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It’s an inherently human aspect – this thing we call worry. It affects each of us in different ways, some more than others. While I wouldn’t classify myself as a chronic worrier, I do tend to worry at times, especially when the issue seems to have far-reaching consequences. While I know deep inside that worrying is not going to do anything except make me more depressed, there are times when irrational worries tend to drive rational thought to the far corners of my mind. Going below the surface of worry and analyzing why we feel this emotion in the first place, I find myself with the following reasons:

  • Imagining the worst means you’re somehow prepared for it when it does happen: Yes, I do know that the experts are all for the power of positive thinking, but there comes a time when your mind conjures up worst case scenarios and how you’re going to tackle each of them in the event that they do happen. In a way, this kind of worrying is not too bad as long as you don’t obsess too much over what may happen, because you’re actually doing something positive in the process – planning and preparing yourself for the worst that could happen. So even if it does happen, you may find that you’re able to hold your own.
  • If the worst does not happen as you feared, then it’s reason to rejoice: One part of my mind actually believes that if I think of every possible negative outcome, none of them will ever happen. And this is why my worst case scenarios often have more sentiment and drama than real life. If you imagine it will happen and it does not happen, in my book, that’s reason enough to be grateful and heave a huge sigh of relief.
  • You fret over or regret things that are past: My sister is famous for this – saying “I told you so” when any of her dire predictions come to fruit. And then my mom and she worry about it some more instead of thinking about how best to tackle the current situation.
  • Sometimes you can’t help yourself: And that’s because we’re only human. To be completely free of worry would require the patience and acceptance of a saint. I do let myself worry for a while over things that I do not have control over – like the fact that a loved one is dying of cancer, that he’s in great pain and that there’s not a single thing I can do to help him. You tend to worry and cry over the sheer helplessness of the situation and the nature of this morbid disease that has no cure.

Even though each of us knows that worry is a debilitating emotion that drains our resources, there are times when we are beset by worry, in spite of our best intentions to remain stoic in the face of disaster. But the difference between positive people and those who let themselves slip into a kind of depression because they worry too much lies in knowing where to draw the line, and not letting yourself cross it.

This post was contributed by Kelly Kilpatrick, who writes on the subject of the top ten pharmacy schools. She is a part time health educator and regular contributor for nursing and education sites. She invites your feedback at kellykilpatrick24 at gmail dot com.

The Nursing Online Education Database (NOEDb) recently published a great post on simple techniques to calm your anxious nerves. Most of these are great examples of how conquering anxiety is not so much a war as it is a series of small battles. When you’re able to use these techniques regularly, you’ll go a long way to breaking the cycle of anxiety. The only thing I’d like to add to the list is that a regular practice of mindfulness — awareness of the present moment — is a great way to keep yourself grounded in reality, rather than allowing your mind to steer off into the what ifs that often lead to panic. If you enjoy this list, you might also enjoy one of my older posts: An Engaged Mind is a Peaceful Mind

The anxious mind exists to do one thing: to indulge in itself and convince the rest of your mind that your anxiety is the only important thing in the world. By redirecting your thoughts, you are slowly depriving the anxious mind of the attention that it needs to thrive.

WeWorry reader Brittany has requested that I share her story with you. She’s certainly been through a lot, and we can all learn a lot from her experiences with anxiety and depression.

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I don’t know when it started, or if there was a starting point at all. As far back as I can remember, anxiety and panic attacks have been my constant companion. As a child, when my mother was a minute late coming home from work, I couldn’t breathe. I knew she was dead. I was scared to be the last person awake in the house. Convinced that when I watched Unsolved Mysteries the murderers and kidnappers were watching me watch the show and as soon as I went to bed they would snatch me. I slept on my mother’s floor till I was eleven years old. I was scared to answer the phone because I was so socially anxious. And when my babysitter asked me to wake up my best friend in the mornings, I worried that my babysitter would hate me if I couldn’t complete the task. There was nothing in this world that I didn’t worry about.

I don’t know the main cause of my anxiety but there are probably several reasons. My grandmother has some anxiety, and my mother suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder. My mother had just moved to St. Louis and was living with my very abusive father when she was pregnant with me, and high stress pregnancies have shown to correlate with anxious children. And lastly, as aforementioned, my father was an abusive to me as a child and I could never do anything right or win his approval. This gave me more self-esteem issues than I could count, but I’m better now. Let us just say I got my anxiety honest.

I joke a lot about my anxiety, and there are times I do find it funny. I can do this because there is that voice in my head that tells me what I’m worrying about is irrational. But then I worry about worrying about irrational things. It is a never ending cycle. I can find the humor in almost anything, and if you don’t laugh about what ails you, you’ll cry. But just because I do laugh at myself, it doesn’t mean that things aren’t overwhelming to me sometimes. Things that don’t even register to most people are uphill battles for me.

