How to deal with anxiety

Ebola and extremism and assault....oh my! They are, indeed, anxiety provoking times we are living in. Simply tuning into the news can cause a surge of hormones and brain signals that send our nervous systems into a frenzy. When current events are layered upon longer standing financial, relationship or health related stressors, things can become overwhelming and anxiety can become a real problem. 

If you are experiencing panic attacks, specific phobias or your life is significantly impacted by anxiety, it is recommended that you seek professional assistance. Putting such anxiety disorders aside, most of us can relate to what it is like to be caught up in a whirlwind of worries, hesitation and doubt. Halloween may be behind us, but it can feel like the Grim Reaper is just around the corner.

November's theme is coping with anxiety. Each week there will be a suggestion posted for an exercise that helps combat fear and anxiety. These exercises are not meant to replace medical attention or psychotherapy. Rather, they are intended as "tools" or assets for getting through these difficult times with a greater sense of confidence, balance and connection.

Tip #1: "Tend and Befriend"

Say what????

Research has shown that, under stress, the human body and mind tends to do one of three things: fight, flee, or freeze. When we go into "fight" mode, we become tense, short and irritable, and may even become verbally or physically abusive towards others. This mode, although a natural response to stress, does little to alleviate the anxieties that contributed to the state in the first place. The second mode, "flee", looks a lot like avoidance. When we're in this state, we may hide from the things we are afraid of or burrow our heads in distractions, like video games, TV, shopping or substances. Although we may feel temporarily better, the anxieties tend to stick around and our confidence in our ability to cope may deteriorate. Finally, in "freeze" mode, we might feel numb, confused or disconnected. It may become difficult to make decisions or complete tasks. Recently, psychologists have also looked at what these three stress modes look like when turned inward. Fighting becomes self-criticism, fleeing becomes self-isolation and freezing becomes self-absorption. It is not difficult to see these tendencies are not exactly helpful in reducing or coping with fear.

Fortunately, there is good news. In addition to our fight/flight/freeze mode, we have evolved to access another way of responding to stress, known as "tend and befriend". Basically, tend and befriend is just what it sounds like (no, it's not another Anne of Green Gables movie). If we really tune into what we need when anxiety rears it's ugly head, we might notice an urge to spend time with a loved one or a group of friends. If we "tend" to our relationships during these times and remember to "befriend" those around us, chances are, those nasty hormone surges will calm down to some degree and we'll also have greater resources for solving any of the solvable problems that may be contributing to our overall stress load. 

So, you might ask, if it's a simple as that...why do we go into fight/flight/freeze mode at all? The answer is complicated and not fully understood, but a few barriers include: habit (simply being in the groove of getting cranky when stressed), physical barriers (for example, living alone or otherwise being isolated from friends and family), social/cultural barriers or stigma (for example, believing you need to "man up" and deal with anxiety on your own), and the momentum created when the body is stressed. 

The good news is that it's possible to reduce anxiety by changing our patterns of fight/flight/freeze to tending and befriending. So, if you've been biting your nails when catching the headlines lately, or just feeling stirred up about life's daily concerns, you might try taking a few deep breaths and giving a friend a call....or better yet meeting up for a decaf latte and a chat about the things that are going well in your lives.