Random Thoughts On Anxiety

2015 July 8
by Dr. Steve Sarche

It occurs to me that Independence Day in the United States may be construed as a two-pronged Holiday.   July Fourth speaks for itself.  What a day; parades, food, beer, fireworks, general revelry.  We get so caught up in the fun that we sometimes forget that suddenly our dogs are no longer by our side, but they are cowering somewhere under the bed or behind the couch.  

There is very little that can be done to soothe them as they recoil and tremble their way through this day.  They are scared, they are running away, hiding, sometimes lashing out.   They have no idea what the explosions they are hearing are, and I can only imagine the horror stories created in their heads.

Their mind is likely going to a worst case scenario:   The “booms” present a threat that wants to hurt them.   As long as the “threat” is there, the response repeats and intensifies.  Dogs have no way to cope with this and their only recourse is for the fireworks to end.   Thus the second part of the Holiday:   The fifth of July; “Independence Day” for dogs.  Dogs must be, at some level, celebrating the departure of the big booming threats in the sky. 

This is what anxiety looks like.  Raw fear, often triggered, that can intensify and cause basic self-preserving behavior.   We are wired for anxiety.   It can be a good thing. An example is guilt.  To avoid the anxious feelings from guilt, most of us decide to do the “right” thing, such as not steal from others or hurt others simply for our own gain.   Anxiety in general helps motivate us and get things done.  The nervous system is naturally wired to be able to adjust the intensity of the anxiety and to turn it on and off as needed.  

People with an anxiety disorder do not benefit from the correct balance of this system.   They have anxiety when they shouldn’t.  I suppose that it feels like the surge of adrenaline during a scare moment in a horror movie or when you realize that the person in the car behind you may not be slowing down fast enough.   In the case of an anxiety disorder, the “fight or flight” nervous system is firing, even in the absence of a threat.

Imagine how painful and uncomfortable that must feel.  Unlike our canine friends, who cannot cognitively understand their feelings, people do realize the level of anxiety they have is “too much” for the situation and is not a rational response.  An anxious person’s anxiety causes him to view situations as exaggerated in their threat and negativity.  This often leads to negative predictions of the future, negative assessments of the present and the past.  

As anxious feelings and thoughts spiral out of control, the person gets more irritable, tired, restless, overall stressed.   Sleep gets worse, appetite and concentration are affected.  Being aware of these things only makes the person more anxious.

This is where anxiety can get very nasty.   It tends to force a person to run or avoid.  This means the person may avoid seeking help.  The person may also avoid dealing with the fact he is anxious and pretend things are fine.   This behavior generally leads to more problems.  Unlike a dog, which enjoys his independence day on the fifth, the person’s problems don’t just suddenly disappear like smoke wafting away after the firework show.  

In order for a person to get control of the anxiety, he must face it directly.   It must be accepted that the anxiety is there and is not able to be controlled right now.   Simply put, when you are looking at something you don’t like, you can deal with it.   If you are not, it will only remain or grow as a problem.  I like how Steven Hayes, PhD words it: “If you aren’t willing to have it, you will”. 

Seeking help for anxiety is liberating.  You certainly would not be alone if you suffer from an anxiety disorder.  The NIMH estimates that the lifetime prevalence of an anxiety disorder in the United States is almost 29%.  This means that close to 1 out of 3 Americans will have a form of anxiety that causes a life disruption or impairment at some point in their life.

It seems like it would be nice to be a dog.  They get free room and board, they always seem so present and that so little is needed to alleviate anxiety.  For human beings, however, anxiety problems are generally not simply solved by turning the page on the calendar.  

Fortunately, there are ways for us to manage anxiety.  Anxiety can be managed through coaching and practice of coping skills, through therapy, lifestyle and environmental changes, and, in more severe cases, medications.  These are all strategies that Fido does not have the ability to use.  He has to rely on human beings to manage his anxiety. 

On that note, maybe it’s not always so great to be a dog.  A dog will never get to enjoy fireworks. 

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