Spirituality for Today – June 2008 – Volume 12, Issue 11


By Rev. Richard Scheiner

Photo of a suffering from anxietyOne of the most pervasive disorders inflicting Americans today is persistent anxiety. The most common anxiety disorder is the one labeled "generalized anxiety disorder." While it is normal to be somewhat anxious about the things that produce stress in your life, unfounded or excessive worry is not normal. The anxiety that excessive worry produces is most often considered a medical problem; it is, fortunately, a problem that can be treated.

Persons undergoing a "generalized anxiety disorder" will usually feel anxious most of the time; often they cannot even tell you what they are anxious about. And this anxiety makes it difficult for them to function, whether at home or at work.

Anxiety is usually accompanied by a whole host of other symptoms: insomnia, fatigue, muscle tension, chest pain, fast breathing (hyperventilating), stomach ache, diarrhea, head ache, dry mouth, or sweaty palms. Someone suffering with anxiety will usually feel irritable and jumpy; they may carry about with them a tremendous sense of doom. In an older person generalized anxiety is often accompanied by depression; anxiety and depression often go hand in hand.

Beside the above symptoms, anxiety disorders will often assume two other forms; phobias which are uncontrollable, irrational and persistent fears of something, and panic disorder which is often characterized by a sudden, unexplainable feeling of terror.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (usually referred to as OCD) is considered to be another expression of anxiety and involves the person suffering with it in endless and seemingly senseless ritualistic acts – such as repeatedly checking the stove to see that it has been turned off, and repeatedly checking the door to see that it has been locked for the night. A person will engage in these ritualistic practices in the belief that the ritual will prevent whatever he or she fears from happening. And not only are rituals involved in the obsessive compulsive disorder, but so are thoughts; they are called obsessive compulsive thoughts. When the obsessive thoughts are concerned with religious matters – sin, guilt, salvation – we call the disorder "scrupulosity." Obsessive-compulsive thoughts are really the most debilitating of all the anxiety producing disorders, and are the most difficult to control and work with.

One other form of anxiety we should mention here is post-traumatic stress disorder. A person may experience this disorder after a severe emotional or physical trauma; flash backs and nightmares may accompany this form of anxiety.

Anxiety, it must be noted, has a physical as well as an emotional and mental side to it. When someone feels anxious, his or her body will release hormones that prepare him or her to react to a threat; this is often referred to as the "fight or flight" response. Out of control anxiety can produce this response almost continually; it can even occur during times of calm.

No one seems to fully understand why this happens. Certainly, a buildup of stress or physical and environmental conditions may combine to create anxiety. Research has also found that some personality types are more prone than others to anxiety disorders; anxiety disorders also tend to run in families. Many individuals experience excessive anxiety because they see themselves as passively helpless creatures in a very hostile world where everything that possibly can go wrong, will go wrong.

The main treatments for anxiety are counseling and medications. Counseling can help a person to better achieve an understanding of those concerns - fears, situations, thoughts that trigger anxiety; it can help the person to develop coping skills that will assist one in learning relaxation techniques.

Certain medications can also be highly effective treatments for anxiety and they can be used either alone or in combination with counseling. These medications fall into two categories: the antidepressant drugs and the anti-anxiety drugs.

Most common antidepressant/anti anxiety drugs.

Among the antidepressant drugs – they also have anti-anxiety properties – the best known and commonly used are: Prozac, Paxil, Tofranil, and Effexor.

The most used anti-anxiety drugs are: Valium, Librium, Xanex, and Ativan. These medications can be quite effective in reducing anxiety; but they have proven to be habit forming and caution must be exercised in using them. Their use is best limited to occasional or short-term use and should be taken precisely as instructed.

Two drugs that are often prescribed for the treatment of "generalized anxiety disorder" are Effexor – which is listed among the antidepressants – and Buspar. Both are non addictive, have minimal side effects, do not cause withdrawal symptoms; unfortunately, their effectiveness is sometimes disappointing.

If you are experiencing the effects of anxiety whether mild or severe certainly if severe - talk to your doctor about it; your doctor will work with you to find the right treatment.

