Don't Let Your Anxiety Beat You

Americans are on edge...

Maybe you're feeling that COVID-19 is under control and your life is going back to normal. But you might be surprised at how many people feel differently...

Before the pandemic – from January to June 2019 – just 10% of adults reported anxiety symptoms in a Kaiser Family Foundation survey. But during the pandemic, that number jumped to 40% of adults.

And as of this past February, even with case numbers falling and vaccinations underway, U.S. anxiety failed to improve... The American Psychological Association found that around half of adults were worried about the post-pandemic future. They feel uncomfortable going back to their old lives and seeing people in person again.

Some folks are recovering from the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. They may have been ill, lost loved ones, lost their jobs, or ended up in debt.

Others are anxious about ongoing issues – everything from adjusting to the reopening to worrying about vaccinations.

And still, others are among the estimated 40 million U.S. adults who already suffered from anxiety, which is our nation's most common mental affliction.

Living with anxiety can be incredibly difficult. However, understanding the experience of anxiety a little better can provide some peace of mind and the confidence to develop your own strategy for overcoming it.

Today, I'll explain the biology of anxiety, common symptoms to watch for, and some techniques you can try out on your own...

Some folks think anxiety just means being worried. But there's a lot more than that...

Anxiety is a blend of genetic and environmental factors. So some people who experience anxiety may be "programmed" in a way that makes them more likely to develop it than others.

Our brains have specific areas that process and execute our emotions – known as emotional centers. They are collectively called the limbic system and include the hippocampus, amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus, and limbic cortex.

These limbic structures work with other areas of the brain – like the prefrontal cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex processing centers – to gather information and send directions on how to respond to a situation.

In someone with an anxiety disorder, any one of these structures could vary slightly from the norm – and even a small difference can have an impact.

In addition to brain chemistry, here are six leading environmental factors that can contribute to anxiety...

  • Drugs like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and certain medications and other stimulants
  • Excess of stressful events (even if they seem like a good thing)
  • Low-quality sleep, and too little of it
  • Poor nutrition
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Physical pain

Take an honest look at how these six factors show up in your life. Making steps to address them will have a big impact on how you experience anxiety.

Everybody feels anxious sometimes. To evaluate whether it goes as far as an anxiety disorder, I'm going to share a widely used assessment tool called the GAD-7...

As you think about these seven items, reflect on your experiences in the last two weeks. Give yourself 0 points if your answer to the question is "not at all," 1 point for "several days," 2 points for "more than half the days," and 3 points for "nearly every day."

How often have you been bothered by...

  • Feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge?
  • Not being able to stop or control worrying?
  • Worrying too much about different things?
  • Trouble relaxing?
  • Being so restless that it's hard to sit still?
  • Becoming easily annoyed or irritable?
  • Feeling afraid, as if something awful might happen?

Now add up your scores from each item. Scores ranging from 0 to 4 indicate minimal anxiety, 5 to 9 indicate mild anxiety, 10 to 14 indicate moderate anxiety, and 15 to 21 indicate severe anxiety.

If you've gotten a high score, you may be troubled by what it means for you. Instead, think of it as valuable information you've learned about yourself. Deep knowledge of the self is truly powerful...

Your Next Steps

If you think you suffer from an anxiety disorder, you can start by talking with your primary-care doctor. Your doctor can run some tests to rule out another medical condition, like a thyroid disorder, hypoglycemia, or asthma.

Or you may decide to head directly to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or psychotherapist for a formal diagnosis.

These credentialed folks are trained to evaluate your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to pinpoint a diagnosis and course of treatment. Treatment usually involves a combination of medication and talk therapy.

If you decide to go this route and don't want to be medicated, tell your doctor. There are a lot of techniques you can try to get relief without taking drugs...

Everyday Wellness Measures

Walking, sleeping well, and meditating are three practices I recommend to everyone. They're especially valuable to folks with anxiety.

Turns out, regular exercise can be as effective as medication in treating anxiety...

Of all the people who take medicine to treat their anxiety, 33% experience no improvements. But physical activity can directly improve the functioning of the hippocampus and reduce inflammation throughout the body (which is also associated with anxiety) without any of the harmful side effects of taking drugs.

Walking just 15 to 20 minutes every day – consistency is the key here – will have a huge impact. And if you walk at a pace that encourages deep breathing, you also get the benefit of mental relaxation that breath-work has to offer.

Getting enough deep sleep every night also has a positive impact on anxiety... A 2020 study out of the University of California, Berkeley found that nightly slow-wave, non-rapid eye movement ("NREM") sleep reorganizes the neural connections in the brain and acts as a natural anxiety inhibitor.

During NREM sleep, neural activity throughout the body syncs up, the heart rate slows, and blood pressure drops. As a result of this regulation, people are able to experience anxiety relief without medication.

Daily mindfulness meditation – one of my favorite activities – helps ward off anxiety by calming the brain's amygdala, which controls the body's fight-or-flight response and plays a big role in our experience of fear. Mindfulness meditation also stimulates the vagus nerve (as we explained in a recent Health & Wealth Bulletin issue).

You can choose to make your way out of the anxiety trap. Find a strategy – or two or three – that has some sticking power and works for you.

My team and I strive to help empower you to get the most enjoyment out of life. After all, life is meant to be lived to the fullest. In a recent issue of Retirement Millionaire, I explained in more detail how to determine if you have anxiety, whether it could be stress, and some of the best ways to combat it.

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What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
September 16, 2021