I used to spend a lot of time trying to hide my anxiety from people. It was so hard, and really that was anxiety inducing in itself. Now that I am in a better place, I can say to friends and family, “You know I don’t know why this worries me, but it does.”

I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder when I was sixteen. This was after I had developed a crippling addiction to Tylenol PM. I could never sleep, because my thoughts were always racing. I would go days with only 1-2 hours of sleep every night, if I even got that. People will tell you that it is impossible to stay awake that long, but they are wrong. And when you never sleep, you feel like you are slowly losing your mind. Tylenol PM was the only thing that allowed me to sleep. Soon I was taking 8 every night, and then 8 during the day to take naps. I never wanted to be awake, it was too hard.

My diagnosis also came after I had stopped attending school, because I was too nervous to face the outside world. I mainly didn’t go to school because I worried about doing something stupid at school, or in front my friends. I also was afraid a teacher would call on me in class and I wouldn’t know the answer. Ironically, that was actually a self-fulfilling prophecy because I wasn’t attending class, so I never had any clue what was going on in class. I technically failed that school year even though my grades were good. My attendance was so poor that I couldn’t pass.

When I found out that I failed, I was so exhausted and tired of life. At sixteen, I knew I had nothing left to live for. I took a shower, did my hair, and swallowed over 100 capsules of Tylenol. Luckily, I had a change of heart pretty quickly. One of the most embarrassing moments in my entire life was lying on a hospital bed, having charcoal pumped into my stomach, and vomiting all over myself in front of so many people. It may sound weird to say but trying to kill myself was probably one of the better things I’ve done in my life. For two main reasons: I realized I did want to live, and I finally got help.

I began therapy soon after that, and started on a medicine that would drastically change my quality of life. The diagnosis was such a relief, I finally knew I wasn’t alone or losing my mind. By the way, after my therapist talked to my school, I was able to gain all my credits back, and I graduated on time. Then I went on to graduate college, with only a few bumps along the way.

I am more equipped to deal with my anxiety now, but it is always there. Tonight I got lost trying to pick my fiance up from work (I’ve never done that before), and I ended up on the freeway, surrounded by 18 wheelers, and driving over bridges. I don’t like driving in general, and I’m terrified of bridges, freeways, and 18 wheelers. But I always do what I have to do. I ended up on the side of the road, having one of the worst panic attacks I’ve had in years. I was sobbing, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I was trembling.

However unlike in the past, I was eventually able to calm myself down, take many deep breathes, send up a prayer, and figure out what I needed to do. And I did it. I stared down those 18 wheelers, went over those bridges, and finally found him. I had faced my worst case scenario fear about driving in L.A., and I had gotten through it.

There is something liberating about knowing that the girl who was once too scared to step out her front door, may still panic and freak out, but when everything goes wrong, she can pull it together and GET PAST IT.

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You can read more from Brittany at her blog.

While driving to work the other morning, I heard an interesting story on NPR about facial expressions. Researchers were trying to solve a simple question: why is it that all the world’s cultures share facial expressions? Fear always looks like fear. Disgust always looks like disgust. Anger always looks like anger.

One of the theories is that at your facial expressions are not just expressions of emotion, but that they serve a purpose. For example, when you become fearful, your eyes widen and your nostrils become larger. It’s as if your body is saying, “I sense danger. I need to take in more of my environment. I need to be more aware.” By widening the eyes, you see more. By opening the nostrils, you take in more air. It’s a physiological response to fear, and it’s a response that could save your life.

This has some significance for those of us living with chronic anxiety. It’s an important reminder that what we’re experiencing is a physiological response, not just an emotional one. When we have a panic attack, or a period of intense anxiety, we aren’t “just afraid.” Our bodies are actually responding to this stimuli physically.

So what does this mean?

Basically, your body is doing many things to prepare itself for danger. It’s increasing your respiratory rate. Your digestion will likely slow down (or, in severe cases, your bowels or bladder may empty as the body attempts to rid itself of unnecessary distractions like digestive activities). These are all normal responses to fear. But this also means that anxiety heightens your perception. Your eyes will be wider and your senses sharper.

It’s during times like this that we often notice strange things about our bodies. Maybe it’s a new lump. Is it a tumor? Maybe it’s a strange tickle in the throat? Oral cancer? Or maybe it’s just racing thoughts. Am I going insane? What you must always remember, however, is that the fear has affected your perception. You’ve become the panicky equivalent of the Million Dollar Man or Wonder Woman. You’re going to notice these things because your body is responding to the fear. Your body thinks that your increased perception may just save your life — and, if you were being chased by a pack of wolves, it actually might — but in our case, this heightened perception becomes a new source of fear. We interpret these as reasons to be afraid, not responses to fear.

