Monday, January 31, 2011

Understanding Anxiety

In my practice I see many people seeking treatment for anxiety related issues. Our first few sessions are centered a round examining symptoms and contributing causes. Some report their anxiety stems from excessive and exaggerated worry about everyday life events such as health, career, family, and financial matters. Others say their anxiety is caused by believing disaster will strike them at any time despite there being no obvious reason for disastrous events to actually occur, and the extent and degree of their worry is commonly unrealistic or out of proportion. For these individuals, life becomes a constant state of worry, fear, and dread.

Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. It helps us to deal with tense situations, motivates us, and helps us remain focused. When anxiety becomes an excessive, irrational, dread of everyday situations, it then becomes a disabling disorder. The two most common anxiety disorders are Generalized Anxiety Disorder (or GAD) and Panic Disorder.

GAD is characterized by a "free floating" experience of anxiety. GAD affects approximately 4 million adult Americans. People diagnosed with GAD report excessive and on going worry with no obvious reasons, expect disaster to strike at any time, feel restless and "edgy", have muscle tension, and are easily startled. Some people also report having headaches, poor concentration, frequently needing to use the bathroom, and difficulty staying or falling asleep. In addition, people with GAD often have other anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and phobias. Many also suffer from depression and alcohol or drug abuse.

Panic Disorder, commonly referred to as "panic attacks", is another common anxiety disorder. Unlike symptoms associated with GAD, individuals with panic disorder experience a sudden and severe surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear and their symptoms are commonly physical in nature. Symptoms of Panic Disorder include heart palpitations or racing heart, shortness of breath or hyperventilation, sweating, nausea, trembling or shaking, feeling unreal or detached from their surroundings, and a fear of dying and/or losing control. A single attack may last only a few minutes, however the after effects of a panic attack and worry about future panic attacks often complicates this disorder. In fact, agoraphobia is believed to develop as a complication of panic attacks. People with agoraphobia fear having a panic attack in public and/or in a situation where escape would be difficult or embarrassing. Consequently, these individuals rarely leave their homes in order to avoid situations or activities where a panic attack could occur.

The good news is that most people with anxiety disorders can be treated effectively with counseling or psychotherapy. Sometimes a combination of psychotherapy and medication is recommended, particularly if their symptoms include disturbed sleep, poor appetite, or problems functioning and meeting their daily responsibilities. Several studies have positively demonstrated the benefits of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy(CBT)for the treatment of anxiety disorders. CBT focuses on examining the individual's thinking patterns and behaviors that trigger a panic attack and challenges the reality of such thoughts and behaviors. The ultimate goal of CBT is to have the person learn that nothing truly disastrous is likely to happen to him. If medication is necessary, anti-anxiety medications, anti-depressant medications and some medications used to treat cardiac illness, known as beta-blockers, have also shown to be effective.

Excessive worry and anxiety can significantly interfere with a person's daily functioning. Anxiety affects the way we think and perceive situations. If you or a loved one is suffering from anxiety, it is important to seek professional help. Anxiety is a normal emotion and at times helpful to us, but excessive and debilitating anxiety with no obvious reason, is not normal at any time.

Here are 4 tips to help decrease your anxiety:

1. Get a good nights sleep. When we have an adequate amount of rest we think clearer and process information better. This helps us to more effectively manage our anxious feelings.

2. Exercise regularly. Regular exercise is a great way to "blow off steam". Exercise also improves our ability to think and process information. When we think clearly we make better choices for ourselves, which in turn decreases our stress levels. 

3. Nurture your relationships. Numerous research studies have shown that our relationships with friends and family act as protective factors for achieving and maintaining good mental health.
When we are able to share our feelings with someone special we feel less afraid.

4. Talk to a professional. Chronic anxiety can hold us back from achieving our potential and living life to the fullest. Understanding our anxiety laden feelings gives us new perspectives and newfound  hope for the future.




Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why New Years Resolutions Are Hard to Keep & How Self-Examination Can Help You Be More Successful

     It's that time of year again when people are either struggling to stay committed to their New Year's resolutions or have completely given up on the goals they had set for themselves about what they want to change or accomplish in the New Year. This tradition dates back to the early Babylonians, who believed that what people did on the first day of the year affected what they did for the rest of that year. People now see the New Year as a perfect opportunity to start over or to change bad habits. According to several surveys, the most popular resolutions people make are related to health and fitness (eating better, losing weight, and exercising), reducing consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs, quitting smoking, and achieving financial stability by spending less and saving more. Unfortunately, over 70% of resolutions are broken by the end of January, and broken resolutions can leave a person feeling discouraged and even more despondent than before.
     So, the question is, "What can one do about this discouraging statistic?". For starters, most psychologists agree you have a better chance of sticking to your resolution if:

1. Your goal is specific; make sure your resolution is not vague. Make your goal concrete, and if necessary, break it down into smaller steps. For example, if your resolution is to consume fewer carbohydrates, resolve to eat carbohydrates only at one meal per day rather than resolving to eliminate carbohydrates completely and all at once. Once you are successful you can then begin to decrease your consumption even further.

2. Write your resolution down; put it somewhere where you can see it on a daily basis. This will help you to stay focused.

3. Hold yourself accountable; let others know about your resolution.

4. Have coping strategies to deal with obstacles that may arise along the way. 

5. Reward yourself at each milestone; if you resolve to spend less money; reward yourself by getting a massage instead of going shopping. It is important to be conscious of the rewards you chose.

6. Don't do it alone! Get professional assistance when needed.

     Resolutions are complicated, and being able to achieve them usually requires us to take a good hard look at our own thoughts and behaviors. Setting goals in life is important and keeps us motivated and on track, but stamping out old habits is difficult and may even require the help of a professional.
     Compulsive and repeated behaviors such as overeating, overspending, and drinking more than intended may be due to an underlying anxiety and/or mood disorder. For example, some may frequently overeat to cope with a troubled marriage. Others may overspend because they are depressed and feel happier, at that moment, when shopping. Examining and treating these underlying psychological issues will help with understanding the "why" we continue to engage in these negatives behaviors and the "how" to develop a solid plan of action for achieving long-term change.
     Making New Years resolutions is a good thing. Resolutions are the start to making changes by identifying the behaviors we want to change. Striving for self-improvement and setting goals for ourselves is inspirational and gives us a sense of hope for the future. One way to succeed in our resolutions is to change the way we address them. Be sure to make them a priority, be specific, and work at them daily. Good luck with your own New Year Resolutions and Happy New Year!

I would like to hear from you. What resolutions are you making for the New Year? Can You suggest other strategies for keeping New Year resolutions? How successful have you been in the past?