Yes, We Still Feel Anxious
Yes, We Still Feel Anxious

Yes, We Still Feel Anxious

We’re still working out the kinks in this whole podcast/audiophile thing. I’m a long way from being pleased with the final result, but we learned a lot this week and hopefully, next week will be better. Thank you for listening and reading.

Our family has two dogs. The eldest is Belvedere, a hound mix who is about as chill as any hound dog can be. He is, more than anyone, our family Dude. He spends his days curled up in the most comfortable spot he can weasel for himself, sleeping away. 

Then, there’s Hamilton. Hamilton is a 90-pound black lab/pit mix who is the most anxious creature I have ever met. Like all our pets, Hamilton is a rescue and was roughly ten months old when he came to us so we don’t have any information on what he was like as a pup, but we can only imagine there were some problems because this dog has severe abandonment issues. When we took him in, we did so thinking he would be Kat’s dog since we’d had Belvedere over a year at that point and he and I had bonded strongly. 

That didn’t happen, though. Hamilton decided that he needed to be my dog as well and in the years following, I’ve often thought I should have named him Shadow because no matter where in the house I am, he’s there with me. He often naps with me and he’d sleep with me at night if I’d let him. If I change rooms, he needs to know where I am. If we’re separated, he cries. If I walk out the back door, he stands there waiting until I return. If I leave for a doctor’s appointment, he gets upset that I’m not where he can see me. Let there be a sudden noise outside and all 90 pounds of him is going to try and sit in my lap. I’ve never seen anything like it and the older he gets the worse his condition.

Anxiety is a significant issue in the United States and around the world. In the US alone, the National Institute of Mental Health calculates that 19.1%, roughly 71.5 million people, have a severe enough level of anxiety to be diagnosed with a mental illness. Of those, women are almost twice as likely to experience anxiety as men, and younger adults ages 18-44 are significantly more likely to have some form of anxiety as are those who are older. Over 30 percent of the US population, more than 110 million people, experience some form of diagnosable anxiety in their lifetime. Anxiety is very real and can impact how we live our lives.

Before we go much further, we need to define how we’re using the term anxiety. We all experience momentary anxiety such as when we’re about to go for a job interview or one’s spouse sends you a text that says, “We need to talk.” That type of anxiety is typical enough and usually goes away when the situation passes. For a person with a diagnosable anxiety disorder, though, that anxiety does not go away; it’s always there, lingering in the background, can get worse with time, and can dramatically interfere with what we are able to do.

Anxiety is a part of PTSD, panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and any number of phobias in addition to generalized anxiety disorder messing up people’s lives on its own. Like a number of mental health issues, most anxiety disorders can be treated with therapy and medication to some degree, but finding the right prescription and the best therapist can take a lot of time which often generates increased anxiety in the process. 

The American Psychiatric Association conducted a poll in both 2017 and 2018 showing that nearly two-thirds of Americans were “extremely or somewhat anxious about health and safety for themselves and their families and more than a third are more anxious overall than last year.” Between 2017 and 2018, that number went up by another five percent. While that anxiety might not have been enough to qualify for medical treatment, it does show us to be very anxious people. While numbers for the past year aren’t yet available, our own observation tells us those numbers have likely skyrocketed.

In the past, people have looked to religious institutions to help them with their mental health issues, believing that our anxiety is either a lack of faith or, perhaps, a misplacement of that faith. When we look at what these religions have to say, though, the perspective of those speaking a couple of thousand years ago doesn’t quite match with what we know to be true today. Let’s take a look.

