Sharon was a 45-year-old woman who led an idyllic life. Her husband had a good job, her children were healthy and they lived in a desirable neighborhood in a beautiful home. By her own description she was an introvert, but had a few good friends and enjoyed doing crafts and decorating. So why was she coming to see me?

Anxiety. Sharon was experiencing near-panic attacks almost daily—for no apparent reason. She couldn’t identify any real triggers. She led a healthy lifestyle – exercised daily and tried to get enough sleep. Nonetheless she was nearly crippled by an overwhelming sense of dread that accompanied her every move. Medication provided some relief, but not nearly enough.

This is a more common story than you might think. I see clients regularly who struggle with symptoms of anxiety, depression, binge-eating or trouble controlling their tempers. For all intents and purposes their lives are pretty stable – they take medication, they have support, and they have good jobs. And yet they are plagued by feelings they can’t seem to shake.

If you are stuck in your own mental health journey, here are some possible reasons why:

  1. You have unresolved trauma – when I ask people about their “trauma history” most of them say they have never experienced any. After all, not many of us have lived in war-torn countries or have been victims of violent crime. However, from a psychological perspective, the concept of trauma encompasses more than you might think. I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the future, but keep in mind that trauma can be a single event (such as witnessing a serious accident) or a chronic experience (such as being raised by a parent who is an alcoholic). Unresolved trauma can create problems for years and years – even if the brain doesn’t remember the details – the body does, and can cause us to react to even minor triggers as if they are big events. If you see yourself overreacting (road rage?) to minor offenses or experiencing symptoms of unexplained sadness, anxiety or fear, it would be worth exploring the possibility of unresolved trauma with the assistance of a qualified therapist.
  2. You are not getting enough quality sleep – I have experienced transient symptoms of anxiety for years without any real cause. Since I tend to do “all the right things,” I had long ago decided this was just something I’d have to live with. However, this past summer I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. I was surprised to learn I was waking up 14 times every hour (a fairly mild case, though it sounds pretty disruptive to me!). I began treatment and was not surprised to find that my daytime sleepiness decreased dramatically. What did surprise me was a decrease in my anxiety symptoms. As a therapist I know that sleep impacts our mental health – what I didn’t realize was just how much. If you have any concerns about the quality of your sleep, please discuss this with your primary care doctor, because it may be impacting your mental health more than you realize.
  3. You are not exercising or eating right – I know, blah blah blah. I’m not even going to go into all the details, because you know I’m right. Poor diets (high in sugar and processed foods) and lack of movement make us feel like crap. No amount of medication in the world can provide all the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise regimen. If you want to feel better, you have to treat your body with the respect it deserves.
  4. You live in a toxic environment – I wish this scenario wasn’t as common as it is. However, the number of people I work with would take a nose dive if no one had to live in a toxic environment. If you have a spouse, boss, sibling, parent or co-worker who chronically bullies, demeans, mistreats or criticizes you, it is very likely that you will remain stuck—no matter how hard you work outside the relationship. Imagine if I have a special plant that lives in a plant home. I come to visit this plant once a week. I take it outside in the sunshine. I talk to it, give it plant food and water and nurture it. When I leave, I return it to the home, but unbeknownst to me, the caretaker is abusive. He carries it around by the leaves, stores it in the basement and drains all the water from the pot as soon as I leave. Week after week I will return to the plant – dumbfounded as to why it looks so unhealthy. I often feel this way with certain clients. We do such good work in the hour that I see them each week – and yet, appointment after appointment, they return to me in a new state of despair. No amount of TLC can overcome a toxic environment – if you’re in one – get some help. You deserve it.

 

Okay – there are other reasons people get stuck, but these are 4 biggies. By the way – our friend Sharon had some unresolved trauma in her past. Once we worked through it, her anxiety improved dramatically. 

If you feel stuck, don’t you owe it to yourself to find out why?

Want to learn more about getting unstuck? On September 15, 2017, I’m launching my new online course: STOP STINGING START LIVING. This course provides help for people who have problems managing their emotions and their relationships. For more information, email me here.

The first time I remember having a panic attack, I was in my 20’s. I was between jobs and staying with my parents for a few weeks before moving to Chicago. My days were lazy – I’d sleep in, watch a little TV, hang out with my siblings, and stay up late reading the stacks of Reader’s Digests on the coffee table.

One evening, sitting in my car in a grocery store parking lot, I was overwhelmed by a sense of doom. Paralyzed, I couldn’t get out of the car – I was terrified someone might attack me on the way in. Later that night at home, I couldn’t stop obsessing about how easy it would be for someone to break into the house.