So, the next time you’re in a state of panic and you think that you’ve discovered a new disease or disorder, just remember: you’re in no condition to judge your health when you’re under such stress.

Guest blogger Summer writes:

I like to control things. I like to be able to plan things out and know what is going to happen. As my three children enter into the teenage years I am beginning to figure out that there is not a whole lot that I can control anymore. And that makes me anxious. My kids are really good kids and that should make me feel better but there are still so many things out there that could swoop in and destroy their lives. Believe me I have imagined some of the worst.

My husband told me that he deals with things as they come, where it seems I try to deal with things before they even happen. How do I get back to dealing in the moment? Me being the control freak perfectionist that I am, know that I must do these things to lower my stress and anxieties: regular exercise, good nutrition, stop the worrying and turn off the monkey mind in my head. Sounds easy, right?

Did I mention that it is really cold here and my summer walking route is under a layer of ice with more snow expected tonight. My diet is usually pretty good but with all the holiday festivities going on I am more conscious of the fact that everything around me to eat is not what I should be eating. Which either makes me not eat or eat too much of the chocolate fudge that the gals from work bring in. As for not worrying, did I mention that my daughter turns 16 in a month and every night wants to go for a drive (on the ice covered roads). So what can I do? I can still practice my yoga and dig out my old relaxation cd’s. I can write down my anxieties and think of more realistic outcomes. I can go help someone who really does have something to worry about. And I can try to enjoy what is happening today instead of worrying about the future. I can remember that I can only control what is in my power to control and the rest will happen whether I am worrying or not. Maybe then the monkey brain will get the message and leave.

“Happiness is an imaginary condition, formerly attributed by the living to the dead, now usually attributed by adults to children, and by children to adults.” — Thomas Szasz

I found this wonderful quote a while back. It is an elegant way of saying that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. I myself am guilty of this thinking, and I imagine that you are too. We always seem to think that happiness is something that exists just outside our grasp… if only we could reach it. I don’t think I need to tell you that this type of thinking is plain wrong and that searching for happiness is like searching for your own head.

I often joke about this with my wife. When we look back on our life together, we find ourselves saying, “That was a good time.” A “good time,” as defined by us, is generally one with relatively few problems: financial, marital, job-related, etc. One day, my wife said to me: “Why is it that all of the times in the past are good times but right now seems so tough?”

“That’s because we don’t remember the bad things,” I said.

And it’s true. Even those “good times” we were referring to had bad parts to them. Yet, as time passed, the bad memories faded and lost their potency, while the good ones remained in tact. By and large, humans connect emotions to our experiences. When we recall a memory, we often experience the emotions we’ve attached to it. As time passes, the negative emotions fade, and the good ones often stick around. I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve found it to be true in myself and in others I’ve spoken to about it (not a scientific study, of course, but good enough for me). This isn’t to say that some negative emotions remain firmly planted in our psyche. PTSD is a good example of how such emotions can become tied to specific memories, sounds, sights, or smells. Regardless, as time passes, like water rushing over river rocks, it smooths the rough edges of our memories.

So is the grass really greener elsewhere? Or are we just too busy looking for greener grass that we’ve failed to look beneath our own feet?

Here’s an excerpt from this fascinating article from SciAm:

A research team studying brain signals in mice accidentally stumbled upon what could be an important discovery that could lead to understanding and successfully treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

The finding identifies a new potential target for treating the psychological syndrome, which affects some 2.2 million Americans and is characterized by symptoms including anxiety and excessive behavior such as repeated hand washing and pulling out one’s own hair.

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center made the discovery after deleting a gene in mice while studying neuronal communication in the striatum, a structure in the midbrain that plays a role in information processing, decision making and movement. They had set up 24-hour video surveillance of the critters in their cages after the animals developed skin lesions on their heads and necks four to six months after their birth.

“These mice stay by themselves and are grooming themselves all the time,” says Guoping Feng, an assistant professor of neurobiology at Duke and co-author of a report on the findings published in Nature. He says the mice also show telltale signs of anxiety, hewing to the sides of their cages and staying out of both bright and open spaces.

“We were not specifically looking for OCD … the phenotype itself is by accident,” notes Feng. But, the serendipitous discovery shows “how synaptic dysfunction can lead to abnormal function.”