Most of the texts of the world’s major religions are several thousand years old and how mental illness, in general, was considered then is a far cry from how it is treated now. In many parts of the world, the manifestation of any mental illness was taken not as a disease but as a form of demonic possession. A prime example seems to occur in Mark’s retelling of the gospel, which skips all the early stuff and jumps straight into the story, starting in chapter 1, verse 21, telling about a situation that came up while Jesus was teaching at a synagogue in Capernaum. The brief conversation goes something like this:

In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit;
he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Have you come to destroy us?
I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
Jesus rebuked him and said,
“Quiet!  Come out of him!”
The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him.
All were amazed and asked one another,
“What is this?
A new teaching with authority.
He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”

Now, without getting into the whole question of miracles and possession, let’s look at what most likely was going on with the man in question. While no one can be sure the event actually transpired or know anything accurate about the man, one analysis holds that he was schizophrenic, a condition often triggered by anxiety. His condition couldn’t have been too severe or he never would have been allowed into the synagogue in the first place. However, when he looked up and saw this teacher he didn’t know, the immediate anxiety easily could have set off a schizophrenic episode in which the strange voices and convulsions would be expected symptoms. And while Mark records Jesus’ words as a command, had he used a calm and comforting tone it may have been enough to ease the anxiety and end the episode.

Understand, that’s all supposition. Luke is the only gospel writer to mention the event and given that Luke wasn’t physically there he likely got his information from Mark or one of the other disciples. Historical accuracy isn’t something one reasonably expects. 

Still, the language used here and in several other places throughout the Xian bible demonstrate the Roman-era approach to mental illness: this isn’t natural. It goes so far as Paul’s admonition to the church in Corinth stating:

Brothers and sisters:

I should like you to be free of anxieties.

He then lists things that made people anxious, such as political matters and pleasing one’s spouse, which can seem somewhat humorous. Still, this idea that anxiety was a problem that could be resolved with religious adherence is one that was quite common up through most of the 20th century and it is not one confined to xianity.

Similarly, Islam teaches that moments of anxiety are times to ponder over the verses of Quaran, daily self-evaluation, and observation of events happening around you, all signs from Allah.

Hinduism puts the blame for fear and anxiety on selfishness and pride. The solution, according to the Bhagavad Gita, is to detach from the persons or causes of those conditions and love only the deity.

Buddhism recommends chanting and meditation to address anxiety. In fact, during the pandemic, monks across various parts of Asia have broadcast their chants on television and radio to help address this issue. They also believe that the “four immeasurables:” loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, can replace anxious and fearful states of mind.

Do any of these centuries-old approaches work in a hectic modern society? Psychologists say having a strong faith may help in mild matters, such as that job interview, but when anxiety reaches the point it is interfering regularly with our lives, we need a more contemporary approach based in actual science and research.

One of the challenges in approaching anxiety in a modern context is that, like many things involving science and medicine, there is a lot of misinformation roaming around that can do more harm than good. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America addresses some of these myths on their website (which I’m linking to on my website). 

Myth: Snapping a rubber band on your wrist every time you have a “bad” thought or anxious moment helps.
Reality: Suppressing your thoughts only makes them stronger and more frequent and the rubber band can inhibit blood flow to your hand.

Myth: Avoid stress and stressful situations.
Reality: Avoiding anxiety tends to reinforce it. You can be anxious and still do what you need to do.

Myth: The root of anxiety starts in childhood and must be addressed from that perspective.
Reality: Effective treatment focuses on the here and now, including new skills to manage thoughts, emotions, discomforts, and behaviors.

Myth: Eating right, exercise, avoiding caffeine, and living a healthy lifestyle makes the anxiety go away.
Reality: You need more help than just reducing stress. You may need to face your fears, learn new facts about your symptoms, stop avoiding, learn tolerance for some situations, or change how you think, feel, and behave regarding other people.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some common-sense, practical things you can do to help manage your symptoms. Notice, I said manage your symptoms, not make your anxiety go away. Anxiety is a complex issue and for some people keeping it under control is the best we can do. The same source suggests strategies such as:

  • Take a time-out. Practice yoga, listen to music, meditate, get a massage, or learn relaxation techniques. Stepping back from the problem helps clear your head. 
  • Eat well-balanced meals. Do not skip any meals. Keep healthful, energy-boosting snacks on hand.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine, which can aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks.
  • Get enough sleep. When stressed, your body needs additional sleep and rest.
  • Do your best. Instead of aiming for perfection, which isn’t possible, be proud of however close you get.
  • Accept that you cannot control everything. Put your stress in perspective: Is it really as bad as you think?
  • Talk to someone. And here it’s important to qualify that yes, it does matter to whom you talk. Not everyone is going to help, not everyone is going to give good advice, and not everyone listens well. Someone who is constantly suggesting that you “just need to get over it,” is not the best person to share in your struggles.

