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Anxiety: What It Is And How To Cope

Written by Katherine Oakes

Photography by Artwork by Beth Hoeckel

You’ve felt it before, heart pounding in your chest, quick and labored breathing, intense worry and fear—lots of it. It comes at reasonable and expected times, like when you see your little one nearing a hot stove and another about to put a small LEGO piece up their nose in the other room (why? we don’t really know, exactly), but when overwhelming panic and anxiety plagues you constantly you know something is wrong. Interestingly, many women and mothers experience an increase in anxiety as they age, and aside from the normal fears of motherhood, it is caused for no reason at all. So, what is this mysterious mania afflicting so many mamas out there and how can you manage it? We did some research to help you.

The American Psychiatric Association defines Generalized Anxiety Disorder (the most common form of the condition) as: “Excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for a period of at least 6 months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance).” Although anxiety is most certainly recognized as a psychological disorder, scientists have also come to understand that your genetics and current physical health play a crucial part in how your anxiety develops and how it manifests. Chemically, it’s well known that a decrease in serotonin—a neurotransmitter that contributes to your mental and emotional well being—is a main factor in developing anxiety and even depression.

So, if it’s an imbalance of chemicals that are partially to blame for your psychological struggles, then balancing your chemicals can get you out of it, right? In a way, yes. Women’s holistic health expert and hormone specialist, Alisa Vitti, simplifies it on her blog, saying, “physically, it all comes back to our hormones—specifically the stress hormone cortisol. How our body manages cortisol is reflected in how we deal with stress.” This is good news, considering the underlying cause of anxiety is your body’s inability to deal with this hormonal imbalance and the powerful effect that cortisol has on your brain, which inevitably leaves you feeling panicked, confused, and overwhelmed.

Joni E. Johnston, a psychologist and writer at Psychology Today, describes her own experience with unexpected anxiety during motherhood, calling it “postpartum panic”: “Postpartum panic disorder looks and feels like plain old panic disorder with a few exceptions. One, anxiety may be focused on maternal issues (being a bad mother, worry that the baby will get sick or die) rather than general concerns. Also, the sleep deprivation that inevitably accompanies a new baby can be a huge factor in exacerbating postpartum panic attacks.”

For many, pharmaceuticals are the remedy of choice and in some cases where anxiety and depression are severe enough, they may be necessary, so make sure to speak to your doctor. However, there are many different methods of managing and even decreasing your level of anxiety that are rooted in your everyday habits and patterns. Margaret Wehnrenberg, PsyD author of The 10 Best Ever Anxiety Management Techniques Workbook, offers some practical advice on anxiety management.

Change Your Intake. “Changing intake—from the kinds of food you eat to how often you check your email—is a key feature in managing the physiology of anxiety,” says Wehnrenberg. She recommends keeping tabs on how you feel after you consume caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and sugar and sweeteners (C.A.T.S.), things that can, not surprisingly, cause a surge in the cortisol production. “Because sensitivity varies greatly from person to person, only you can tell whether certain foods and drinks are causing your anxiety symptoms.” Wehnrenberg adds. You might also consider noticing what else you “intake” that causes anxious feelings, such as email, texts, phone, or other electronic stimuli. Make note of those times when you feel panicked and stressed so that a deliberate choice to find some space and solitude to recuperate.

Breathing Techniques. Once you have identified some of your panic triggers, you have the awareness and capabilities to do something about it. “Panic begins with unconscious activity in your brain that initiates the sudden rise of heart rate, respiration, and other physical changes that prepare you for fight or flight,” or in other words, a rise in the hormone cortisol. Wehnrenberg advises taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths to soothe you and allow your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)—the biochemical system that tells your brain and endocrine system, “chill, man”—to kick in. Another great breathing technique that accesses the left hemisphere of your brain, the PNS, and is associated with positive emotions is called Alternate Nostril Breathing, a yogic practice recommended and researched by Marlynn Wei, MD, JD, co-author of the forthcoming book, The Harvard Medical Guide to Yoga. Simply cover your right nostril and take deep slow breaths in and out through your left nostril. You can close your eyes and do this anywhere from 3 to 11 times, then when you feel ready, switch to breathing in and out through each nostril one at a time.

Shift Your Awareness. The internal dialogue of a panicked mind can be debilitating. This combined with the physical sensations of anxiety can make it nearly impossible to function. However, breaking the focus away from those thoughts is where our power lies, says Wehnrenberg, “our uniquely human capacity to use the brain to control the brain is at the heart of anxiety management.” Consider what helpful thought, affirmation, or action you can focus on to keep you present. Whether it’s a yogic “Ohm,” a helpful “you can do it” kind of self-talk, or just folding the laundry (we’ll bet it’ll be the best folding job you’ll ever do). A study in Brain and Behavior even shows that these type of repetitive thoughts can help calm you down. So, start talking to yourself! That is, if you haven’t started to already.

Many people feel isolated or ashamed when dealing with anxiety. It’s important to remember that you’re not alone and that reaching out for support from professionals or people you love will not only help you heal, but also bring you closer. Remind yourself of your body and mind’s resiliency throughout this process and tap into the powerful practice of shifting your perspective to see the most positive outcome possible.

Have any advice or want to share an experience of your own? Please do so in the comments below!

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