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Dealing with anxiety, jim-jams and heebie-jeebies

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A panel of medical experts recently recommended for the first time that doctors screen all adult patients under 65 for anxiety.  

It’s guidance that’s intended to highlight the jim-jams caused by the extraordinary stress levels that have plagued the United States since the start of the pandemic. 

My first reaction: Why are we just starting now? Weren’t there plenty of people suffering from anxiety before the pandemic? Which is to say, if doctors haven’t been routinely screening patients (of all ages) for anxiety, they haven’t been practicing good medicine. 

Anxiety, quite simply, makes us sick. Not only does it cause the more obvious things like headaches, muscle tension, irritability, insomnia, and depression, it diminishes our immune system and consequently depletes our ability to ward off and/or heal from virtually any disease. 

True, there’s been a confluence of heebie-jeebies, producing situations the past few years, but baby oh baby, we’ve been riding a wave of it for a long time. It’s an insidious and pervasive feature of life. 

To be sure there’s been more uncertainty recently — not only of what lies ahead with Covid, but also in all the cultural upheaval and polarization. Not to mention Vladimir Putin’s threats to start nuking Ukraine. 

It’s been said that we live in “The Age of Anxiety” (which researchers say began with the carnage of WWI).  

It’s a good thing I have the help of denial … lest my anxiety prevent me from even getting out of bed in the morning. Denial is an asset that helps me process anxiety in chunks — as well as reminds me that, odds are, I’m not going to meet the grim reaper on the way to Walmart. 

Like all character assets, though, denial can go south on me and prevent me from seeing reality; that there are some things I need to be immediately anxious about. Otherwise, I tend to minimize and rationalize… rather than take action. (Contrary to Uncle Joe’s recent comment, Covid’s still here and I need to follow up my vaccinations with getting boosted.) 

It's helpful to remember that anxiety isn’t new to modern day life. In ancient times, anxiety was treated with Stoic practices similar to modern cognitive behavioral therapy, such as focusing on the present or analyzing the possible outcomes of a situation. 

Many reading this, like me, had ancestors that crossed the great plains to settle here. Would you want to trade our “Age of Anxiety” for theirs. I wouldn’t.  

I recently streamed the “1883” TV series. It gave a forthright description of the brutal trials of a wagon train leaving from Fort Worth, Texas in an attempt to get to Oregon. 

Consider this eloquent but callous reflection by Elsa, the 18-year-old who narrates the series, “To survive the frontier, you must learn to recognize those who won't … and be wary of their doomed decisions. They are to be avoided at all costs because their fear is tragedy's closest cousin, and tragedy is contagious in this place.” 

A description not only of the difference between positive and negative denial, but also the need for ongoing discernment — and what can happen if we fall in with the wrong crowd. 

How did they deal with their anxiety on the trail? Most of the characters had at least one good cry. They talked things over, made a plan … and pushed on. 

Getting back to screening for anxiety, the bigger question is what to do when they find it. I’m concerned that the only option for treatment be anti-anxiety medication.  

Understandable, as most all of us want immediate relief. But even if medication is indicated, something additional is required for long term management of symptoms. 

Doctors need a direct connection with some person — counselor, minister, social worker, psychologist, mindfulness teacher, etc. — or organization like the local mental health center or clinic to get behavioral help in place. 

Simple stress management practices like mindfulness training and deep breathing work wonders to calm anxiety and combat depression. I know this because I not only use them myself, I’ve also taught them both in workshops and to individuals in my counseling and consulting work. 

I also recommend exercise, spending time outdoors, decreasing stimulants like coffee, socializing, and logging off — not only the phone, computer, and TV in general but, more specifically, the incessant coverage of the latest catastrophe.  

The computer is helpful, though, if used judiciously. I often suggest people go online and visit certain links. One of my favorites is mindful.org. If you go there and search “anxiety management,” you’ll get everything from written guidelines to recorded guided meditations. 

Lastly, as a 73-year-old I found it interesting that the medical experts’ guidelines were to screen those “under 65.”  

Do they assume us geezers are all anxious and there’s no need for a screening? Or, that we’ve learned to cope with our anxiety — possibly by not taking things so seriously?  

I lean toward the latter, so it’s on that note that I’ll close, with a story about a senior woman’s phone call to a friend:  

“I’ve been feeling a bit of anxiety, so I went to see my doctor. He suggested exercise would help and, after a physical, gave me permission to join the YMCA. After looking over the options, I decided to take an aerobics class for seniors. On my first day, I bent, twisted, gyrated, jumped up and down, and perspired for an hour. But, by the time I got my leotards on, the class was over.” 

 

J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-704-1309 or jtknoll@swbell.net. 

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