That was my first real taste of anxiety and it was miserable. Desperately in need of relief, I did some sleuthing, and wondered if maybe my steady diet of daytime talk shows and true crime mysteries might be contributing factors. Not to mention my routine of staying up late reading and sleeping until late morning.

I decided to keep a better schedule and change up my routine. I spent more time outside and went blueberry picking with my mom. I turned off the television and learned how to can peaches. And I started feeling better.

Since that time I’ve learned I’m not alone.

Anxiety is a debilitating disorder that affects over 40 million of us and is the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorder. Symptoms can be as benign as a mild sense of uneasiness or as serious as an inability to leave the house. The physical manifestations of anxiety can make us feel like we are dying (read more about why here). In fact, people often think they are having a heart attack when it’s actually anxiety.

While benzodiazepines (such as Ativan, Klonopin and Xanax) are often prescribed for anxiety, there are a lot of good reasons not to take them. For one, they function more like a band-aid, meaning they may provide some short-term symptom relief, but do not address the root of the problem. Two, these medications are highly addictive and can easily be misued. Withdrawal symptoms are miserable. (Some of the worst anxiety I’ve seen is in people who were unable to obtain Xanax after taking it for a long period of time.)

Ultimately, with a few exceptions, medication is not the answer. Lifestyle changes and behavioral interventions are far more effective. These don’t always provide the instant relief so many are looking for, but they will help address underlying causes, and hopefully prevent future symptoms from escalating. I’ve found a lot of people fail to see the connection between lifestyle habits and their anxiety symptoms, but the reality is, the choices we make can have a significant impact on our mental well-being.

If you are suffering from anxiety, ask yourself if any of these common habits could be exacerbating your symptoms:

  1. Staying up too late/interrupted sleep – according to the National Institutes of Health, 40 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders. (I can’t help but notice this is about the same prevalence of anxiety disorders.) The sleep/anxiety problem is a vicious cycle—poor sleep habits can cause anxiety and anxiety can disrupt our sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, try first to adjust your routine. Experts recommend avoiding screens within 2 hours of bedtime, going to bed the same time each night, keeping your room cool and dark, and developing a pleasant bedtime routine. If you have tried all these things and continue to have trouble sleeping, consult your doctor. Getting regular, quality sleep needs to be a priority in all of our lives. For more information, click here
  2. A diet high in sugar, processed foods – Full disclosure – there aren’t really any studies exploring the effects of food on anxiety. However, we do know that sugar and processed foods aren’t good for our overall health. We also know that the mind and body are connected, so what is bad for your body is bad for your brain. If your diet is heavy in sugar and processed foods, you probably aren’t consuming enough fruits and vegetables, which we know make us feel better. If you’re not convinced, keep track of your anxiety symptoms on your regular diet for 3-5 days. Then eliminate sugar and processed foods from your diet for 3-5 days and see how you feel.
  3. Lack of routine – Keeping busy can definitely help ward off anxiety symptoms. Many people tell me their symptoms of anxiety (and depression) can be worse on the weekends. As much as we may despise routine, it really is good for our mental health to have some order in our lives. Routine gives us purpose, helps keep us grounded, and can provide security. Again – if you’re not sure about this, try implementing a simple routine – even on the weekends, and see if there’s an impact on the way you feel.
  4. Unrestricted electronic time – As wonderful and convenient as it is to be able to access any piece of information we could possibly need any time we want, it can be overwhelming. Even now, I have my computer in front of me, my iPad playing music and my phone at my right hand. You’d think that staying on top of every phone call, email and penny in our bank account would provide a sense of relief and free us up to do other things. In reality, it typically just creates more anxiety. Try to put some limits on your media/music/electronic time. Stop watching the news before bedtime. Declare one day a week to be “device-free.” Delete the computer games from your phone. Just because you can access it doesn’t mean you need to.
  5. Procrastination – I confess, when it comes to procrastination, I am the worst. So I know from experience that how putting things off adds fuel to the fire of anxiety. Granted – we need a little anxiety to help get things done. But the more we put them off, the more anxiety snowballs. When we procrastinate, all we’re doing us dumping our current problems on our future self. If you’re a procrastinator, resolve to be better to your future self. Commit to doing one hard thing every single day. (Preferably as early in the day as possible.) This will give you a sense of accomplishment, and might even spur you on to do other hard things. I guarantee this will help decrease your overall anxiety level.

While many people hope that taking a pill can alleviate their symptoms, the relief provided is temporary at best. If you want to get a handle on anxiety, start by evaluating your daily habits and see if there are some adjustments you can make

 

When I was 7 years old, my family took a road trip from Indiana to California via Arizona. There was a sandstorm and we went to Disney. Those two things are about all I remember—well—except for the Pacific Ocean.

