Mind Matters: Try these stress-fighting techniques

NAPLES NEWS: There are many measures that may alleviate or treat anxiety, a pervasive problem of society today. Prevention is the first step. Some individuals are more prone to anxiety than others. This is due in part to heredity, as well as personality type and effects of child rearing.

Individuals may have exposed in childhood to harsh disciplinary practices or abuse, which predispose some to a tendency toward anxiety. In a sense, they always feel ready, “for the other shoe to drop.” Some people seem to be born worriers. If you recognize that you may be prone to anxiety, preventive measures are helpful.

If you worry a lot, or experience anxiety or panic attacks, you may be able to completely prevent or at least partially control them. How? A cardinal rule is to avoid stimulants. Do not drink anything that contains caffeine. Eliminating caffeine may alone produce a dramatic reduction in anxiety levels. Stimulants increase norepinephrine, the chemical that makes us fight or flee when in danger. In fact, some types of anxiety are due to emotional or neurological false alarms that trigger large amounts of norepinephrine.

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Eat on a fixed schedule, each meal at the same time, every day. Limit concentrated carbohydrates to very special occasions. Too much sugar leads to hypoglycemia, a notorious culprit in anxiety attacks. Include generous quantities of vegetables and fruits to ensure sufficient vitamins and minerals. Vitamin supplements alone do not replace nutrients missing in an inadequate diet. The B vitamins help maintain a healthy nervous system; deficiencies can result in depression and anxiety.

Be sure to get enough sleep. Fatigue makes us more vulnerable to any form of stress. If insomnia is a problem, see a physician, but remember that sleeping pills are usually addictive and may also lead to rebound anxiety when their effects have worn off.

Stress is part of life, but can wreak havoc in one prone to anxiety. Learn to manage symptoms of stress through regular exercise, yoga, meditation or music. Writing about anxious feelings is sometimes helpful, as is finding a trusted confidante.

If your anxiety primarily manifests in excessive worrying, you will need to learn techniques that stop the habit of “awfulizing.” This term was coined many years ago by a prominent psychologist to describe what happens when one consistently imagines the most horrific possibilities for themselves and/or others.

It is possible to tame a wild mind. One way is to realize that almost everything we worry about does not happen. Another is to simply focus on an activity or hobby that is relaxing and pleasurable, perhaps to dig in to accomplish a postponed task that has been haunting you. Allow yourself one block of time each day, no more than 30 minutes, during which you give yourself permission to totally indulge in worrying. At no other time are you allowed to worry.

At this time, you might make a list of your worries to read in the next worry session. This helps to clarify how fruitless some of our concerns are.

Techniques that focus on physical relaxation are very effective, by virtue of the fact that they help to get a worrier out of his or her head. When the body is relaxed, so is the mind. Progressive relaxation CDs are widely available to guide this process.

One simple breathing exercise, practiced three times a day for one minute, will go a long way toward controlling the physical manifestations of anxiety. Breathe in to the count of four, hold the breath to the count of four, and then exhale to the count of eight. Practicing this exercise will help prevent anticipatory anxiety, as well as calm symptoms that are occurring.

If anxiety fails to improve with self-help measures, professional help is advised. Most forms of anxiety can be eased with counseling, sometimes with little or no medication. It is a treatable affliction that no one need live with.

Elinor Stanton is a psychiatric nurse practitioner on Marco Island, with 33 years experience as a therapist, both in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. She graduated from Boston College and the University of Rochester, and is certified as a clinical specialist by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Stanton also is certified in Imago Relationship Therapy and trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Comments and questions may be submitted to etseven@aol.com or 394-2861.

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