Coping mechanism: Why's and how's of busting anxiety

  • Sanchita Sharma, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 20, 2014 19:28 IST

An overwhelming number of anxiety-inducing disasters and misadventures engulfed us this week; it's a miracle we coped. Topping my stressors were the Kashmir floods, ISIS' defiant in-camera beheading, news that world population will hit 11 billion by 2100, truant monsoons, and mysterious traffic snarls caused by "VIP-movement" in Delhi even when India's fearless prime minister has no security visible.

Much like the monsoon, though, my anxiety is transient and has no discernible impact on me and those around. I don't end up with muscle pain, headache, dizziness, tiredness or palpitation associated with generalised anxiety disorder, which gets seriously worrying if it persists for six months or more.

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Ceaseless worrying, however niggling and small, can wreck your mind. Anxiety can take serious forms that need clinical management. In extreme conditions, there are identified triggers, such as post traumatic stress disorder, where people get recurrent nightmares or flashbacks of a past trauma or injury (Kashmir floods are an obvious example).

In others, the trigger is often unexplained. Obsessive compulsive disorder, for example, prompts people to do things repetitively to push back anxious thoughts, much like Lady Macbeth; panic attacks overwhelm people with an unprovoked sense of doom; while phobias that make people irrationally terrified of specific things or situations.

But if you have constant worries running through your head and you feel there is nothing you can do to stop them, you're in equal trouble. A pervasive feeling of dread or intrusive apprehensions hurt you more insidiously. Though causes vary, the body's physical and emotional response to fear and anxiety is the same.

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Anxiety grips the amygdala, the area in the brain home to emotion and motivation, from where neurotransmitters carry the fear impulse to the sympathetic nervous system that controls the body's 'fight or flee' response to the perceived threat. Muscles tense up and the heart pumps faster, pushing up blood pressure, heartbeat and breathing to prepare the body to confront the imagined crisis.

When anxiety becomes constant, so does this physical stress, leading to aches, tiredness, hypertension (persistent high blood pressure), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or/and migraines. Persistent physical stress on the body is linked to almost every possible disease, from diabetes, heart attack and stroke to depression, anxiety and impotence.

People under chronic stress have twice the risk of heart disease and three times the risk of heart attack than others, with some experts listing anxiety and stress as a bigger risk factor for early death than smoking and obesity. Anxiety also aggravates somatoform disorders, where people develop pain, irritable bowel, nausea or weakness without a physical cause.

Nearly two in three of people with anxiety disorders are women, who have chronic distress that affect their functioning. Still, their troubles are often dismissed as "hormonal", with fewer women seeking treatment than men. In India, less than a third of the people getting treated for anxiety disorders are women.

Also read:Kids avoiding scary situations likelier to develop anxiety disorders

Most doctors miss the link between physical symptoms and emotional stress, more so when the anxiety is so chronic that even the stressed don't realise they have a problem. They end up getting treated for the symptoms, not the underlying anxiety, which does nothing to resolve the problem.

Then, there are side effects of the misdiagnosis. Using popular pills for sleep problems, derpession and anxiety raises chances of Alzheimer's disease by up to 51%, reported researchers in the British Medical Journal.

For the study, researchers in France and Canada compared the health data of 1,796 people over age 66 with Alzheimer's disease and who were on prescription benzodiazepines- including popular class of drugs such as alprazolam (Alprax, Alprocontin, Anzilum, Pacyl, Restyl, Tranax, Xycalm, Zolam) and diazepam (Anxol, Calmpose, Paxum, Placidox, Valium; Zepose) -with more than 7,000 healthy older adults.

They found the risk of Alzheimer's disease increased by 43-51% among those who used benzodiazepines for three to six months, with risk increasing with longer use.

The first tough step is to acknowledge you are stressed. Then comes the treatment, which includes medication and/or behaviour therapy. Applied Relaxation, for one, teaches people to relax their muscles in stressful situations, while Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helps them question their anxious thoughts and understand how their problems, thoughts and behaviour interact.

Anxiety is only as big as your inability to cope with it. And there's enough science out there to teach you how.

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