All of us can identify with feeling anxious at one point or another in our lives. Taking exams in school, professional interviews, reviews and evaluations, financial obligations, parental responsibilities, etc. typically evoke a normal, however varying in intensity, anxious response. Depending upon our abilities to cope effectively with these situations, anxiety may not defeat us; having negotiated these difficulties, we sometimes come through with an enhanced sense of self-esteem and competence.
In the last forty years, we have become increasingly aware of the connection between mental and emotional stressors and physical health. This “mind-body” connection is a crucial intersection in the prevention and treatment of many illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, strokes, and even cancer. The shadow side of our technologically advanced society, with its increased emphasis on efficiency and productivity, is that it often promotes a striving for success which is at odds with the aims of self-care: leisure time, recreation and exercise, meditation or other spiritual practices, family and relationships, healthy eating, etc. Today, many people feel nearly disabled by intense anxiety.
Although anxiety is a very common phenomenon, it is an often overused and misunderstood term. The causes and symptoms of anxiety vary; there are different types of anxiety which require specific interventions, and anxiety varies in its intensity and power to interfere with normal functioning. Causes of anxiety are often related to identified stressors or trauma, but may also include forgotten or “repressed” (and therefore unconscious) factors, including early family of origin conflicts. Symptoms of anxiety include physical discomfort, persistent worrying or obsessions, fear of social situations and other phobias, as well as panic attacks.
Depending upon the type of anxiety experienced, various effective anti-anxiety medications are available for treatment. One common class of “anxiolytic” drug is the benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Ativan, etc.). These are usually given in cases of extreme anxiety and panic attacks and are generally most effective in the short-term, but they do carry a high risk of dependency. This is why psychotherapy can be particularly helpful in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Medication alone rarely leads us to an understanding of what core issues may be at the root of our anxiety. In mild to moderate cases of anxiety, psychotherapy alone is often enough to treat unwanted symptoms.