What can’t be overemphasized is that when your anxiety reaches the point that it is preventing you from doing the things you need to get done, reach out for help. We suggest starting out with your primary care physician. Most doctors today are compassionate when it comes to mental health issues and can subscribe low-dose medications that are not habit forming. If that’s not an option, the  Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the American Psychiatric Association can both help you find qualified assistance near you. [Click here for ADAA and here for APA.] 

If you don’t have insurance, and I get it, a lot of young adults simply can’t afford that right now, there are online services such as Cerebral that offer low-cost services that may be helpful. Now, this is not an endorsement. I’ve not talked with anyone at Cerebral and I’ve not done any research into their qualifications. I do know they are required to work with licensed care providers in your state, so if there is not an affiliated care provider in your state they may not be able to help. The same is going to apply with any online healthcare provider. Using caution when doing anything online is always recommended, but for many people, this may be the most logical choice.

And more than anything, I want you to write down a couple of phone numbers for me. 1-800-273-8255 is the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Last June, the FCC approved the use of 988 as a national emergency mental health services number but at the moment that service is not active in all areas. I do know that T-Mobile and Verizon subscribers can use 988 on their cell phones but that does not apply to all carriers. You can also text Home to 741-741 to reach the national crisis hotline if you’re not in a position where you can speak audibly with someone. 

Please know that you always have options. You don’t have to wait until the last minute and you’re at the end of your rope. If you need help, call or text one of these services immediately. I suggest keeping their numbers in your phone even if you don’t think you have an issue. Someone you know may need that help one day.

In the movie The Big Lebowski there seems to be little argument that Walter, played by John Goodman, has some rather severe anxiety issues. He brings his ex-wife’s pomeranian to the bowling alley. He refuses to roll on Shabbat even though his connection to Judaism is, like the dog, only through his ex-wife. And then, most famously, he pulls a gun when he thinks Smokey’s toe slipped over the line when he rolled. Throughout the movie, a lot of the conflict we see is not necessarily caused by Walter’s anxiety but it is intensified by Walter’s anxiety> At times Walter’s anxiety-fueled antics are funny until we get to the parking lot outside the bowling alley and in the mayhem between Walter, the Dude, and the nihilists, Donny goes down, has a heart attack and dies. That doesn’t mean Walter’s to blame for Donny’s death, but it does demonstrate how unchecked anxiety can be destructive not only to our own lives but those of people we care about.

I can’t help wondering if anxiety is what brings Walter to bowl with the Dude. Bowling is one of those therapeutic activities that can help one work through any number of symptoms. Anxiety, anger, aggression, depression, some forms of PTSD, and some social anxiety disorders may benefit from going bowling. Bowling is one of the most economic activities one can find, too. Even with shoe rental, three games is only going to cost you somewhere around $15. You can bowl by yourself, with your best friend, or with a whole group of people if that’s what works for you. Bowling, in an interesting way, can be its own form of therapy and I highly recommend it.

What’s important, though, is that we realize that no mental illness means you are any less valuable of a person. Whether it’s a generalized anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, bipolar disorder, depression, or any other form of mental illness, you still matter. You are an important part of this world. You are not an outlier who is possessed by a demon. You don’t need to be shunned or immersed in a 2,000-year-old religion that misinterprets the kind of help you need. Don’t wait until you become another Walter. Find the help you need, roll a few balls, maybe enjoy an edible if that’s an option, but know that you don’t have to suffer. There is help.

Dogs are interesting creatures. So much of what causes Hamilton anxiety revolves around his commitment to care for and protect our entire family. If one of the kids goes outside to play, he’s right there, watching. If the kids get into an argument, he’s the first to insert himself between them. Hamilton loves his family so much that he needs a little extra.

Don’t we all deserve that something extra?

Let me end with these words:

When you work,
Work in strength and humility.

When you rest,
Rest in grace and tranquility.

And when you celebrate,
Celebrate with the greatest reason
For love and joy, 

For you are enough,
Whole and worthy,
Deserving of peace.

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