For many Americans these days, picking up the newspaper or turning on the evening news has become a hazardous endeavor. Whether it's war overseas, financial meltdown at home, or the worldwide energy crisis, current events seem to provide merely another reason for worry. When juggled with the everyday rigors of working, managing a home, or raising a family, anxiety can become a more frequent (if not round-the-clock) ailment.
And when your mind is worrying, your body pays attention. Symptoms related to anxiety include muscle tension, irritability, insomnia, headaches, fatigue, and gastrointestinal discomfort. But don't blame your job — or current events – entirely.
Dr. Tahere Pourmotabbed, a psychologist with UT Medical Group, says many of the causes of anxiety are hereditary. "Sometimes a family background and a patient's up-bringing can lead to anxiety disorders," she says. "It passes from one generation to another, which is why, when they come to us, we ask about their parents' health, and their grandparents' health. I'm not blaming it all on parents, but those who are critical [of their children] all the time can be a cause."
Because there are both sociological and biological components to chronic anxiety, those suffering symptoms should first get a standard physical, if only to rule out ailments like hyperthyroidism that could mask themselves as an anxiety disorder. Pourmotabbed emphasizes that her patients pay attention to stress-management and what they see as causes of stress in their lives. Distinguishing between common everyday worries and something more severe is critical. "Clinical anxieties," explains Pourmotabbed, "are a group of psychiatric conditions where symptoms are more in-tense. They last longer, lead to phobias, and interfere with everyday functioning. [Patients] have difficulty with their family, their colleagues, in every function of their daily lives."
Pourmotabbed has had patients who have suffered panic disorders so extreme that they made regular trips to the emergency room, only to discover nothing physically wrong. Cases of such intensity may warrant a combination of psychotherapy and anti-depressant medication. (It should be noted that psychologists like Pourmotabbed are not licensed to prescribe medications.)
Pourmotabbed considers the techniques she prescribes as "homework," and she regularly gets visits from patients who haven't done the necessary assignments. All of which leads to a vicious cycle: a stressed-out patient needing ways to ease anxiety, but with no time(!) to practice the techniques that can achieve results.
There are techniques — easy, harmless, and rewarding when done properly — that can alleviate anxiety, even when it begins to feel consuming. And the healing starts with relaxation. "People can focus on their interests," says Pourmotabbed. "Look at hobbies, like gardening. Exercising can help a lot, or meditation. Listening to their favorite music. Also, talking to people they feel close to. A myth of stress management is that it's time-consuming. It really doesn't need to take much time. Just take a deep breath."
When those suffering chronic anxiety are able to gain control over the factors causing their misery, physical symptoms tend to subside. Whether this takes a matter of days, weeks, or months, the result is a step closer to, if not bliss, at least normalcy. "When worries lessen," says Pourmotabbed, "people see a reduction in heart palpitations, headaches, nausea." She notes the importance of recognizing physical improvement as a barometer for a battle well fought. Defeating anxiety, furthermore, has a ripple effect unlike many cures in the medical world. "My clients see a difference," she says, "especially when it helps them in their relationships with other people."