By Dr. Mercola
According to recent research,1 anxiety (characterized by constant and overwhelming worry and fear) is becoming increasingly prevalent in the US, now eclipsing all forms of cancer by 800 percent.
Nearly 13 million adults have struggled with anxiety in the past year, the study found; including 4.3 million people who were employed full time, and 5.9 million who were unemployed.
In all, nearly six percent of adults over the age of 18 report having anxiety. Fortunately, there are many treatment options available, and some of the most effective treatments are also among the safest and least expensive, and don’t involve drugs.
In light of the rising numbers of people struggling with anxiety, employers are urged to be sensitive to employees with anxiety, and are advised that simple accommodations can make a big difference.
A booklet and other resources to help employers create mental health-friendly workplaces are available in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Resource Center.2 As reported by the Huffington Post:3
"‘People with mental health disorders, including anxiety, can make outstanding employees,’ [SAMHSA press officer Tamara] Ward said.
‘Accommodations are generally inexpensive and easy to implement and can include practices such as flexible work schedules, tele-commuting and private work spaces.’"
Anxiety on the Rise Among Students Too
The situation is equally grim among college students, where anxiety has surpassed depression as the most commonly diagnosed mental health problem.4
According to research by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State, more than 50 percent of students visiting campus clinics report having anxiety. A national survey showed that over the course of the past year, one in six college students has been diagnosed with or been treated for anxiety.
According to the New York Times:5
“The causes range widely, experts say, from mounting academic pressure at earlier ages to overprotective parents to compulsive engagement with social media.
Anxiety has always played a role in the developmental drama of a student’s life, but now more students experience anxiety so intense and overwhelming that they are seeking professional counseling.”
According to Dr. Dan Jones, director of counseling and psychological services at Appalachian State University:
“A lot are coming to school who don’t have the resilience of previous generations. They can’t tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. A primary symptom is worrying, and they don’t have the ability to soothe themselves.”
As a result, college counseling centers are filled to capacity, with many having a waiting list of a month or more. To address the situation, many colleges are resorting to more novel and high-tech solutions.
University of Central Florida (UCF), for example, is testing a new online app6 called Tao Connect for treating anxiety. It includes a seven-module cognitive behavioral program, and allows the student to conduct videoconferences with a therapist.
The program, developed with support from the National Science Foundation, claims it can offer “effective treatment with one-third the counselor time and half the overall cost of traditional face-to-face individual treatment.”
Uncertainty Fuels Anxiety
With life being so inherently uncertain, it’s no surprise so many worry. Constantly. Some just seem to manage uncertainty better.
Taking a more lighthearted approach can help, as demonstrated by cartoonist Gemma Correll, a “self-proclaimed World Champion Overthinker” whose book, A Worrier’s Guide to Life, makes light ofserious mental health issues and everyday angst in equal measure.7
As noted in The Atlantic,8 it is the uncertainties in life that fuel chronic worry and anxiety, and the part of the solution is to develop your ability to face the unknown with equanimity:
“As a rule, humans prefer certainty to uncertainty. Studies have shown that people would rather definitely get an electric shock now than maybe be shocked later, and show greater nervous-system activation when waiting for an unpredictable shock (or other unpleasant stimulus) than an expected one.
Where people differ is in the degree to which uncertainty bothers them. This is what the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale (IUS) measures. Developed in 1994 by a team of researchers in Quebec, the scale assesses how much people desire and seek out predictability, and how they react in ambiguous situations.”
Higher levels of “intolerance of uncertainty” (IU) are predictive of an increased risk of anxiety disorders, and to a lesser degree eating disorders and depression. Higher IU has also been shown to be linked to higher levels of worry and indecisiveness.
Uncertainty, it appears, is a necessary ingredient for anxiety of any kind to manifest, whether acutely or chronically. According to Dan Grupe,9 a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds:
“...[T]here aren’t any clear-cut points between subclinical and diagnosed anxiety. It’s a continuous spectrum where uncertainty plays an increasing role, increasing the suckiness of unpredictability.”
Michel Dugas, a professor of psychology and co-creator of the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale (IUS) agrees, and suggests looking at higher IU as a form of “psychological allergy” to uncertainty:
“People with generalize anxiety disorder (GAD) are on the extreme end of worry, but that worry is not different from your worry or my worry. There’s just a lot more of it.
If you’re allergic to nuts, and you have a piece of birthday cake that has a drop of almonds in it, you have a violent physical reaction to it. A small amount of a substance that’s not harmful to most people provokes a violent reaction in you. It’s like a psychological allergy.”
