Coping with anxiety

Tip: change what you can, accept the rest

Health, redundancy, threat of terrorism – there’s plenty for people to be anxious about these days. And often, the source is something we can’t change. How do you know when it’s time to get help with your anxieties?

To understand the underpinnings of anxiety – and how to cope better – we turned to two anxiety experts: Jerilyn Ross, director of The Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, and Dr Linda Andrews, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences.


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The effects of stress on your body

Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental and emotional responses. Stress is a normal part of life. Many events that happen to you and around you, and many things that you do yourself, put stress on your body. You can experience stress from your environment, your body and your thoughts.

 Normal vs harmful anxiety

The cold sweat of anxiety is part of the “fight or flight” response that once kept our ancestors safe from natural threats. “That adrenaline rush still serves us well under certain circumstances. Anxiety is a natural reaction to those very real stresses”, says Andrews.

In today’s world, “that reaction helps motivate us, prepares us for things we have to face and sometimes gives us energy to take action when we need to”, adds Ross.

For example if you’re worried about a big job interview, you would spend time getting dressed or rehearsing what you’re going to say. Or if you were going through a divorce, you’d research your options. “That kind of anxiety can motivate you to do better. It helps you protect yourself”, says Ross.

But as we know only too well, sometimes it doesn’t take a specific threat – only the possibility of a crisis – to send human beings into anxiety mode. “The difficulty comes in learning to tone down that automatic response, to think, ‘How serious is the danger? How likely is the threat?'”, says Andrews. “The thing about anxiety is it can take on a life of its own. Everything becomes a potential crisis. The unthinkable has happened. So round every corner, there’s the next possible disaster.”

The anxiety toll

When anxiety takes its toll, your body reacts. You have problems sleeping, eating and concentrating. You get headaches, your stomach is upset. You might even have a panic attack – a pounding heart, feelings of light-headedness.

Anxiety can also feel like depression. “The two sometimes overlap”, Ross says.

When anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it interferes with day-to-day activities and keeps you from doing what needs to be done, that’s when you need help, says Ross.

Generalised anxiety disorder is a bigger syndrome, she adds, describing it as a worry machine in your head. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another. You’re procrastinating to the point that you’re almost afraid to take a step. You’re so nervous about going to your child’s school to talk to the teacher, you just don’t go; you miss the appointment.”

In the face of such overwhelming anxiety, people don’t make good decisions, says Ross. “They’re avoiding things, or they’re unable to rise to the occasion because the anxiety is too much. They’re procrastinating because they can’t concentrate, can’t stay focused. It’s really interfering with their day-to-day life. At that point, they may have a more serious anxiety problem and need professional help.”


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