Obsessive thinking is characteristic of most anxiety disorders. If you ever find yourself stuck on a specific fear, then you’ve experienced obsessive thinking. Unfortunately, OCD is typically characterized in the media as purely obsessive behaviors while ignoring the obsessive thinking that causes these behaviors. This is why any research on OCD is beneficial to anyone experiencing chronic fear.

The Washington Post has a fascinating article on morality, empathy, compassion and their relation to happiness. More importantly, however, recent studies have shown that this morality is actually hardwired into the human brain, likely the result of an evolutionary adaptation that made our species more successful than those without a sense of morality.

While the whole topic certainly provides a lot of food for thought, I’m sharing this with you because I believe that being a moral person is beneficial for everyone, including ourselves. In a sense, having compassion and acting morally can also be selfish as such action brings us joy, happiness, and a sense of self-worth. This model of belief is an ancient tenet of Buddhism and many other religion and spiritual traditions and I find it amusing that only now are scientists investigating this. As much as I love science and rationality, I often find that the uber-skeptics are the same people who completely disregard tradition wisdom in the belief that it’s all nonsense. The research noted in this article verifies the hypothesis that morality has a positive effect on the brain:

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

So again, I urge you to consider the possibility that one of the best methods for treating anxiety and depression is to stop focusing on yourself and begin to turn your thoughts outward. I’ve personally found this to be a wonderful antidote to anxiety, but I don’t believe I’m alone in this. Helping others is not just something we should do, it’s something we must do.

Read the rest of the article. There’s a lot of interesting speculation about the role this plays in our bodies, minds, human cultures, and even our system of laws.

Zen Habits, one of the best blogs on the internet, has a fantastic article that everyone should read. Even if you follow half of these suggestions, I have little doubt that they will be of great benefit to you. Check it out!

Living with health anxiety or hypochondriasis can be very challenging, and one of the ways we often deal with our anxiety is to self-diagnose. In most people (read: non-hypochondriacs), self-diagnosis can be a helpful tool to pin down a particularly difficult diagnosis, but for hypochondriacs, self-diagnosis always leads to disaster.

Here are a few things you should remember:

  1. Even with the wide availability of medical information on the internet, the best place to get a diagnosis is with a doctor who is trained and experienced to discover the root causes of your symptoms. Doctors have something we don’t: objectivity. When you’re a hypochondriac, you’re too involved with your diagnosis to objectively diagnose yourself.
  2. Just because your symptoms match those of a fatal or disfiguring disease doesn’t mean you have that disease. In fact, almost all human diseases — from the benign to the worst — have symptoms similar to those of the common flu or other bacterial or viral infection. There is very rarely a “perfect” symptom, one that definitively proves that you have a disease. So, in short, stop searching for the definitive symptom. You won’t find one.
  3. You will not find anything that gives you comfort. Googling your symptoms is a sure-fire way to get bad results. Just think about how search engines work and you’ll soon realize that the odds are stacked against you. A search engine is designed to return the most common references to your keywords. So why does the search “headache” often lead directly “brain tumor?” Frankly, because most people with headaches don’t waste their time developing web content about it.
  4. Almost every site you visit will mention that it might be cancer, so get it checked out. They do this not only for your own benefit, but also to cover themselves legally. If you stumbled upon a site that claimed your headaches were nothing, and it turned out to be a tumor, you might sue the owner of that site and claim that the information urged you not to get treatment. Rest assured, the odds are in your favor that your symptoms are nothing but the result of stress and anxiety. These disclaimers are not intended to be analyzed by hypochondriacs, so don’t pay any attention to them.

Remember, it’s important to stay involved in your own health care. Too many people pretend that doctors are invincible or that they don’t make mistakes, but don’t use this as an excuse to self-diagnose. If one doctor fails you, don’t go running to Google. Instead, find another doctor. Second, third, and even fourth opinions are very common in medicine.

Just to give you an example, my father has a congenital vascular defect in his leg. About fifteen years ago, he began experiencing severe pain and spent weeks unable to walk. His leg turned blue as it was starved of oxygen due to a defective valve in his hip. His first doctor recommended amputation. The second basically shrugged and didn’t know what to do. The third recommended amputation. The fourth recommended a compression boot and blood thinners. My father still has his leg. Sure, it gives him problems from time to time, but if he had listened to his first doctor, he’d now be in a wheelchair or on a prosthesis.

WrongDiagnosis.com has a great page entitled “Self Diagnosis Pitfalls.” I highly recommend you read it, especially the second entitled, “Why Doesn’t Self-Diagnosis Work?” Read it now.

And stay away from the search engine! Unless, of course, you’re trying to figure out how to install a new water garden, in which case, Google on my friend, Google on.

"Drag your thoughts away from your troubles... by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it." -- Mark Twain

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