Three Survival Strategies of the Anxiety Prone
Research10 published in 2013 attempts to explain the neurobiology of this “psychological allergy” to uncertainty. A number of different brain processes are likely involved, including emotional regulation, along with threat and safety detection. When uncertainty arises, your brain looks for environmental clues that it, through experience, associates with threat or safety. When you’re in an ambiguous situation where your brain cannot detect any clear safety or threat cues, it decides that everything is a threat.
Needless to say, this can have a significant impact on your health as anxiety evokes the same "fight or flight or freeze" response as stress, meaning it triggers a flood of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol that help you respond in an emergency.
“Threat and safety detection has been linked to the amygdala, and emotion regulation seems to be the domain of the prefrontal cortex,” The Atlantic notes, adding “Grupe also thinks the insula could play a role in processing information about the body and its environment to help create internal, subjective feelings.” Once the level of uncertainty rises and becomes unbearable, the anxiety-prone person will typically respond in one of two ways: approach, or avoidance. People in avoidance mode usually want others to tell them what to do, no matter how inappropriate that might be. There is a third option though.
As explained in the featured article:
“If an aversion to uncertainty starts to negatively affect someone’s life...it can help to actively practice a third strategy: just living with it. Dugas and his colleagues have developed a type of cognitive behavioral therapy based on this concept that has proved to be very effective for patients with GAD. Some people are more prone to the approach strategy, some to avoidance, some are a bit of both in different situations...
For a businesswoman who can’t stop checking the stock market, Dugas says he might have her start checking just once a day, then every other day, and so on. For parents who worry over the uncertainty of their kids’ grades, he’d have them slowly back off double-checking homework. ‘The goal is always the same,’ Dugas says. ‘To get them to experience uncertainty and learn ‘this isn’t fun, but I can tolerate this.’’”
Energy Psychology Can Also Help Ease Anxiety
While you can’t eliminate anxiety from your life entirely, energy psychology tools such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), demonstrated in the video above, can help you address anxiety and panic attacks by correcting the bioelectrical short-circuiting that can happen when anxiety becomes chronic.11 It’s normal to feel anxiety with a stressful event, such as before public speaking or in anticipation of a job interview, but normally anxiety will fade once the event passes. If you experience anxiety for long enough, your brain may become “wired” for it, such that any potentially undesirable situation sounds a biological alarm. Chronic anxiety might cause you to constantly look out for potential threats when none exist.
EFT is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture for more than 5,000 years to treat physical and emotional ailments, but without the invasiveness of needles. You can think of EFT as a tool for “reprogramming” your circuitry, and it works on both realand imagined stressors. Recent research has shown that EFT significantly increases positive emotions, such as hope and enjoyment, and decreases negative emotional states, including anxiety. Following a 2012 review in the American Psychological Association’s journal Review of General Psychology, EFT is moving closer to meeting the criteria for an “evidence-based treatment.”
EFT is particularly powerful for treating stress and anxiety because it specifically targets your amygdala and hippocampus, which are the parts of your brain that help you decide whether or not something is a threat.12,13 EFT has also been shown to lower cortisol levels.14 While you can easily learn the basics of EFT on your own, if you have a serious anxiety disorder, I highly recommend that you consult a qualified EFT practitioner,15 as it typically takes years of training to develop the skill to tap on and relieve deep-seated, significant issues. That said, the more you tap, the more skilled you’ll become. EFT is a great tool to teach to your children to help them diffuse their everyday stresses, thus preventing them from festering or evolving into chronic anxiety.
The Benefits of Meditation
Meditation is another option that can help you combat anxiety in the long-term. One style of meditation is mindfulness—a directed-attention, waking state practice in which you keep bringing your attention back to the now. It’s a practice of single-tasking, originally developed for monks, who remain focused on the present moment in all activities. Besides improving your focus and boosting your mental cognition, mindfulness training helps relieve feelings of stress and anxiety.
If you think about it, nothing is uncertain in the NOW. You know exactly where you are and what you’re doing right this very moment, so by focusing on your direct experience in the present, uncertainty-driven anxiety can be reduced. With practice, you’ll likely lower your “intolerance of uncertainty” score.
It’s now becoming more well-known that meditation actually changes your brain.16 The increased calm and quiet you feel is not an imaginary effect. Neuroscientist Sara Lazar has used brain scans to look at the meditating brain, which shows that long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions. They also have more gray matter in the frontal cortex, an area associated with memory and executive decision making.
After just eight weeks, people who took part in a mindfulness meditation study, meditating 40 minutes per day, were able to shrink their amygdala—the part of your brain that governs your fight or flight response, and plays a significant role in anxiety, fear, and general stress. A smaller amygdala correlates to reduced stress and anxiety.