One of my respondents to the newsletter asked that I write about anxiety, especially the anxiety that we as older adults experience facing uncertain futures…chronic diseases, health issues, and uncertain prognoses from the diseases we or our loved ones have. It’s enough to cause anxiety, whether we talk about it or not, so here goes. This post on anxiety will be longer than usual. The rest in the series will be more regular in length.
CAUTION: I have enjoyed looking more deeply into this topic. Just realize that although I have done extra research into this topic, I am not a mental health professional. I am definitely NOT an authority on the topic of anxiety. But what I have learned has been very interesting and enlightening.
What is anxiety?
What is anxiety? We tend to think of it as something negative that we don’t want to experience. But actually, anxiety is a normal response to a perceived threat. Anxiety is one of those things that is a normal part of life.
What is at the heart of anxiety? That normal part of anxiety alerts our body to danger of some sort. It gets our body’s “fight or flight” system into action so we can gear up to run/think fast/move quickly/be more alert and generally respond to danger or a challenge. We may sweat, have an increased heartbeat, breathe more rapidly, become more alert, etc. You know the symptoms you exhibit. Depending on the danger, we will be able to escape physically and run for our life, prepare for an exam or do whatever is needed to meet the challenge. Anxiety, as one source said, is like a fire alarm going off. It is a great help if there is a fire. It prepares us to call for help. escape and get our family to safety.
The problem with anxiety comes when too many false alarms go off. Cortisol keep pouring into your blood stream preparing you to deal with these emergencies, only they aren’t there. And all that cortisol is hard on your body and your general health. Sooner or later, it catches up with you.
Another writer said that healthy anxiety is good and protects you from danger of all kinds, physical and emotional. It is proportional to the problem. It becomes unhealthy when it becomes panic and is out of proportion to the problem. (not an exact quote) She also said that panic attacks are not abnormal for a person to have in a lifetime. A panic attack is an extreme of the body’s fight response to danger. (Dr. Lisa Damour)
Some definitions of anxiety
As far as a definition, you can go from a very simple one that states anxiety is the fear of something that will happen in the future. Another more detailed definition states that it is a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
If we get into a psychiatric diagnosis of anxiety, it is characterized by excessive apprehension about real or perceived threats typically leading to avoidance behaviors and often to physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and muscle tension.
As you can see, there is a lot of overlap. Often, the simple definitions can be the most helpful.
Who is more vulnerable to anxiety?
The older you are, the more vulnerable you are to anxiety. Why?
- Because your health is more brittle.
- You are less able to fend for yourself in the job market.
- You have more people to love and whose welfare you are concerned for.
- Those who are under siege in other areas should not be surprised if they are anxious. (Dr. Ed Welch)
As you can imagine, the elderly aren’t the only ones who deal with anxiety. All ages and all stages of life do. Adolescents often experience anxiety for the first time. That is why it is so scary for them. As parents and grandparents, it is helpful for us to encourage them as they learn to deal with anxiety in a healthy way. Many of us have flawed ways of dealing with anxiety.
It may involve avoiding the trigger of our anxiety because we don’t think we can manage any part of our anxiety. We may feel that our child can’t handle the anxiety, so we help them avoid their trigger. We may even interact with people for them to protect them from there anxiety. But does that help them in the long run? No, in fact, it the anxiety worse in the long run. Learning to deal with our anxiety means dealing with it in smaller pieces at a time. But there are other ways to manage it too. However, I’m getting ahead of myself.
So the bottom line is that all of us have vulnerabilities to problems with anxiety. All of us will have anxiety in our lifetime. But it isn’t a bad thing. The purpose of this series is to help us learn to deal with our anxiety in a healthier way. Many of us deal with it well. Others of us try to live in denial regarding our anxiety and think that helps us. It doesn’t. there of us have gutted it out in terms of dealing with anxiety. It really hasn’t helped us and helps people around us even less. It makes us not very empathetic unless God intervenes. Believe it or not, there are some advantages to our anxiety if we deal with it properly.
How do I know I am not dealing with my anxiety?
Avoidance behavior is the main sign you are not dealing with your anxiety. One of my conversations was with a professional who works with people who have problems with anxiety. This a cycle she described to me…as well as I was able to figure out. Now I need to explain it to the degree I understand it.
Fear Trigger: This starts the cycle. We will use the example of someone
who is afraid of dogs. She comes across a dog.
Automatic Thoughts: Automatic thoughts will come to mind. They will be some form of the following. A. I have a 100% chance of getting bitten.
B. I have 100% chance of not being able to handle it. Those are the 2 parts of the automatic thoughts.
Body Responses: Your body will respond to your automatic thoughts and the degree to which you believe them. They may be true. You may be in danger. Your body is getting you ready to deal with it by going into the “fight or flight” response.
Be Safe/Avoid: By avoiding all dogs, you never get to test out the fact that A. some dogs are good and won’t bite you. B. You can deal with the anxiety as you test to see if it is a good dog or not.
Of course, there are a lot of other situations that are involved too, such as relationships that are difficult that you don’t want to deal with. You need to find ways to test out that you are able to deal with those difficult relationships in small bites with help. But you don’t need to have other people manage those relationships for you.
That may be a helpful visual for you. Normally coming to a place of safety is a good thing. The problem only comes when we use avoidance to cope as a regular way of living our lives.
What do I do with my anxiety?
What do I worry about? What are my anxieties about the future? How do I deal with uncertainties in my life, particularly in reference to the future? All of these affect anxiety, both the normal kind and the extreme kind. These can tell you a lot about what is truly important to you. It is wise to pay attention to your anxieties, maybe even keep a list of them. They might give you insight into what is going on in your mind.
One thing I did learn is the power of slow breathing during times of anxiety. Yes, there is a physical reason it works that I won’t go into here. It relates to nerve endings in your lungs. If you are in a situation where your body has gone into a “fight or flight” response but the situation doesn’t merit it, this is the recommended breathing technique that will calm your body down. Slowly inhale to the count of 3, hold your breath to the count of 3, exhale to the count of 3, hold your breath to the count of 3. You can do this a few times and it will calm your body down, giving you control over your body’s response to panic. It also focuses your mind on breathing, not on the trigger to your anxiety.
God knows how scary anxiety can be. Looking to unknown futures can be very scary.
Did you know that the Bible talks about anxiety 300 times? God understand how scary anxiety can be. We don’t like facing an unknown future. We don’t like wondering if we are up to the unknown challenges we will face. It is scary. We need to know we can trust in God to help us face the unknown. He promises to be with us. We will be talking more about what God promises us in relation to anxiety and worry.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself regarding the hold anxiety has on you.
- Do you find yourself avoiding people or situations in order to manage your life? What are they? Jot them down.
- Can you name 3-5 areas that you notice cause anxiety in your life? Jot them down.
- Do you think anxiety is a crippling problem for you? Answer this question with a 1-5 answer with 5 being extremely crippling and 1 being not crippling at all. Jot down your answer.
- Take a few minutes to ask God to show you if anxiety is a problem for you in the weeks ahead. Also ask Him to show you how to use His Word to help you with the anxiety you have for His glory as you apply the truth of His Word to it. I don’t promise you won’t ever have any anxiety again. I can promise some helpful ways to deal with it in the coming weeks.