – you will be able to intervene when you’re feeling that anxiety.” Exercise like running, or anything that gets you moving and feels good, can help move one through anxiety, Kradel said.
Relaxation techniques like progressive relaxation and meditation also can provide a shift from one’s conditioned responses to stress. Like yoga, mindfulness and meditation keep one in the present moment. “Any time you can spend in the moment, the better for anxiety, because anxiety is all about what happened in the past or what will happen in the future,” Kradel said. She notes that because meditation is often perceived as “scary or woo-woo,” she tells her clients that the aim of meditation is simply to pay attention to what’s happening right now. “I often will tell people to pay attention to their five senses: What do you hear? What do you see? What do you smell? That can slow you down and put you in the here and now,” Kradel said.
More Tools for Healing
Among Kradel’s other recommendations for managing anxiety are prioritizing social connections and applying some intention behind your nutrition. She recommends foods rich in magnesium, zinc, omega 3 fatty acids, and B vitamins. Conversely, foods and drinks that hinder your progress could easily include caffeine, alcohol, and sugar, as all of those have a stimulant and/or
While Kradel admits to being “a little biased” on the positive impact that therapy can provide, she says she believes it can help people in their healing process. “I give permission for people to be themselves; to be authentic; to really get to the root of some of these anxious patterns and themes, and to re-frame new coping skills and thought patterns that will help to lessen anxiety,” she said.
In addition to the more holistic lifestyle-based practices, Kradel believes that in some cases, medication can be helpful, especially for extreme anxiety. In her webinar, she provides a resource for researching medication but strongly recommends that one connect with his or her general practitioner in order to discuss and determine options.