If you’re reading this, you’re probably stressed. Never fear: We’ve dug through the evidence to reveal what science really says about finding zen—and holding onto it through tough times. Want to try meditation? Take better baths? Stop anxiety in its tracks? Welcome to Calm Month.
For reasons we’d rather not dwell on, a lot of people have been feeling extremely anxious lately. In June 2020, four times as many people reported symptoms of anxiety disorder as the same period in 2019. Older folks and people of color have been especially hard hit. And this spike hits at a time when anxiety rates have already been trending quite high—in 2017, nearly one in five adults in the US had symptoms of anxiety.
Elevated stress levels can push your relationship with anxiety from an occasional nuisance to a constant struggle. . The best thing you can do is to go see a mental health professional—a therapist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist—and talk to them about how to handle these newfound feelings.
But if you can’t afford to go see someone, can’t do so safely during the pandemic, or simply feel that you’re not ready to seek treatment, here are some scientifically-sound suggestions for how to keep yourself from spiraling. Many of these are pulled from scientific research on panic attacks specifically, but the same principles apply to preventing general bouts of anxiety—and more long-term spirals into stressful thinking patterns.
Recognize that you’re anxious
This probably sounds obvious, but pretty much every resource on preventing anxiety attacks will give you the same advice for a reason: it’s surprisingly hard to recognize anxiety in the moment.
In The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, psychologist and anxiety researcher Edmund Bourne has an excellent explanation for this:
“Because there is no immediate or apparent external danger in a panic attack, you may tend to invent or attribute danger to the intense bodily sensations you’re going through. In the absence of any real life-threatening situation, your mind may misinterpret what’s going on inside as being life-threatening.”
Anxiety triggers exactly the same physiological mechanisms that make up the classic fight-or-flight response: your heart rate jumps, your breathing increases, blood flow redirects to your newly tensed-up muscles, and you start sweating. This is how your autonomic nervous system keeps you out of harm’s way. A sudden surge of hormones, like adrenaline, blasts through your body and begins a cascade of changes that prepare you for danger.
Back in the early days of our species’ evolution, this would have enabled a person to run away from a predator, or possibly fight it off—in fact, it still does serve that purpose. But anxiety hijacks the same pathway to make us feel just as scared and amped-up in response to a psychological problem as we would when faced with a physical danger.
These attacks often come on without an obvious trigger, so physical symptoms can kick in before you even register that you’re particularly stressed. Your brain, meanwhile, is quick to interpret these hard-coded physiological responses as a sign that danger is afoot.
But shortness of breath, nausea, and heart palpitations are all very normal (if unpleasant) symptoms of anxiety. It only feels like there’s something more imminently troublesome going on. Unfortunately, that feeling can cause a sort of feedback loop. Anxiety makes you feel bad physically, and those physical symptoms feel like danger, so you become even more fearful and anxious, which only makes the symptoms worse.
Whether you experience sudden panic attacks or are simply having elevated background anxiety levels, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook notes that “just recognizing your tendency to believe that harmless bodily symptoms are signs of imminent danger is the first step”
Read the rest of the article, written by Sara Chodosh for popsci.com by clicking here
Anxiety can strike any time, especially when your underlying stress levels are high. Diego Cervo/Deposit Photos