Everyone suffers from anxiety now and then. A small amount of anxiety is normal and can be beneficial in spurring us on to accomplish tasks that are necessary to perform. A little bit of stage fright can increase a person’s ability to perform in a more authentic manner.

Unfortunately, too much anxiety can be detrimental to one’s ability to meet the challenges that life presents. Anxiety is a result of neurological and physiological reactions that trigger a fight or flight reaction in dangerous, or perceived dangerous situations. Some people may even experience the same level of anxiety or fear that our ancient ancestors did when fighting the saber-toothed tiger, even though we no longer have to worry about being eaten by that particular carnivore or being trampled by a woolly mammoth.

The most common feature of generalized anxiety disorder is excessive anxiety and apprehension that is often out of proportion to reality. These worrisome thoughts are difficult for a person to stop and therefore interfere with tasks that need attention. Many people do not understand why they become anxious, but report that they have suffered from anxiety most of their lives. The types of concerns that bother us in childhood and the teenage years tend to be about school and sport activities, whereas adults tend to worry about family and physical health.

Symptoms may include, but are not limited to, constant worrying, restlessness or feeling keyed up, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension and sleep disturbances. The clinical expression of generalized anxiety disorder tends to be consistent throughout one's life.

Some people have predisposing factors that foster anxiety. These attributes are certain qualities people have in their own makeup or experiences that increase their susceptibility to generalized “anxiety disorder."

An example would be heredity; people who have a great deal of anxiety often have parents who are also anxious. Additionally, some may have poor coping skills such as a tendency to ‘awfulize,’ that is (making challenging situations worse by overreacting). Additionally setting unreasonably high expectations of others, or having unrealistic expectations of ourselves is a set-up for anxiety.

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There are many ways to treat anxiety. One of the best ways to calm our anxious thoughts is to remember not to add scary imaginings to an already anxiety provoking situation. If we challenge our negativity and ask ourselves if there is any factual information to support the fearful thoughts, generally speaking the answer is no. Is there any rational support for our response? What evidence exists to support the falseness of our thoughts? What is the worst thing that can happen? What good things may happen if we refute the irrational thoughts?

If we over respond to a stressful situation we set ourselves up for anxiety. If we develop emotional flexibility and if there is no evidence to support our irrational fears, then there is no need to feel anxious. So, we need to reframe negative thoughts into positive thoughts. It is like adjusting a picture that is hanging incorrectly into a correct position. We can retrain our brains by taking control of our automatic responses; listen to our bodies, and use those clues to alert us to how we are responding.

The good news is that many people who seek professional help can achieve a sense of well-being and not suffer the painful, disabling effects of anxiety. Practicing meditation and other relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, and creating alternative thoughts are all productive ways to handle anxiety.

Analyzing, objectively the thoughts, feeling and behaviors of anxiety and learning more appropriate problem solving is important. Moreover, combining psychotherapy and medication has proven to be the most effective treatment approach.

Dr. Lynda M. Gantt, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Maria.

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