While it is normal to experience anxiety on occasion, it is the most diagnosed mental illness in North America – which is not a fact to be taken lightly.

Not all anxiety is ‘bad’. In fact, it is an evolutionary adaptive response to protect ourselves. It functioned as an alert to immediate danger.

For example: a storm approaches -> you feel stressed -> you find shelter -> your anxiety is relieved.

The issue we face in modern society is that we live in a ‘Delayed Return Environment’, which means some of the decisions we make each day do not always lead to immediate or guaranteed results. We do not always know whether we can pay the bills each month, or if working towards a diploma will secure a job, or if going on a date will turn into a relationship.

This creates uncertainty, which can trigger anxiety. Over the last 8 months, we have been in a constant state of uncertainty in almost every aspect of our lives. We crave security, feeling like we have a purpose, and having a sense of control over our well-being. Even for those who enjoy taking risks, and thrive in uncertainty, the effects of the pandemic have been incredibly overwhelming for some, and no person is immune. Below, we share tips on how you can gain control and manage some of the symptoms of unhelpful anxiety.

 

Anxiety looks different for each person, but some of the chronic effects of Generalized Anxiety Disorder on the body and mind include:

Shortness of Breath

Upset Stomach

Pounding Heart

Panic Attacks

Headaches

Trembling and/or Shaking

Muscle Aches and Tension

Easily Fatigued

Irritability and/or Restlessness

Persistent Worrying

Stress vs. Unhelpful Anxiety:

Understanding the reason behind the presenting symptoms
vs
Not knowing why you are experiencing such feelings

The situation you are facing would make most people feel stressed
vs
Others in your shoes would not be so anxious

Your actions do not change as a result of your emotions
vs
You act differently to avoid feeling anxious

Your unpleasant feelings stop when the situation is over
vs
The anxiety remains when the stress is gone

Everyday Anxiety vs. Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety reminders

When you feel anxious…

it can be helpful to identify what is causing those feelings. This rules out whether it is a normal response to a situation or if its presence acts as a signal to take action that serves your well-being, and if you are left with unnecessary anxiety which interferes with your daily life, you may need to direct your attention to it.

The control you have over your anxiety:

BREATHE

When we are experiencing anxiety, we tend to breathe rapidly and shallowly from our upper lungs instead of slowly from our lower lungs. This is what causes some of the symptoms like lightheadedness, dizziness, and shortness of breath. If we change our breathing, we can reverse this discomfort. There are several breathing techniques out there, but just start by focusing on inhaling and exhaling, as it re-centers our mind.

REFRAME

Ask yourself what you can get out of this trying time. Maybe it is gratitude for the supports you do have in your life, or your job, or your health for instance. Perhaps it gives you a reason to be motivated to act. The goal isn’t always to find positivity, but meaning in the experience. One way to achieve this is to be realistic and label what is happening ‘I am having a panic attack. That is what is causing me to hyperventilate and shake. All I can do it breathe through it and it will pass.’ See below for the 8 attitudes of recovery:

SHIFT

Shift your worry from a potential or unwarranted long-term problem to a daily activity. If you are worried about your health impacting your quality of life, incorporate exercise into your schedule, if you are worried about not getting into college, set aside studying time each day, if you are worried about getting stuck in your job, engage in professional development. Focusing on what action you can take to deal with the fear of the future by making space in your daily routine for a related practice satisfies your immediate and delayed return. If you are going to worry, it may as well lead to something beneficial.

DISTRACT

Interrupt your train of thought if you must. When you feel the onset of anxiety, and you are not in a place (physically or emotionally) to take the time to assess and evaluate its origin, or to experience the symptoms, one thing that you can do is stop it before it escalates. Stand up, take a walk, watch a funny video, anything that will allow you to regain a sense of control over the situation.

FACE

Face your fears. Though a bolder strategy, it can be effective for some. Accept the risk that a negative event or even your worst fear has a possibility of occurring. However, respond by thinking, feeling, and acting as if it will not happen, and accept the risk you may be wrong. Accept exactly what you’re experiencing as you experience it. If you set the expectation that your feelings will diminish on a dime, it is very unlikely to change. When you admit it is okay to go through the process, you are more likely to recover when applying your skills to de-escalate.

CHALLENGE

Challenge your need for certainty. Do you assume all uncertainty will have a bad outcome? Sometimes it does, but good things come unexpectedly as well: a pay raise, meeting someone who becomes important in your life, inspiration. Facing life’s uncertainty helps us to overcome challenges, increases resilience, and to allow opportunities for growth. Uncertainty is natural and unavoidable, but worrying about it begets worrying and leaves you stuck, missing out on some potentially good experiences.

If you are unable to practice the above tips and anxiety continues to interfere with your daily life, work, or relationships, please reach out to a primary care provider or registered therapist, social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist for assistance.

THE EIGHT ATTITUDES OF RECOVERY

EXPECTED ATTITUDES

“I can’t let anyone know.”

“Panic is evil, bad, the enemy.”

“I want to avoid the symptoms.”

“I must relax right now.”

“I must stay on guard.”

“This is a test.”

“I must be certain (that there is no risk).”

“This had better work.”

HEALING ATTITUDES

“I am not ashamed.”

“What can I learn as a student of panic?”

“I want to face the symptoms to gain skills.”

“It’s OK to be anxious here.”

“I won’t guard myself against anxiety.”

“This is practice.”

“I can tolerate uncertainty.”

“It’s OK if it doesn’t work.”

How you can support loved ones experiencing anxiety:

But people are very pain averse. People want to be comfortable and they want to be happy, but if you chase happiness by trying to push aside anything that’s unpleasant and upsetting in your life, the irony is that it actually comes back with a vengeance.

Dr. David H. Rosmarin

Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Founder of the Center for Anxiety

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