Dealing With Anxiety
We are living through terrible times. Those of us old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis are experiencing the same dread we did in 1962, but instead of a few days of frightening news, it is going on for years and worsening. We have lost the solid ground we once stood on, not knowing who to believe and surrounded by lies. There are plenty of genuine reasons to be fearful.
I have anxiety. It’s mild, and I have learned ways to minimize and even to briefly eliminate it. I startle easily; I have had periods when the anxiety was so intense that it was painful from one second to the next. I have even had a few panic attacks, during which the fear is suicidally intense.
If you are reading this you are probably not idly curious. You have probably experienced a level of anxiety that compels you to seek relief, from palliation to medical intervention, maybe even hospitalization.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have a cure. But I can help.
The biochemical foundations of anxiety are outside the scope of this article but anyone with a modest understanding of neurology already knows that neurotransmitters play an important part. Not that this knowledge does a thing to stop the feeling but sometimes there is genuine relief in knowing that “it’s just chemistry, nothing is actually wrong.”
Anxious Thoughts: Chicken and Egg
Anxiety can come out of nowhere. You’re feeling fine, and suddenly it hits. You can always come up with things to worry about and these can come so quickly that one cannot be certain which came first.
Worrisome thoughts, whether well-founded or not, can lead straight to the fear/flight reaction. This is not instantaneous and if you can stop those thoughts you can sometimes evade the slower biochemical reaction; once that has begun it takes time to stop. I call this “the intercept” and I use it a lot, for anxiety and anger management and many other patterns I am trying to break.
If you have a self-destructive job, if you are in an abusive relationship, if you have to drive in rush-hour traffic .. the list is endless. Reducing stress can be difficult but we all have choices; I am a software engineer and the one time I managed a team had me agonizing over fairness (I should have fired them all) so I stopped doing it. When Microsoft made me do pair programming, I quit my job.
At the time of this writing, we are in the COVID-19 pandemic and many months into staying at home as much as we can, social distancing, and masking. Some of us were already homebodies with hobbies and only mildly affected. But others who have never been alone longer than a few hours are profoundly distressed. Being alone with their own thoughts is like being in Hell.
Overwhelmed by the Undone
You have a growing list of things to do, and you don’t know where to start. Work to finish, errands to run, chores to do, animals to feed .. you enter a kind of paralysis and procrastinate with television or Facebook, and the list gets longer. The guilt inhibits you even further. The animals are hungry. And the anxiety mounts.
Many drugs people take to get high can cause anxiety, short or long term. Probably the worst is cocaine, which can induce long-term anxiety problems in people who have never before had anything like it, even with infrequent use. Crack cocaine in particular can bring on paranoia on the level of psychosis, called “tweaking,” with users compulsively peering out the window and obsessing over very unlikely calamities. Stay the hell away from this stuff!
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of the two active ingredients in marijuana, can bring on anxiety and even paranoia, and this tends to worsen over time. Newer strains of marijuana are particularly high in THC. The other active ingredient, cannabidiol (CBD), seems to have the opposite effect, inducing a sleepy, calming mood, and it is actually used to treat anxiety.
Coffee is the holy bean, I can’t wake up without it. But while it clears your head it’s easy to drink too much and that makes you edgy and, yes, anxious. I used to drink coffee from a pot like above all day and wondered was I was so irritable and jumpy. Drink it in moderation.
Endless Worrisome News
Most of us are fatigued by the last four years. This section needs no elaboration, we are all living it. We are approaching a quarter million dead from the pandemic but even before it began prescriptions for depression and anxiety were breaking records.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
More than three million Americans are afflicted with GAD. They are almost continually anxious, worrying about disaster, their families and jobs, or not even ”about” anything. Treatment is usually behavioral therapy. I need not detail this here; plenty of information is available online.
These are just a few sources of anxiety. There are many others but the out-of-nowhere case is likely the worst, as it takes so much away from the experience of being alive. Feeling frightened all the time is terrible.
A panic attack is an unforgettable experience, an intensity of fear and desperation that you may not be able to endure. I have had perhaps a half-dozen; they come on with no apparent reason or cause and last ten to twenty minutes. They can be so intense that people will suicide to escape them. Should you have one seek medical help immediately. A panic attack is to anxiety what a third-degree burn is to a mild sunburn.
Thanks for reading this far. In this section, I present some ways of preventing and reducing anxiety. Most of these are from personal experience and study and not everyone will achieve the same benefits.
Caveat: I am not a doctor. Do not start (or stop) taking any medication because of what you read here. Any medications should be accompanied by professional and licensed physician care. I am only reporting my own experiences and reactions to any psychotropic medications can vary broadly between different people. Take this paragraph seriously.
Most medications for anxiety or depression have prolonged periods of adaptation, usually with increasing doses, and initial reactions can be quite unpleasant. Sudden cessation of some of them can lead to extremely severe reactions.
All the pharmaceutical medications mentioned here are sold under a variety of names.
