Of the mental health difficulties and struggles that Americans cope with, anxiety is the most prevalent. Anxiety disorders impact almost 20% of us, while the experience of being anxious, ruminative, or frightened is an almost universal feeling. Almost half of those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder also have a co-occurring depression disorder, and those that have anxiety disorders are six times more likely to be hospitalized for a psychiatric disorder. While these statistics are stark, we also know that anxiety disorders are among the most successfully treated by mental health providers.
Children are of particular risk for anxiety, and a third of children will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetimes. The impact is significant, as a child or teen experiencing anxiety may struggle with relationships, academic performance, and externalizing behaviors. Children demonstrate anxiety differently from adults, and since they may not have the emotional vocabulary to share their worries, they may act out, demonstrate irritability, or withdraw from others, causing avoidance and refusal of certain activities, such as going to school, or communicating with others.
Since all of us experience normal worries and fears, it can be hard to know when our thoughts have become problematic, and indicative of an anxiety disorder. A big red-flag is when there are problems in functioning – it no longer is a functional worry if it is causing us to not carry on with our daily activities and responsibilities. Worries and fears that are extreme and unrealistic are also warning sings, as well as intrusive thoughts that are difficult to control. Anxiety can be generalized, related to obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, or related to a trauma or specific incident. Understanding the root of the anxiety can be incredibly beneficial in the effective treatment of an anxiety experience.
In addition to medical and therapeutic supports, strategies that can help with anxiety are readily available. Mindfulness, staying focused on the present moment, and controlling our thoughts can help. When we are calmed and rational, engage that logical side of your brain by literally asking, “What is the worst that can happen?” Anxious thoughts are quick to answer catastrophic results, but use that rational and logical side of your brain to engage. What is the likeliness that would happen? What are other alternatives? Is that worst case scenario really the worst thing that can happen? Externalizing these thoughts, to a therapist, loved one, or even in a journal can help reduce the magnitude of the anxious thought.
Obsessive thoughts, also called ruminations, are often intrusive and difficult to control. It helps to recognize when they are happening. Do you tend to have more obsessive thoughts when you are rushed, or stressed? Do these thoughts catch you off guard when you are winding down your day, like at bedtime? Recognizing a pattern can help implement a practice of meditation and mindfulness to stop the rumination in its tracks. Self-compassion helps too. Normalize the experience; all of us have worries and fears. Stay present and mindful. Show yourself some kindness, and even some gratitude. Thank your brain for trying to prepare you for the worst, and then move on with kindness and self-encouragement. Speak to yourself the way you would to a friend or loved one.
Anxiety is pervasive, and runs a spectrum from healthy guarded-ness to irrational and intrusive thoughts and behaviors. Understanding the cause of the anxiety, and coming up with an actionable plan to tackle the experience can be helpful in dealing with anxiety in ones’ self and for loved ones.