According to recent research, anxiety (characterized by constant and overwhelming worry and fear) is becoming increasingly prevalent in the US, now eclipsing all forms of cancer by 800 percent.
Nearly 13 million adults have struggled with anxiety in the past year, the study found; including 4.3 million people who were employed full time, and 5.9 million who were unemployed.
In all, nearly six percent of adults over the age of 18 report having anxiety. Fortunately, there are many treatment options available, and some of the most effective treatments are also among the safest and least expensive, and don’t involve drugs.
Uncertainty Fuels Anxiety
With life being so inherently uncertain, it’s no surprise so many worry. Constantly. Some just seem to manage uncertainty better. Taking a more lighthearted approach can help, as demonstrated by cartoonist Gemma Correll, a “self-proclaimed World Champion Overthinker” whose book, A Worrier’s Guide to Life, makes light of serious mental health issues and everyday angst in equal measure.
It is the uncertainties in life that fuel chronic worry and anxiety, and the part of the solution is to develop your ability to face the unknown with equanimity. As a rule, humans prefer certainty to uncertainty. Studies have shown that people would rather definitely get an electric shock now than maybe be shocked later, and show greater nervous-system activation when waiting for an unpredictable shock (or other unpleasant stimulus) than an expected one.
Where people differ is in the degree to which uncertainty bothers them. This is what the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale (IUS) measures. Developed in 1994 by a team of researchers in Quebec, the scale assesses how much people desire and seek out predictability, and how they react in ambiguous situations. Higher levels of “intolerance of uncertainty” (IU) are predictive of an increased risk of anxiety disorders, and to a lesser degree eating disorders and depression. Higher IU has also been shown to be linked to higher levels of worry and indecisiveness.
Uncertainty, it appears, is a necessary ingredient for anxiety of any kind to manifest, whether acutely or chronically. People with generalize anxiety disorder (GAD) are on the extreme end of worry, but that worry is not different from your worry or my worry. There’s just a lot more of it. If you’re allergic to nuts, and you have a piece of birthday cake that has a drop of almonds in it, you have a violent physical reaction to it. A small amount of a substance that’s not harmful to most people provokes a violent reaction in you. It’s like a psychological allergy.
Survival Strategies of the Anxiety Prone
Research published in 2013 attempts to explain the neurobiology of this “psychological allergy” to uncertainty. A number of different brain processes are likely involved, including emotional regulation, along with threat and safety detection. When uncertainty arises, your brain looks for environmental clues that it, through experience, associates with threat or safety. When you’re in an ambiguous situation where your brain cannot detect any clear safety or threat cues, it decides that everything is a threat.
Needless to say, this can have a significant impact on your health as anxiety evokes the same “fight or flight or freeze” response as stress, meaning it triggers a flood of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol that help you respond in an emergency.Once the level of uncertainty rises and becomes unbearable, the anxiety-prone person will typically respond in one of two ways: approach, or avoidance. People in avoidance mode usually want others to tell them what to do, no matter how inappropriate that might be. There is a third option though.
Energy Psychology Can Also Help Ease Anxiety
While you can’t eliminate anxiety from your life entirely, energy psychology tools such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), demonstrated in the video above, can help you address anxiety and panic attacks by correcting the bioelectrical short-circuiting that can happen when anxiety becomes chronic. It’s normal to feel anxiety with a stressful event, such as before public speaking or in anticipation of a job interview, but normally anxiety will fade once the event passes.
If you experience anxiety for long enough, your brain may become “wired” for it, such that any potentially undesirable situation sounds a biological alarm. Chronic anxiety might cause you to constantly look out for potential threats when none exist.
EFT is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture for more than 5,000 years to treat physical and emotional ailments, but without the invasiveness of needles. You can think of EFT as a tool for “reprogramming” your circuitry, and it works on both realand imagined stressors. Recent research has shown that EFT significantly increases positive emotions, such as hope and enjoyment, and decreases negative emotional states, including anxiety.
EFT is particularly powerful for treating stress and anxiety because it specifically targets your amygdala and hippocampus, which are the parts of your brain that help you decide whether or not something is a threat. EFT has also been shown to lower cortisol levels. While you can easily learn the basics of EFT on your own, if you have a serious anxiety disorder, I highly recommend that you consult a qualified EFT practitioner, as it typically takes years of training to develop the skill to tap on and relieve deep-seated, significant issues. That said, the more you tap, the more skilled you’ll become. EFT is a great tool to teach to your children to help them diffuse their everyday stresses, thus preventing them from festering or evolving into chronic anxiety.
The Benefits of Meditation
Meditation is another option that can help you combat anxiety in the long-term. One style of meditation is mindfulness—a directed-attention, waking state practice in which you keep bringing your attention back to the now. It’s a practice of single-tasking, originally developed for monks, who remain focused on the present moment in all activities. Besides improving your focus and boosting your mental cognition, mindfulness training helps relieve feelings of stress and anxiety.
If you think about it, nothing is uncertain in the NOW. You know exactly where you are and what you’re doing right this very moment, so by focusing on your direct experience in the present, uncertainty-driven anxiety can be reduced. With practice, you’ll likely lower your “intolerance of uncertainty” score.
It’s now becoming more well-known that meditation actually changes your brain. The increased calm and quiet you feel is not an imaginary effect. Neuroscientist Sara Lazar has used brain scans to look at the meditating brain, which shows that long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions. They also have more gray matter in the frontal cortex, an area associated with memory and executive decision making.
After just eight weeks, people who took part in a mindfulness meditation study, meditating 40 minutes per day, were able to shrink their amygdala — the part of your brain that governs your fight or flight response – and plays a significant role in anxiety, fear, and general stress. A smaller amygdala correlates to reduced stress and anxiety.
Having healthy hormone balance can also help you deal with anxiety and stress. Bioidentical progesterone for instance helps elevate mood and so lessen anxiety. Low levels of progesterone can affect many areas of your health so improving hormone balance will have an impact on mood as well as helping menopausal symptoms.