Anxiety: Not Always a Bad Thing

anxious woman holding her head in a her arms

People who suffer from anxiety sometimes feel as if they are cats in a room full of rocking chairs. We worry about our jobs, our appearance, weight, families and social lives. We want to be as happy and comfortable as our grandparents, yet our grandparents did not face the type and scope of worries that we have today. The dollar our grandparents had went further than the dollar in our pockets, and material things mattered much less than they do now.

We’re trying to keep up with the Joneses in a time when our salaries are declining and the media is showing us how good other people look … when airbrushed.

Listen to Your Anxiety

When faced with an acute and immediate threat, like having a gun held to your head, the human body enters “fight-or-flight” mode and produces adrenaline and cortisol to give us the chance to flee or stand our ground. The stress of the situation is both mental and physical. Not only are we scared, but the heart is racing and we become jumpy. It’s a natural phenomenon that can and does save lives.

The oppressive anxiety facing us today is also telling us something, but unlike the relatively brief fight-or-flight scenario, it is triggered in response to an outside stressor that we cannot control with the defense mechanisms available to us. We can fight off an attacker in a dark alley, but we cannot similarly fight off a boss who is asking us to work more hours. We become scared of losing our jobs, feel guilty about neglecting our families and internalize both emotions. We are constantly on edge, unable to sleep and irritable. When our body exhibits this type of anxiety, it is prompting us to resolve the situation before long-term damage, such as heart disease or cancer, occurs.

Many times there isn’t an easy answer. We could quit the job, but maybe it’s the only job available. We could ask our boss for time off, but maybe there is someone else willing to work the long hours. If we take another job that pays less, we can’t afford the nice school our kids have come to expect or the nice car our spouse likes to drive. Instead, we are forced to find an alternative solution, and, for many people, that alternative has become pharmaceuticals. We reduce our anxiety and improve our sleep through medication.

Coincidentally, America’s increase in anxiety has been met with an increase in the availability of prescription drugs designed to control it. Before Xanax and Valium, anxiety and stress were often handled with a vacation and/or exercise, sometimes a beer to “unwind.” Now, the anxiety can be so bad that these tried and true stress-busters no longer offer the relief we need to get enough sleep in order to keep our jobs so that we can pay our bills.

We, as a nation, are increasingly turning to prescription drugs to take the place of healthier options. What’s more, gone are the days when psychotropic drugs like anti-anxiety medications and sleeping pills were usually prescribed by a psychiatrist. Many internists and primary care physicians feel as comfortable prescribing these drugs as they do prescribing penicillin for a strep throat, regardless of the fact that their last exposure to psychiatric medicine may have been during their second year in medical school.

Drugs can help control the symptoms in the short term, but only those who fully embrace what their bodies are telling them will end the long-term stress response and, as a result, long-term physical and mental damage of a high-anxiety lifestyle.

Job too stressful? Maybe it’s time to reconsider your career goals. Can’t make ends meet? Consider credit counseling or making a new budget, or maybe moving to a more affordable place. The truth is, if your anxiety is telling you something about your lifestyle that you can change, change it. The saying “you only live once” may be trite, but it is still true. If your anxiety is caused by living beyond your means, a pharmaceutical solution is not the best solution.

Anxiety is the body’s way of telling us that the way we are currently living our lives cannot be sustained. We really should start listening.

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