Although I had grown up near Lake Michigan (which sure looks like an ocean to a 7-year-old), I seemed to understand that there was something far more majestic and dangerous about the Pacific. I stood respectfully at its edge, next to my mom, who was holding my sister; who stood next to my dad, who was holding my brother.

Then—a violent wave.

I ran.

For my life.

To the car.

Even though it’s been a few decades, I can still remember standing there gulping for breath, terrified, but grateful to be alive. Momentarily I heard my mother calling my name. Actually she was screaming.  Then it occurred to me that my mom thought I had been swept out to sea. Honest mistake on her part, given the swiftness with which I had disappeared. When that wave hit the shore, there was no rational thought. My brain shut off, my body went to work.

This response to danger is called fight-or-flight and was first identified in animals. It is a God-given, physiological response that is quite amazing. When we sense a threat to our survival, our brains and our bodies are flooded with stress hormones. These chemicals heighten our senses, increase our heart rates, shallow our breathing, quicken our muscles and pour every ounce of strength we have into one singular task: survival.

Fight-or-flight makes us run faster and/or stand to face our enemies. It allows mothers to lift cars off children and unleashes physical capabilities that would otherwise be dormant. All non-essential bodily functions are temporarily shut down. Digestion, reproduction and rational thought are irrelevant. Can you imagine pausing to eat a cheeseburger, get pregnant, or solve a calculus problem while fighting off an angry bear?

Intense as they are, these stress hormones are designed to subside the moment we no longer need them. Once the danger has passed, our brain is supposed to release a chemical to signal the “all-clear.” At that point, everything goes back to normal. We can return to our dining and procreating and pursuing world peace. But here’s the problem: our brains have a real tendency get confused. Our stressful environments combined with our habits of abusing our bodies leave many of us in a constant state of arousal. Traffic jams, parking tickets, screaming babies, long lines at the grocery store or irritable mothers feel as threatening to us as an angry bear or 10-foot wave.

We are well-aware there is a link between stress and infertility, digestion problems and trouble concentrating. This is why. The stress chemicals that are so useful to us in very concentrated and very temporary doses leak out into our bodies at inopportune times and marinate our brains and other vital organs. With no place to go, these chemicals can begin to suck the very life out of us.

In order to thrive well in this world, to regulate emotions, tolerate discomfort, express ourselves appropriately and have meaningful relationships, we must learn to manage these stress hormones.

Here are five things you can start doing today to get things in check:

  1. Breathe. When our bodies are in fight-or-flight, our breathing becomes quick and shallow (called over breathing). This is quite helpful if we need to take off and run, but otherwise, it just exacerbates feelings of anxiety. When you consciously slow your breath down, by inhaling and filling your lungs with air, and slowly exhaling, it reminds your brain that everything is okay. You wouldn’t be breathing like that if you were being chased! A simple breathing exercise, called square breathing, is to inhale for four counts, hold it for four counts, then release for four counts. Do this four times to make a “square.” 
  2. Be mindful. Mindfulness means using all 5 of our senses to engage with current moment. Take a moment to notice your surroundings. What do you see, hear, taste, touch and smell? Mindfulness doesn’t solve your problems, but it can give your brain a much-needed distraction so you can think a little more clearly. One simple mindfulness exercise is to find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can touch.
  3. Be grateful. No matter how bad things are, there is always something you can be thankful for. So your car may not have A/C, but aren’t you grateful you can drive to work? The quickest way to be grateful for something is to try to imagine your life without it. I am typing madly away on my keyboard — I can’t imagine not having my 10 fingers! Gratitude doesn’t make our problems go away, but it does allow us to co-exist with them a little more easily.
  4. Exercise. All those fight-or-flight chemicals swirling around in our bodies can make us feel extremely restless. So go out and take a walk! Ride your bike. If you can’t get outside, run up and down the stairs a few times, or do some gentle stretching. Help your body release those chemicals naturally.
  5. Talk about it. It’s amazing how just speaking our fears out loud can make them less scary. Sometimes all we need is a friend to look us in the eye, nod their head, and say, “I’m so sorry you’re feeling this way.” It’s obviously important to share with someone you know will validate you (past history is a good indicator!) But support groups and therapy can also be an excellent source of validation. If talking’s not your thing, try writing your feelings on paper. The idea is to get them out of you.

When triggered at appropriate moments, the body’s fight-or-flight system is an amazing response. However, it is all too easy for this system to malfunction, leaving us feeling completely out of control. These five strategies can help you calm your body down so you can work smart, not hard.