(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)
It seems like we’ve entered the Age of Worry. We obsess over everything from the minor (“Do I look fat in this?”) to the major (“Will I survive this cancer reoccurrence?”); personal (“Is my husband cheating?”) to global (terrorist strikes); realistic (“How will we pay for a new oil tank?”) to far-fetched (“I’m pretty sure my neighbors are spies”).
A lot of us spend a lot of time feeling anxious. In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults, or about 18 percent of the population. And that’s just people who are diagnosed. Add in your garden-variety worrier, and that’s a whole lot of agita going on.
Code Red All the Time
With every little detail of every horror in the world blasted at us 24/7 through technological overload, we are perpetually on Code Red, says says Dr. Friedemann Schaub, author of The Fear and Anxiety Solution. “We feel out of control even though there is probably no immediate threat to ourselves,” he says.
Compounding the problem, we don’t have enough information to make sense of the constant barrage of news. We can’t tell what is misrepresented and distorted, or what’s just marketing or campaigning.
Another big issue is there is much more pressure and competition in society. “Expectations have changed. You need to reach a certain standard and if you are not fitting in, you are a failure. The individual personality is not as accepted as it was maybe 50 years ago — we are even prepping kindergartners for their future college goals — and there is not as much time to rest and calmly figure things out,” Schaub says.
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Finally, we live in a culture that tells us that there are quick fixes to every problem: Buy this car, whiten our teeth, lose the weight, chant this affirmation, watch this show, read this book, pop that pill, and we’ll be happy. Or not — the effects are short-lived and then we end up feeling even worse, Schaub says.
Worry does not uniformly increase with age. In fact, about half of chronic worriers begin their pattern during childhood or adolescence while the other half start worrying as adults. However, major stresses in one's life, such as illness, divorce, or loss of a job, can increase worry, even in those with no prior history of anxiety.
“The major anxiety areas become relationships, health, the loss of loved ones, loss of meaning in life and the fear of being alone, maybe dependent and a burden on other family members,” says Laura Oliff, Associate Director, American Institute for Cognitive Therapy.
Don’t Worry, Be Present
What can you do to quiet the worries? Try these six ideas to ease the anxiety and be more present in your life:
1. Assess the true threat level
Mark Twain famously remarked, “I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” One of the key concepts of cognitive therapy is learning to challenge your catastrophic thoughts. Examine evidence both for and against your worry. Is it realistic or irrational? What advice would you give friends if they had this worry? What is the true reality? “Remind yourself how many times your predictions have been wrong. Look at what is really the most likely outcome,” Oliff says.
2. Ask yourself if there is any concrete action you can take
Is this problem solvable or not? Is there anything I can do? If yes, take steps. If not, set aside 10 minutes a day to write out negative worries. Get as anxious as you possibly can, but only during this worry period. By repeating your worry period every day, you’ll eventually become desensitized or bored with your recurrent worries, Oliff says.
3. Exercise. Exercise. Exercise.
Burn off excess anxiety with any aerobic exercise like dancing, running, taking a brisk walk or Zumba. These activities burn energy and can leave you more calm. And, the endorphin high can help derail negative thoughts. The opposite works as well: Try calming yourself down with yoga.
A recent analysis of 47 studies by Johns Hopkins University found that meditation can moderately reduce anxiety. Search around on YouTube.com, and you can find many good meditation videos. “Relaxing your mind and body, practicing mindful breathing helps you to stay more in the moment and let go of negative thoughts and tension,” Oliff says.
5. Go to bed at bedtime
Studies done at Binghamton University and the University of Pennsylvania found that people who slept shorter hours and went to bed very late were more often overwhelmed with negative thoughts than those with more regular sleep patterns. Other research has shown a strong link between lack of sleep and mood changes. Take a look at your sleep habits to see if you need to make some changes. Always make sure electronics are not in your bedroom, and create a routine to calm your body and mind.
6. Talk to Someone
Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only about one-third of those suffering receive treatment, according to the ADAA. You can find a certified therapist at the ADAA or the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.
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