Share Your Thoughts

The World Economic Forum calls anxiety “the world’s biggest mental-health problem you may not have heard of.” The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that about 20% of all adults in the US suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder, including generalized anxiety, panic and social anxiety disorders.

Seniors are most likely to experience generalized anxiety disorders. About one-third of all adolescents aged 13-17 years also experience one or more of these disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Younger children and toddlers are prone to sometimes persistent bouts of anxiety.

The rest of us are not immune. Anxiety and worrying are normal, and affect everyone periodically. Certain situations can trigger episodes: getting on a plane, being stuck in traffic on the way to an important event, an unexpected cash-flow crunch, a new health-related symptom we notice for the first time, feelings of insecurity. When we experience such episodes often, and the symptoms do not easily go away and begin to affect our behavior and lives, we could end up with a disorder that likely needs professional care.

Are You Aware Of Your Triggers?

These are especially anxious times. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with life as we knew it, and left behind indelible imprints of serious illness and the loss of loved ones. The way we live, work, go to school, shop, dine, entertain, meet friends and travel have all changed. The waning of each wave of infection and death gave us hope, only to be dashed by the rise of the next one.  

We are coming to terms with the reality that this threat is here to stay; that our lives will never be the same again. Social and political unrest, and an acute polarization have gripped large swaths of the world. Our streets and communities no longer feel safe. Devastating fires, storms and floods, and so-called 100-year events are occurring and re-occurring the world over. Famines threaten to wipe out millions. More people are finding it harder to make ends meet. The future at times seems dark and uncertain.

The Most Common Symptoms Of Anxiety

Anxiety is all around us, and we should learn to recognize and deal with it, cope with it. Anxiety disorders manifest differently, and follow different courses in people. The three most common classes of symptoms are: apprehension – worrying about the future, feeling on edge and difficulty concentrating; motor tension – restlessness, fidgeting, headaches, trembling, inability to relax; and autonomic overactivity – sweating, lightheadedness, racing heartbeat, rapid breathing, abdominal pain and dry mouth. It is important to get professional help when we notice these symptoms frequently in ourselves, or in others around us.

In addition, we can help others cope with their anxieties.  Our words and actions can be comforting and reassuring, and help ease anxiety and alleviate symptoms, provided they are the right words and actions.  Knowing the right thing to say can make a big difference to the individual who is struggling. Thoughtless words, and reflex reactions can be counterproductive. Experts caution that some phrases people use all too often should be avoided.

What Is The Right Thing To Say?

For example, telling someone to ‘calm down’ makes them feel that they are at fault for what they are experiencing, and feel ashamed or powerless. This just serves to intensify their emotions. Other phrases to avoid include ‘worrying won’t solve your problem’ and ‘you are overthinking this.’

Instead, our words and actions should indicate validation of their feelings in that moment, a clear message that we are there for them, and that we are in no way judging them. Phrases such as ‘talk to me, I’m here to listen,’ ‘I’ll help you get through this,’ ‘It must be hard for you,’ are more likely to get through.

Coping Strategies

Our words have power,” says psychiatrist Dr. Helen Egger. “What that person needs to hear is that you understand that they’re having a hard time and that you are there to support them.” Other ways to help and support someone include finding ways to get them to help themselves, talking about focusing on things that they can change, helping them identify triggers for their anxiety, and seeking out positive distractions.

Dr. Edmund Bourne, a specialist in the treatment of anxiety disorders and related problems and author of popular self-help books on this subject recommends some coping strategies.  One is to practice slow, deep breathing for two to three minutes at a time.  This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, slows the heartbeat and stabilizes blood pressure, which in turn helps to overall stress and anxiety.

A Sense Of Purpose

Another technique is to replace fearful self-talk with calming and constructive statements.  As an example, replace ‘what if they see me sweating?’ with ‘I’ve handled this before, and I can do it again.’ Dr. Bourne also recommends maintaining a healthy diet, regular exercise and avoiding stimulants like caffeine, along with trying creative projects that divert the mind from anxious thoughts. Building and focusing on a sense of purpose may also be helpful.  

Aromatherapy, meditation and mindfulness, and maintaining a daily journal to record and process your thoughts are also recommended by other experts in the field.

We need to come together as a community to address this pervasive problem. Let’s help one another cope with our anxieties.  Let’s actively try self-help strategies, but overcome societal stigmas to seek professional help before problems become acute.

Mukund Acharya

Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within...