Antidepressants have traditionally been prescribed for anxiety as well as for depression. I have taken three different ones and, truth be told, I would rather be anxious or depressed than take any of them again. I have only had episodic issues with depression but it is nothing to be sanguine about; depression is a devastating and widespread condition.
- Effexor forbade me from exercising, which did me more psychological harm then the drug gave me benefit, and I felt dizzy and sick the entire time I was taking it. I had a rare side-effect that left me too weak to stand for three days and threw it away.
- Tricyclics such as desipramine were much the same; exercise forbidden, feeling terrible most of the time. I took this for a few months and hated it.
- Serotonin-specific Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and Zoloft are easier to get used to than the first two but while exercise was not forbidden, I was too easily able to talk myself out of it and didn’t work out for fifteen months. This was the only time in my life I have been fat. In pictures of myself from that time I looked glazed and vacant. I finally got sick of being out of shape, stopped taking it, went on a diet that was one of my life’s greatest achievements and lost 110 pounds in nine months and got my muscles back. Starting afresh.
I don’t like antidepressants, but depression was not my issue nor is it the topic of this article. They are however often prescribed for anxiety.
Busiprone (also called Buspar) takes several weeks to adapt to, with unpleasant dizziness coming on within an hour of each dosage. This is the first medication listed here that is specifically for anxiety and not for depression. It is fairly effective and cessation is not dangerous. I didn’t need it anymore and stopped, with no issues.
Benzodiazepines such as Valium, Clonazepam, Lorazepam are widely prescribed for anxiety. These are the easiest to start using and they can feel relaxed and pleasant; many times I have vowed to only take them occasionally for sleep problems and every single time I ended up taking them daily. But these medications can be savagely addicting. This is a physical dependency and withdrawal can be immobilizing, even fatal. Many of them are “street drugs” but, again, they should only be used under medical supervision.
I was taking Clonazepam daily and in 2008 I skipped my 10 PM dose because some codeine-enhanced cold medication (I was in Vietnam) made me sleepy by itself. The next afternoon I came out of a nap depressed, and the feeling rapidly intensified so that shortly I was literally too depressed to take another step.
An electrical sort of tingling in my fingers clued me to what was happening, I got back to my hotel and chewed one down and felt fine in ten minutes. A quick web search confirmed that I was addicted. Tapering was supposed to take four months; I did it in three weeks because I regarded being an addict as an intolerable condition.
I have been exercising since late 1972. I work out with weights and am at the gym 4–6 times every week. I have not found anything better for dealing with anxiety than exercise. Being in good shape makes everything in life go better; that so many people stop getting any exercise after high school is a tragedy.
You don’t have to be a weightlifter; even walking is beneficial but in my experience, it is the maintenance of muscle tone that does the most good. Feeling anxious? Hit the gym. You will feel better and just having the regularity of the routine (more on this below) will help.
One exercise is stunningly good for anxiety:
This is called Incline Dumbbell Flies and it is done exactly as pictured, starting in this position and raising the dumbbells to the vertical with straightened arms. I have no explanation for why this one does so very much good but I can be wired with anxiety, do a single set of these, and in moments the anxiety is greatly reduced if not completely gone. Others have reported the same thing. This may be the most useful bit of information in this article.
I can exercise the exact same pectoral muscles using a machine (which is a lot safer, since I do the above exercise with 38 kg, ~85 lbs, on each arm) and the benefit is nowhere near as great. On the machines, I can use significantly more weight but it’s just not as good.
Anxious? Get to the gym.
Routines and Regularity
This is an instance of “do as I say, not as I do.” If you keep different hours every day, go to sleep and awaken at different times, for example, you will experience more anxiety. Have your meals at about the same time, maintain regular hours, be boring. As much as you can try to live life on a weekly schedule. I don’t have to go into detail on the benefits of good sleep.
Keeping a schedule won’t turn you into some sort of robot. Play an instrument? Reserve one hour a day to practice. Spend time with your friends, family, pets. People feel better leading stable and predictable lives.
Don’t let your job coerce you into putting in inhuman hours to meet unrealistic deadlines. If you work for Microsoft or some other man-killer company, get another job. I had three nervous breakdowns in two years working on Vista.
This seems obvious, doesn’t it? But if you suffer from anxiety it becomes much more important.
Find ways to reduce stress. You may be working from home already, as I have been since 2010, and if you are working in an office with overbearing kiss-up/kick-down managers try to find another position in the company or another company. Do everything you can to avoid driving in rush-hour traffic, it’s nerve-wracking.
Spend less time with toxic people.
Don’t listen to twitchy music; try not to watch network television at all, the cuts between scenes are too fast and will keep you agitated.
Those are just a few ideas, but when you have something in your life that stresses you, try to change it.
Living with anxiety is acutely painful, even worse than depression. Every moment can be a struggle. I have offered some ideas here, they are not the only ones but these are what have worked, or not worked, for me.
If you suffer from this know that you are not alone. If you don’t have medical coverage, and right now many don’t, try the nonmedical ideas, exercise being the most likely to yield results.
Best of luck.
Can Tho, Vietnam