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ask a therapist

Dear Therapist,

Since the coronavirus has taken over our lives, I find myself having a negative physical reaction to reading and watching the news unfold every day.

Can I be experiencing anxiety even if I’ve never had it before?

 

Thanks,

Jennifer G.

 

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Dear Jennifer,

For many people, the shift in routines, the lack of contact with friends and family, and the inability to separate work life from home life has created great stress – a stress so great that it may feel like something new.

Anxiety.

Is anxiety only felt by people who have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) at their doctor’s office or their therapist’s office? Is it a sign that you’re getting coronavirus? Should anxiety be feared?

No. A resounding no.

Anyone can experience anxiety.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says it best when they say, “Everyone experiences stress and anxiety at one time or another. The difference between them is that stress is a response to a threat in a situation. Anxiety is a reaction to the stress.”

If you are a living being (dog, human, platypus etc.), you have stressors. Stressors can be anything from bills, gum in your young child’s hair, the pile of dishes in your sink encrusted with who-knows-what, a sick parent and so much more.

Now, if you’re being a smart aleck, you may say, “fine, I’ll just reduce the amount of stressors in my life.” And if you were in my office, I’d encourage that but also remind you that it’s impossible to get rid of all stressors, especially when we’re stuck at home right now.

Anxiety comes in when there is fear, or an overwhelming emotion, tied in with the stress.

Think about anxiety through this example:

You find gum in your daughter’s hair because she was bored and tired of being stuck in the house. She wanted to see what would happen. This situation is a stressor.

The anxiety comes in when you learn that peanut butter can help get gum out of the hair, but you realized you ran out of peanut butter when you made PB and J for your kids’ dinner last night.

You simply cannot find any scissors in the house even though you know you have at least six of them.

You don’t have any ice cubes to freeze the gum out because your freezer is stuffed with meat and frozen veggies.

You are about to scream. Your heart is beating rapidly. Your muscles are tense. You excessively worry to the degree that you eventually tire yourself out and feel fatigued. You realize you lost your cool five days ago.

 

The easiest way to understand anxiety is to look at brain science.

When you are confronted with something that sets off your anxiety please remember, these are overwhelming stressors.

You process emotional information in your limbic system (in your lower brain) and your amygdala activates. The amygdala is in charge of the fight or flight responses that everyone talks about.

So, basically, when you’re anxious, your brain is setting itself up to stay and fight or to run away from the threat of what’s making you anxious. This is not ideal when you’re anxious about your daughter’s gummy hair because a) it would not be good to run away b) getting angry will not clear up the gum and will probably scare your daughter.

Watch the video below for more information on the brain science of anxiety.

Ways to Work With Anxiety

There are many tools we can use to manage anxiety symptoms like dizziness, lightheadedness, a heavy chest, “feeling nervous, irritable or on edge, having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom, having an increased heart rate, breathing rapidly (hyperventilation), sweating, and/or trembling, feeling weak or tired, difficulty concentrating, and having trouble sleeping, experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems.”

Each anxious person experiences their own combination of these symptoms. What’s important to know when learning anxiety-management tools is that it takes work. It takes work to explore and figure out which tools are right for you.

For example, if you’re losing sleep because of the gum stuck in your daughter’s hair, you may not want to practice energizing breaths (see the Try Something New section below) while you’re lying in bed frowning at your ceiling. Or if your anxiety triggers give you stomach issues or acid reflux, you may not feel good about lying on your back and meditating. You may need to sit up, or prop yourself up, against a wall.

It’s all about what millennials like to call “doing you” and finding what tool works well.

Try Something New

Here are four different techniques you can try right now to calm your anxiety.

1. Listen to podcasts that address anxiety

This is a favorite of many of my clients called The Anxiety Coaches Podcast. In this episode, join host Gina Ryan in learning how to relax your body on purpose.

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2. Incorporate one mindfulness exercise into your morning routine

Most people like to wash up, get dressed, drink coffee/tea, and go. Try pausing somewhere in your morning with this mindfulness exercise.

3. Try a grounding exercise

Grounding helps bring us down from an anxious place. Whether you’re experiencing racing thoughts or cannot focus on work, grounding can help re-center and re-align the body.

4. Practice breathing exercises

Try the following energizing breath activity if you find yourself fatigued from your anxiety.

 

So, as we experience all kinds of new firsts (for me, I had my first noodle and tuna fish casserole today), it’s important to remember to take time for yourself and to explore what works for your anxiety symptoms. You can think of it as a prolonged teachable moment – a moment to try out something you wouldn’t otherwise.

Leave comments and let us know how your anxiety management exploration goes!

Sincerely,

Sharon Alvandi

 

Sharon Alvandi LMSW, MAT, is a clinical social worker and counselor who specializes in working with individuals needing a breath of insight around trauma, depression, anxiety, other invisible disabilities; people who have experienced or perpetrated domestic violence; young professionals looking for support; youth who are developing their identities; and folks who are experiencing, or would like to interrupt, intergenerational trauma.

 

Disclaimer: The contents of the Jewish Family Service of San Antonio blog are for general use or informational purposed only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. The use of any information contained on this site is solely at your own risk. If you would like to speak in detail with a licensed therapist, please email referrals@jfs-sa.org.

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