by Henry Emmons, M.D.
The Anxiety Resolutions
There are sure-fire ways to make yourself anxious, if you wanted to do so. No one would do this on purpose, yet without knowing it that is exactly what many of us do every day. How do we do it? Here’s my list of some of the most common mistakes that aggravate the condition we call anxiety. But first I’d like to comment on stress.
In my opinion, stress has gotten a bad rap. Life is stressful, and always has been. Yet when we feel like ourselves, we are naturally resilient. We adapt to stresses remarkably well, often finding ourselves stronger or more skilled by having confronted life’s unavoidable challenges.
Stress alone is not the problem. Instead, we become our own enemy. The common mistakes that follow will reliably turn everyday stress into overwhelming anxiety:
1.) Keep thinking about what is wrong.
Neuroscience has confirmed what we already know: when we replay worrying thoughts again and again, we strengthen the neural pathways for those thoughts, so that they become ingrained in our mind like bad habits. It is as if we are rehearsing worry and anxiety. As with anything, we get better and better at it with practice.
2.) Keep talking about what is wrong.
Pop psychology has given us the notion that it is good to express our feelings. That can be true, but many of us take that to mean that we should “vent”. If someone is willing to listen, we often share our stories of woe. Repeated unloading keeps our anxious feelings alive and may even strengthen them.
3.) Over-stimulate yourself.
Caffeine, tobacco, loud noise, driving fast, working without breaks, skipping meals-there are so many ways to keep the body and brain on overdrive and keep the anxiety levels high.
4.) Don’t allow for time to refresh and renew.
After a stressful experience, it is normal and healthy to take time to rest and recover. That lets the body’s stress response system calm down, reset and get prepared for the next challenge. Our ancestors ran and then they rested; we stay on the treadmill. Not allowing for downtime differentiates our response to stress from every other time in human history.
5.) Stay constantly busy.
This is a variation on the last point. It is not only during the stressful times in life that we overdo. Most of us do too much every single day. You may have heard the phrase: “We are human beings, not human doings.” We are simply not designed to be on the go 24/7.
6.) Give in to your cravings.
Most of us reach reflexively, without thinking, without deciding, for something to soothe ourselves when we feel stressed or anxious. We often eat comfort food like sweets or other food laden with carbs and fats. Whatever we crave, we crave it because it makes us feel better-for much too short a time. Unfortunately, the comfort is brief and we almost always end up feeling worse in the long run.
7.) Short-change your sleep.
If there were a single sure-fire way to break a person down, it would have to be too little sleep. Lack of sleep is an accelerator toward most mental illness, and anxiety is no exception. Getting an average of 7-8 hours per night is not only helpful, it is essential.
8.) Stay sedentary.
Think about what happens in nature: the “fight or flight” reaction means that stress hormones flood the body, priming it for some kind of physical action. Sitting most of the day means the stress hormones have nothing to do but re-circulate. Moving your body helps to discharge the effects of all of those stress hormones and reset yourself back to a normal resting state.
9.) Isolate yourself.
It is a wonder that so many have become isolated and alone when we are clearly wired to connect. As the Dalai Lama has said, “We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection.” Meaningful connection doesn’t solve everything, but it goes a very long way toward helping us endure the difficult side of life.
10.) Believe that you’re in it on your own.
The spiritual traditions give us a consistently reassuring message: “All will be well.” But when our brains get locked into anxious patterns, we can’t believe that. We see our small, individual selves as being solely responsible for our lives without any support. It is an illusion. If we can see through it, we can tap into a deep well of reassurance and hope.
11.) Watch the news daily.
You’ve heard that we are what we eat. We may also be what we take in through our eyes and ears. A study in Scandinavia showed that watching the evening news, filled with stories of tragedy, violence or other bad news, had a strong effect on rates of anxiety and depression. Does that mean that we should keep our head in the sand? No, but it may be wise to pay attention to what we are feeding ourselves through our minds, especially when we are going through personally hard times.
12.) Play video games.
It should come as no surprise that a game that simulates trauma and violence would put the brain into a state that is similar to the real thing. Researchers have found that common video games do just that. They may even create lasting brain changes so that things don’t go right back to normal when the game is done. The news is not all bad for video games, though. Soldiers in Iraq who played an absorbing game like Tetrus shortly after witnessing a trauma were able to protect themselves from developing post-traumatic stress symptoms.
13.) Become addicted to stress.
Some people appear to thrive on stress. They choose to remain overly committed, or constantly create high drama in their lives, and they seem to do fine. But if the stress stops, things begin to crumble. It is as if they have become addicted to stress and the high level of stress hormones that flood their body. Take the stress away, and they go into a form of withdrawal. Since no one can remain stressed forever without consequences, they should heed the warning signs and get a handle on their stress level.
We would do well to avoid what we can of the above pitfalls, but we won’t do it perfectly any more than we can keep all of our resolutions to do the right things. If we are in the game of life, stress cannot be avoided. That is all the more reason to become better at dealing with it.