If you are experiencing a mild sort of generalized anxiety, the following suggestions may be of some help in coping with it:

  1. Try to determine what is making you anxious and confront it.
  2. Don't ruminate about the past.
  3. See that you get enough sleep. Eat a balanced diet exercise and find the time to relax. Avoid caffeine and nicotine; all of these can make anxiety increase. Above all, don't turn to alcohol or un-prescribed drugs for relief.
  4. Share your anxiety with a friend or a counselor who can help you to gain a better perspective on it.

When all is said and done, we must admit that one of the main causes of anxiety, if not the chief cause, is the frenetic pace of modern society, a pace that bygone and more traditional societies did not have to face. For example, consider the professions. The professions have become so diversified and specialized that an almost incomprehensible array of possibilities has resulted which leads to the pessimistic conclusion that there is no such thing as an informed choice about a way of life in modern culture.

Technology provides us with instant communication, with instant gratification of our desires be they good or bad; the computer provides us with instant access to knowledge and information. Living in a society like this, a society that has access to this kind of technology is like living in a society composed of billions of people; I often wonder if we are really capable of coping with this.

Our way of life has evolved at a far more rapid pace than our brains have. Modern life thus presents us with problems and burdens that are incompatible with the brains we have evolved. How many people do you know who deal with computers by refusing to go near one? Maybe anxiety occurs when we feel we have to do things we do not feel capable of doing; things as simple as changing our diet, exercising more; maybe it's changes that society seems to demand like changes in family structure, as matting patterns, or sleep patterns. But whatever it might be, modern life does present us with the stimuli for anxiety that just wasn't there in the past. In the pre-industrial past, let us say, a child would see the adults at work in the villages or towns and observe the opportunities available to him as he matures. These, of course, would be somewhat limited. He might choose to be a baker or a miller or a blacksmith. When it came to the village priest, while the way of life the priest led was visible and clear, the details of his life were not. But this was usually not a cause of anxiety. So, while options in life were few, so were the stresses that caused anxiety.

But it is quite different in our modern society. Adjusting to the stresses of life without having the time to learn coping strategies is very difficult if not impossible. And probably the most difficult of all adjustments in life we are forced to make is the adjustment to chronic stress.

There are, actually, many specific stresses for which we are ill prepared; the prevalence of the dysfunctional family is certainly one of them; the loss of contact with the resultant lack of intimacy in a family is another. These, certainly, are major causes of stress that bring on anxiety. But there are others with, perhaps, lesser repercussions in a person's stress level but nevertheless harmful and a cause of anxiety. Examples of these stresses are: living a life that entails no physical movement or exercise, living a good part of one's day in artificial light, trying to incorporate the amount of information that bombards us every day; this list can quite easily be expanded almost indefinitely. Our brain is simply not prepared to process and tolerate all of this; the result is stress producing anxiety.

It is a sad fact that anxiety begets anxiety. Anxiety is what happens when you become afraid of being afraid, and when this happens, panic will often set in and then your old fears may become reactivated and seek to be expressed. Your fear may become so severe as to make you feel that you are living in a nightmare, an unreal world from which you can't escape. You feel disoriented and awash in your emotions. When you can't find an explanation for your fear, you may search desperately to pin your fears on something, even if you have to make that something up.

Facing our fears and trying to understand them is a lifelong task for each one of us. Fear can often be a message, not necessarily a weakness. But in the throes of fear you will seek peace; it is the most natural thing to do. And while it may seem strange, perhaps the best way to find the peace you seek is to try to face your fear and try to understand it.

It is at this point that self confidence will serve you well; a confidence that tells you it is okay to be afraid; confidence in your belief that you will survive being afraid. If you let fear run your life, it will lead you to expect disaster and your life may well become a morass of melancholic behavior: unwarrantable sadness, chronic exhaustion, lack of appetite, and other symptoms of depression.

Your fear may be a burden to you and it can also be a burden to those who love you. Thus both you and those who love you can become hostages to your fear. When your fears engulf you, you may lose your concern for other people. And if you do this you may eventually find that they will lose their concern for you.

When you have to deal with fear try to remember that your fear is mostly self-doubt you will build confidence in yourself only by acting bravely in the face of fear; you will destroy confidence by giving in to fear. Always be willing to admit and try to understand your self-doubts, make a plan to thwart them, and do the very thing you fear; expect to be afraid to do what you fear, but do it anyway. And keep going.