Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be all right.”—Bob Marley, “Three Little Birds” If only it were that easy, Bob Marley.
If you’re a card-carrying member of the “worry” club—as I am, though to a lesser extent than I once was—you’ve heard it a million times: We need to stop worrying or we’re going to develop an ulcer. We need to stop worrying because it doesn’t do us any good. We need to stop worrying because we’re making ourselves crazy. We need to stop worrying because we’re making others crazy.
Fair enough. Worrying is counterproductive— a great big energy, time and health suck. And, as we’ve heard it said, most of the things we worry about don’t happen anyway. But this kind of logic does nothing to cure the constant fretting experienced by those with generalized anxiety disorder, aka the “worry disease.” According to National Institute of Mental Health statistics, some 6.8 million American adults are afflicted with the disorder. The biggest sufferers? Women by a long shot, with a 2-to-1 margin over men.
The fact that we need to stop worrying is no surprise. But how? A buddy of mine used to joke that a “mini-lobotomy” might do the trick—a comment that would incite gales of laughter. If only, I would say. If only.
The good news is there are plenty of things that can help, and it doesn’t always involve pharmaceuticals. Here are eight strategies offered by three local experts.
1 PUT YOUR WORRIES IN A (MENTAL) BASKET. Putting your worries into two separate baskets (metaphorically speaking) is “often a good place to start,” says Richard Maddock, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at UC Davis. It goes something like this: In one basket, you deposit problems that need your attention. Example: You’re short on cash, and your mortgage payment is due. Basket #2 is for stashing things that are causing concern, but are not real (not yet, anyway)—for example, worrying what your life might be like if your spouse precedes you in death. By focusing on solving the problems in Basket #1, anxiety can be reduced. “Sometimes the people who tend to worry excessively don’t have a good approach to real-world problems, so the worry becomes an alternative to problem-solving,” explains Maddock.
2 CONSIDER YOUR LOCUS OF CONTROL. “What’s in your control and what is out of your control? It’s an important question to ask,” says Jozeffa Greer, a local licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice. Example: If your cat is lost, you have no control over where he is. But you can take positive action that may lead to his recovery, such as hanging fliers and placing ads. The mere act of taking action can help to curb anxiety.
3 EXERCISE. Exercise is one of the best things you can do to lift your mood and reduce anxiety, says Maddock. “Exercise helps people shut off worries and changes the circuitry in your brain in a way that allows you to regulate these thought processes,” he says. One recent University of Georgia study found that patients who regularly exercised reported a 20 percent reduction in anxiety symptoms as compared to nonexercisers.
4 ADOPT AN ANTI-ANXIETY DIET. The title of local food-mood expert Trudy Scott’s book pretty much says it all. Called The Anti-Anxiety Food Solution: How the Foods You Eat Can Help You Calm Your Anxious Mind, Improve Your Mood & End Cravings, Scott’s 2011 book addresses the ways food affects us mentally, physically and emotionally, and offers tips on nutritional changes that can help to alleviate anxiety. “The two big ones are (amino acids) GABA for stress and calming, and tryptophan for anxiety, worry and depression,” says Scott, a certified nutritionist. A gluten-free diet, zinc, vitamin B6 and evening primrose oil also are helpful for most worries, she adds. A few things you might want to ramp up on: grass-fed red meat, sardines, salmon and anything else with high levels of omega 3; sauerkraut (it contains probiotics, which have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression); and coconut milk. “Coconut milk is a good fat, so it’s good for irritability and anxiety as it keeps the blood sugar stable and the mood stable,” says Scott. And don’t forget the pumpkin seeds. “They’re loaded with zinc and tryptophan, which helps with anxiety and depression,” she says. “It’s one of my favorite snacks.” But make sure you’re eating high-quality, organic foods, says Scott, and remember that food is not the only factor. “With my clients, I look at lifestyle factors, environmental factors, heredity— all those things.”
5 PRACTICE MINDFULNESS. If you think about it, we tend to worry about the future instead of focusing on what’s happening now, notes Greer. If a family member is seriously ill, for example, your real worry is for the future—i.e., the grieving you may have to do if your loved one should die. To counteract those scary “what if?” feelings, she suggests, it’s important to bring our attention to the present—something commonly known as mindfulness. “A lot of what we do is mindless,” says Greer. Conversely, mindfulness is about paying attention and staying in the moment. UCD’s Maddock also sees great value in practicing mindfulness. “Taking time to sit quietly each day and pay attention to what’s happening in your body and mind can help you to be more objective about the content of your worry,” he says. “It allows you to see some of the thoughts that are ‘just noise’—wacky things, things that don’t have any merit, that don’t need to be taken seriously.”
6 TUNE IN TO THE FIVE SENSES. Focusing on each of your five senses is a good way to be mindful and stay in the present, suggests Greer. Some tips: Treat yourself to daily aromatherapy by keeping a little bottle of your favorite fragrance— mint, lavender, orange blossom—on your desk. Every once in a while, take a little whiff. “It brings you to this place of ‘Oh!’” says Greer. Listen to music, or get a CD with nature sounds, such as ocean waves crashing—whatever grabs your attention and keeps you focused. Look, really look, at the things around you. “We look at things all the time, but we don’t see them,” says Greer. During our interview, she had me stop and look at my cat, who was sleeping next to me. “Look at everything about him—the color of his fur, the subtleties, the length of his whiskers, the way he breathes,” she instructed. “Touch his soft fur and engage your tactile sense.” I noticed I was calmed by the process.
7 CONNECT WITH OTHERS. The mere act of talking with others can help to reduce anxiety, says Greer. “It’s the first line of defense,” she says. “If somebody’s available to listen, it will help you to feel you’re not so alone.” A mounting body of research shows a link between social support and anxiety reduction. Just this year, a study published in the medical journal Cancer Nursing showed that among 187 women who had been diagnosed with a gynecological cancer, high social support was associated not only with increased quality of life but with reduced anxiety and depression rates.
8 COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL THERAPY. Probably the treatment of choice, according to Maddock, cognitive behavioral therapy eschews the “let’s explore your childhood” brand of traditional psychotherapy and instead takes a present- tense, pragmatic approach. One of the keys to CBT, he says, is that it helps to identify and change the distorted thinking patterns that are common in patients with anxiety. “In CBT, you develop the habit of being objective about the contents of your own mind,” says Maddock. “You realize that not everything that arises in your thinking is valid.” But it’s a lot of work, he says. “CBT is like a part-time job. You really have to put the work in.”
9 IF ALL ELSE FAILS, MEDICATION. For those who have tried other measures and found no relief, medication may be the best bet. “The literature shows that psychotherapy is the best treatment, because you can develop skills you can keep the rest of your life,” says Maddock. But for some, he says, medication is the only thing that works. One that Maddock singles out as particularly effective in the treatment of generalized anxiety is buspirone, a non-benzodiazepine that’s thought to work by stimulating specific serotonin receptors on nerves. n