Calming fears, easing anxiety

Health: There are effective ways to lessen the unease, worry and doubt that many Americans are feeling in this new age of terrorist threat.

November 04, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

After witnessing the horror of Sept. 11, Kathy Pinney of Ruxton knew she needed to take steps to keep herself calm.

So since that day, she has attended yoga class three times a week, stretching and flexing her way to inner peace. What had been a casual interest has now become a devotion.

"I don't know where I'd be without it," says Pinney, 48, who grew up in the Bronx and remembers watching the World Trade Center being built when she was a child. "This has kept me focused and centered and real. If I didn't have it, I'd have to find something."

For many Americans, dealing with feelings of uneasiness and apprehension in the face of terrorism and the anthrax scare has been a challenge.

Even for people who have no specific fear -- who aren't necessarily scared to open an envelope or board a plane -- there is a general sense of worry and doubt, a kind of lingering malaise. For many the world seems a little less safe, the future less certain, and no longer do we have a feeling of control over our lives.

"A lot of those feelings are normal and appropriate," says Mary Guardino, director and founder of Freedom from Fear, a Staten Island, N.Y.-based nonprofit support group. "We probably should be hyper-vigilant right now."

But at some point, Guardino and other mental health professionals add, those feelings of generalized anxiety can become overwhelming. When they rise to a point where anxiety interferes with your life -- persistent sleepless nights, depression, feelings of agitation, excessive worry, or an inability to focus on work assignments, for example -- then it probably needs to be addressed.

"When does it become bad? When it disrupts your daily activity," says R. Reid Wilson, a North Carolina psychologist and author who specializes in anxiety disorders.

Finding relief from these feelings is not necessarily easy, particularly for people who are not accustomed to them. Sales of anti-anxiety drugs have reportedly increased nearly 30 percent since Sept. 11.

But short of asking your family doctor for a pill, therapists say, there are a number of steps people can take to address their feelings right now, and they don't necessarily require a trip to the pharmacy or even a doctor's office.

First, remind yourself that feeling anxious now is perfectly normal, the experts say. People react to stress differently, and just because some seem to have put the events of Sept. 11 behind them doesn't mean you should have, too.

"There are many different responses to trauma," says Harold Steinitz, a psychologist and co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute in Towson. "For some people, coping means talking about it a lot, and for others, they need to process things more slowly."

Other steps people can take to reduce anxiety:

* Think about it. Mental health professionals call this cognitive therapy, but for the rest of us it's called getting real. Consider the relatively small risk terrorism presents compared to the risk posed by car accidents or illness.

"You'll realize the terrorist threat is infinitesimally small," says Dr. Robert L. DuPont, a Rockville psychiatrist and founding president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. "So get back into your routine, your everyday life; that's where your strength is."

* Talk about it. It doesn't necessarily require talking to a therapist; just be sure to talk to someone -- a friend, co-worker, spouse, neighbor or member of the clergy.

"We are social creatures," says Wilson. "That's built into our biology. Anywhere we can talk and get our thoughts organized is helpful."

If you don't have someone to discuss it with, consider writing a journal about your feelings.

* Watch your lifestyle. Eat right, get plenty of sleep and exercise regularly. Failing to do any of those three can increase stress.

Jerilyn Ross, director of the Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders in Washington, says following a healthful routine may also mean switching off the television, particularly in the evenings when preparing for bed.

"People are staying up late, watching the news and having bad dreams," says Ross. "You have to pay attention to things like that."

* Make time for relaxation. Techniques like yoga, massage, meditation, self-hypnosis, acupressure, aromatherapy or just a trip to your local spa can sometimes work wonders. The key often is finding out which, if any, of these pursuits may work for you.

Even something just for fun like going out to dinner and a movie can make a difference, says Ross. "People may feel guilty to do those things, but if you don't do them, you'll feel worse, and the enemy wins."

* Seek spiritual counsel. When the physical world seems less dependable, there is always solace in prayer and faith in a higher power.

"If one can fall back on personal spiritual resources, there is an unshakeable strength and peace of mind to be found there," says Edmund Bourne, a Hawaii psychologist and author of The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (New Harbinger, $19.95).

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