Anxiety is real — learn what it is and how to cope

[5 MIN READ]  

In this article: 

  • Sean Collins, host of the Hear Me Now podcast, talks with several Providence providers about anxiety and how to treat it. 

  • While everyone has anxiety on some level, it can become a problem when the “fight or flight” instinct starts interfering with your daily life. 

  • One way to treat anxiety is to breathe from your belly. This type of breathing requires concentration, so it can distract you from whatever is causing your anxiety. 

If you sometimes (or often) find yourself so anxious that you have a difficult time accomplishing your daily tasks, you’re not alone — anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 19.1% of adults ages 18 and older. 

Sean Collins, host of the Hear Me Now podcast, recently spoke with two Providence mental health providers and two young adults about what it’s like to live with anxiety, and what steps we can take to care for ourselves, family members or other loved ones. 

What is anxiety? 

While occasional anxiety is normal, anxiety disorders are more severe in nature and usually involve a persistent feeling of anxiety or dread, which can interfere with everyday life and social situations. 

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) highlights several types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and various phobia-related disorders. 

Everyone experiences anxiety on some level, according to Maureen Nash, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist and the medical director of Providence ElderPlace in Portland, Oregon. “You can’t really survive childhood without some anxiety,” she said. “It is, at least theoretically, what prevents us from doing catastrophically negative things like walking off a cliff or hugging the stove when it’s red hot.” 

Anxiety becomes a problem, however, when that “fight or flight” instinct goes awry. In extreme cases it can turn into a panic attack, when out of the blue your heart starts racing, you have shortness of breath and experience chest discomfort or even heart palpitations. A panic attack typically reaches a crescendo within two to four minutes, and it starts to fade at about 15 minutes. 

“Some people have anxiety attacks that aren’t quite as severe as panic attacks, but they recur,” said Dr. Nash. “And the most disabling part of it all is when people start avoiding things because they’re afraid of what will happen.” 

Anxiety in young people 

Researchers have noted a high prevalence of adolescents and teenagers with symptoms of anxiety — as many as 40% of females and 36% of males, said Robin Henderson, Psy.D., chief executive for behavioral health for Providence in Oregon. “When we see numbers that high,” she said, “it’s got to be the combination of what we're seeing out of the pandemic, in social media and in the political environment, such as climate change, politics and racism. It’s a very stimulating world, and we don’t spend a lot of time giving people coping mechanisms for that.” 

Dr. Henderson is the chief clinical officer for Work2BeWell, a Providence mental health and wellness program focused on providing mental health services, including resources and education, for teens, parents and educators. 

Dominic Brown, a college student in southern California who has been involved with Work2BeWell, said that many people don’t realize just how debilitating anxiety is. “It can affect people’s social lives,” he said. “It affects their physical body. It can stand in the way of goals and future employment.” 

While a strong support system can be important for a person who struggles with anxiety, it can also be a double-edged sword, Dr. Henderson said. “The safety of that interpersonal relationship can also be the source of stress when it goes wrong. And so, with that protective factor comes an equal opportunity for vulnerability that can create anxiety.” 

Managing your anxiety 

Psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy) and medication such as antidepressants are the most common methods for treating or managing anxiety disorders, according to the NIMH. 

Stress-management techniques are also a great way to help reduce the effects of anxiety, limit the disruptions in your everyday life and help improve your mental well-being.  

Billie Henderson, a college student in Oregon who has also been involved with Work2BeWell, offered some of her go-to “weapons” against anxiety: 

  1. Find something to focus on that will distract you from your anxiety. 
  2. Write poetry or journal about your anxiety. 
  3. Breathe from your belly. “What calms you down is that you’re just focusing your brain on the breathing,” Henderson said. “Most of the time when we're breathing, our chest moves up and down. With belly breathing, you want to focus on moving your stomach and breathing in with your stomach. So, if you focus on that, it can distract you from what’s causing the anxiety.” 

If you love someone who suffers from anxiety, it’s important to validate their feelings. “Say to them, ‘I see how much you’re suffering, and there is help,’” said Dr. Nash. “‘I’m willing to walk along with you through this journey of your distress.’” 

Contributing Caregivers

Maureen Nash, M.D., is a geriatric psychiatrist and the medical director of Providence ElderPlace in Portland, Oregon. 

Robin Henderson, Psy.D., is the chief executive for behavioral health for Providence in Oregon and the chief clinical officer for Providence’s mental health and wellness program, Work2BeWell

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Related resources 

Providence expands behavioral health program for children 

FAQs about mental health 

Addressing mental health disparities 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions. 

About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Providence Mental Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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