Everyone has felt it at one time or another: You get nervous before a speech or a big test, and your palms begin to sweat. Or, perhaps you just feel a general unease about your health, finances or family life.
A sense of uneasiness about the future is generally known as anxiety. These feelings affect both the body and the mind. When you become anxious, your body releases a hormone called adrenaline. It is nature's way of warning you that danger (both real and imagined) is imminent.
As anxiety increases, you may experience symptoms such as a pounding heart, quickened breathing and perspiration. The more you worry about something, the stronger these symptoms are likely to become.
Many people experience mild to moderate episodes of anxiety. For some, such nervousness may interfere with their ability to enjoy life fully. However, there are steps you can take to reduce or even eliminate your anxious feelings.
There are many ways to reduce anxiety. Three of the most effective are:
- Set aside a time to worry. Do you find yourself fretting about things periodically throughout the day? If so, you are probably living with a constant and unhealthy low-level hum of anxiety.
To fix this problem, set aside a period of each day where you do nothing but worry. Think about the issues you face and potential solutions for up to 30 minutes. After the time has expired, make a vow not to think about your problem again until your anxiety time the following day.
- Confront subjects that have triggered past bouts of anxiety. Your anxiety level is particularly likely to spike prior to situations that have provoked angst in the past. If you broke out in a cold sweat and stuttered during your last PowerPoint presentation, odds are good that the butterflies will awaken in your stomach shortly before the next go-round.
Prior to an anxiety-provoking event, try to visualize yourself in the situation. If this makes you feel anxious, try a relaxation technique to see if this calms your feelings. Later, when the real-life situation makes you nervous, try these techniques again and see if they have a calming effect.
Also, prepare yourself as much as possible prior to the event. You are much less likely to feel anxious if you are confident and in control of your situation. For example, someone who studies diligently before a test is much less likely to experience exam-related anxiety than a peer who tries to cram in all preparation the night before the test.
- Take care of your body and mind. One of the best ways to prevent anxiety is to take care of yourself. Numerous studies show that physically fit, well-rested and contented people are less likely to be vulnerable to bouts of anxiety.
For example, people who maintain close relationships have a network of support that makes them less vulnerable to anxiety. Taking the time to enjoy life and to engage in hobbies you enjoy helps reduce levels of both stress and anxiety.
Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, can also help. In this exercise, you lie down on a flat surface. Place one hand on your stomach above the navel, and the other hand on your chest. Breathe in slowly until the stomach rises a bit and hold your breath for a second. Then, exhale slowly.
Muscle relaxation, in which you tense and relax your muscles one by one, is also used by some to reduce anxiety. Some people benefit from yoga or meditation.
Studies show that regular exercise is one of the best ways to ward off anxiety and to build a stronger sense of well-being. It's also important to avoid overindulging in unhealthy foods, and to avoid abuse of alcohol, drugs (both legal and illegal) and stimulants such as caffeine.
Finally, be sure to get plenty of rest. A full night's sleep relaxes both body and mind and makes you less susceptible to anxious thoughts.
Seeing a Doctor
In many cases, taking these three steps will be enough to significantly reduce your anxiety. However, some people have anxiety that is more difficult to treat.
Moderate to intense anxiety can lead to panic attacks, sudden episodes of fear and anxiety that usually last between 10 and 30 minutes. Although panic attacks are usually medically harmless, they can be extremely frightening, and often feel like a heart attack.
If you cannot control your anxiety, see your doctor. Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are available that can help reduce symptoms. In addition, some people may benefit from psychotherapy that can help them get at the root of their anxiety.
Reviewed by Steven A. King, M.D.
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