By Gina Henschen, LPCC
Anxiety. That uncomfortable, nervous feeling often causes our minds to race and our stomachs to flip upside-down. It’s a normal part of being human, yet not exactly the most pleasant experience.
Anxiety often triggers thoughts and feelings that something is wrong, which can result in a variety of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. But what if there’s nothing wrong? What if everything is actually going pretty well for the time being? This is where anxiety can become a nuisance. But know that you’re not alone — roughly 31.1 percent of adults in the United States will experience some type of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
Despite how common it is, it’s understandable to want to find ways to get rid of anxiety. In today’s post, I’ll cover what anxiety is, the function behind it, and my favorite anxiety remedies.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a general feeling of psychological stress that is characterized by worry, fear, or apprehension. Some other key characteristics of anxiety include feeling nervous, restless, or on edge, as well as difficulty concentrating.
In addition to these emotional and psychological symptoms, there are some common physical symptoms that go hand in hand with anxiety. These may include:
● A sensation of tightness in the chest
● Short, shallow, and rapid breathing
● Accelerated heart rate
● Increased sweating
● Muscle tension, including jaw tension
● Loss of appetite
● Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
All of this may sound like bad news, but believe it or not, anxiety has a place in our lives! From a biological and evolutionary standpoint, anxiety is a response that tells us that something bad is about to happen. This triggers our sympathetic nervous system, or “fight-or-flight” response. Hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) pump through our systems so that we can act swiftly and protect ourselves from danger. It’s a primal instinct, and one that both humans and other animals have possessed for centuries.
In modern Western society, the threat of being attacked by a sabertooth tiger is pretty slim to none. However, anxiety is often triggered through other circumstances that our bodies perceive to be threatening, such as exams, job interviews, performances, or other stressful situations. In some cases, anxiety can actually work in our favor if we need to get something done, like that paper you’ve put off until the eleventh hour!
Unfortunately, anxiety can also be triggered by various modern day phenomena. Between the pandemic, mass shootings, wars, and everything in between, the world we live in can be a scary place. Some days, it may feel like a sabertooth tiger could attack at any moment, triggering a nearly chronic “fight-or-flight” state.
Anxiety vs Anxiety Disorder
Experiencing anxiety from time to time is absolutely normal. However, if you experience constant feelings of worry, there may be some sort of anxiety disorder at play.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), here are some signs that may indicate an underlying anxiety disorder:
● Excessive worry occurring for more days than not for the last six months
● Difficulty controlling the worry
● Symptoms such as irritability, difficulty sleeping, restlessness, fatigue, trouble concentrating, and muscle tension
● Impairment in your daily ability to function
In addition, the anxiety must not be related to another mental health/medical condition or as a result of substance use.
If you believe you may have an anxiety disorder, consult with a qualified therapist or another mental health specialist such as a psychiatrist or a psychiatric nurse practitioner. All of these professionals are trained in the diagnosis of anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions.
Whether you have an anxiety disorder or experience occasional anxiety, you may be wondering, “How can I calm my anxiety at home?” While I am personally cautious of promising any cure for anxiety altogether, here are my favorite ways to ease and alleviate anxiety symptoms:
● Deep breathing – It may sound far too simple, but deep breathing helps calm anxiety by signaling to the body to go from a fight-or-flight state (sympathetic) to a rest-and-digest state (parasympathetic). One trick to try is box breathing, which can be done anywhere at any time. Inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts, then hold for four. Try to inhale into your diaphragm or belly instead of your lungs — this will help deepen and slow your breathing.
● Grounding techniques – Our senses can become heightened when experiencing anxiety, and it can be difficult to tame racing thoughts. To return to the present moment, you can try a variety of grounding techniques to ease both your mind and your body. A favorite of mine is “5 4 3 2 1,” where you name five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
● Essential oils – Certain essential oils make excellent natural remedies for anxiety. My all-time favorite is lavender essential oil, which has natural calming effects. You can dab a drop or two of essential oil onto a cotton ball to inhale, or add oil to an aromatherapy diffuser to diffuse throughout the room. Sometimes, I even place a few drops of lavender oil onto my pillowcase to help me sleep at night. **Please be sure to consult with your doctor if you are pregnant or have another medical condition before using essential oils.
● Meditation – Research shows that mindfulness meditation can have a huge impact on our stress levels. If you find yourself with a head full of thoughts that makes it difficult to sit in silence, a guided meditation may be a better option. My favorite meditation app is Insight Timer because it offers free access to a ton of guided meditations designed to soothe anxiety.
● Mindful movement – Gentle exercise can be a great way for us to get out of our heads and back into our bodies. In fact, a new study shows that engaging in regular physical activity decreases the likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder by almost 60 percent. Try low-impact exercise such as walking, yoga, or hiking to reduce levels of stress hormones and boost your brain’s health.
● Support – If you’re feeling alone and isolated in your anxiety, consider reaching out for support. Talking with a trusted friend, family member, or a mental health counselor can help provide relief. A counselor can help you explore your anxiety and gain a better understanding of its roots, triggers, and more.
You may have noticed that I have not included any information about anti-anxiety medications or supplements. If you are interested in exploring these options, consult with your medical provider.
Anxiety can be a frustrating thing to deal with, but with the right tools in your toolbox, you can learn to manage it — and maybe even make friends with it. Draw a picture of your anxiety. Give your anxiety a name. Ask it what it needs from you. Know that just because you experience anxiety, doesn’t mean you are your anxiety. Getting to know your anxiety better may help make it a little less scary.