By Michael Shrifter, Psy.D., behavioral health, The Portland Clinic-South
Last year, mental health overtook COVID-19 as Americans’ top health concern, according to the Ipsos Global Health Service Monitor. And the mental health issue that affects more of us than any other is anxiety. We’ve all been doing our best to persevere over these past three tumultuous years, but unprecedented stress levels are challenging our ability to cope. My patients tell me that they are emotionally overwhelmed and exhausted by what feels like a constant stream of crises without a break. If you’ve been feeing the same way, it’s not just you.
Anxiety can make us feel nervous, restless, worried and tense. It can cause physical symptoms, too, such as a racing heart, rapid breathing, trouble concentrating, sleep problems, weakness, fatigue and digestive issues. If rising anxiety symptoms sometimes get in the way of your focus or daily tasks, a few strategies can help you reclaim your calm:
- Address anxiety at its source. If you know which situations make your anxiety worse, think about ways to dial back your exposure to these situations, or plan new ways to manage them better in the future.
- Question your thought patterns. Negative thoughts can take root and grow in your mind, distorting the severity of a situation. Challenge your fears to a reality check: are they true? See if you can talk yourself down and regain control.
- Take a deep breath. Deep breathing slows your heart rate, which helps reduce anxiety and tension. In moments of high anxiety, try taking in a slow breath for four counts, releasing it for four counts, and repeating this for a few minutes.
- Write it down. Journaling, or simply writing down what’s making you anxious, can be cathartic, helping you get your worries out of your head.
- Walk it off. Movement is a key to relieving both emotional and physical stress and tension. Find time regularly for walking and stretching.
- Keep a regular sleep schedule. It’s a classic Catch-22: anxiety disrupts sleep, and sleep deprivation worsens anxiety. Sticking to a consistent bedtime schedule, along with the other anxiety-relieving strategies, can help break the cycle.
- Spend more time with people you love. Isolation is a natural reaction to anxiety. But when we’re struggling, that’s when we need more support, not less. Fight the urge to go it alone. Schedule a walk, a talk or a game night with people who make you feel lighter, loved and supported.
- Feed your brain. While they may sound comforting in the moment, caffeine, sugar and alcohol can make anxiety worse. Focus, instead, on foods that support mental health, such as avocados, nuts, citrus fruits and whole grains. Read about more foods that help reduce anxiety.
When anxiety is severe and ongoing
Anxiety that is severe and persistent can cause intense, relentless worry and fear that disrupts your life. This level of anxiety is hard to control and may not go away on its own. Please reach out to a health professional if:
- You feel like you’re worrying too much and it’s interfering with your work, relationships or other parts of your life
- Your fear, worry or anxiety are upsetting to you and are difficult to control
- You feel depressed, have trouble with alcohol or drug use, or have other mental health concerns along with anxiety
- You think your anxiety could be linked to a physical health problem
As your health care clinic, The Portland Clinic is here to help with your mental as well as physical health. When anxiety won’t let up, medications may help ease symptoms and get emotional distress under control, and psychotherapy can help you discover better ways to cope. We’re adding more mental health providers to our team in early 2023 to expand support for our patients.
Life can be hard to navigate on your own, and you’re not meant to. Admitting that you’re struggling, and opening up — whether with a friend, family member or health care provider — can feel empowering, cleansing and freeing.