Just a Case of the Jitters?
By Chantelle K. Dockter, MA
Licensed Professional Counselor
Question: I have always been a nervous person in general, and lately have been experiencing a high degree of stress. At times I find it difficult to get a full breath, my heart pounds, my thoughts race, and I get shaky. A friend made a comment that she thought I could be experiencing anxiety, which I had never really thought about. Could this in fact be what I am dealing with?
Answer: First and foremost, it would be wise to see your PCP in regards to the physical symptoms you are experiencing to rule out any medical causes. If all checks out clear, then chances are high that what you are experiencing is anxiety, complete with panic attacks.
There are many types of anxiety, ranging from Generalized Anxiety (anxiety in general rather than over something specific) to phobias (anxiety around a particular thing or event). Anxiety typically worsens with rising stress. Most people experience anxiety both emotionally as well as physically, to some degree, even if they don’t experience actual panic attacks. Some people notice an increase in headaches, stomachaches, digestive upset, and overall muscle tension when anxious, as well as disturbance in sleep. This is true in children as well as adults. The little boy who complains of a stomachache every morning before school may be feeling anxious about some aspect of his school day, and not even have the understanding to put it into words.
Some personality types are more prone to anxiety than others. People who are Type A, driven, perfectionistic, and planners tend to experience a higher incidence of anxiety than those who are laid back, easy-going, and who aren’t as concerned with plans and scheduled organization. I personally identify much more with those who struggle with anxiety. I remember being very newly pregnant with our oldest daughter and freaking out about what we were going to do with concerns to her education. My husband gently reminded me that she wasn’t even born yet, and that we had several years to figure it out once she arrived. As you can probably already tell, he identifies more with the “take it as it comes” clan. Lucky guy.
Although the “what” each person develops anxiety over is different, the response is typically the same. Those who experience anxiety tend to report the following: racing thoughts, inability to “turn my mind off” (especially at night), insomnia, pounding heart, butterflies in stomach, constantly tense or on edge, irrational fears, jittery/shaky, irritability, restlessness, trouble concentrating, and a sense of doom.
Anxiety can be very frustrating and to some debilitating. Here are a few things to try that can be helpful, although keep in mind that professional counseling and/or medication may be needed for some people.
1. Breathing correctly. When anxious, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid. This type of breathing can lead to hyperventilating. Place your hand on your belly and practice breathing deeply until your stomach rises beneath your hand. This signifies that you are getting a deep enough breath, not just to your chest. Slow your breathing down by breathing in for 4 seconds, then out for 8 seconds. Repeat this several times. This slows and deepens your breathing and brings back the proper balance of oxygen and CO2 in your system. Practice deep breathing daily, during times when you aren’t anxious in order to easily pull it up when you run into anxious times.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This is a technique for decreasing anxiety by alternately tensing and relaxing the muscles. Muscle tension accompanies anxiety, so the thought is that one can decrease anxiety by learning how to relax the muscular tension. Starting at the head and moving all the way to the toes, different muscle groups are tensed for 10 seconds, and then relaxed for 20 seconds. More can be found on how to perform this technique if interested.
3. Find your “Happy Place”. Have a place you can go to in your head that is a calming, serene place. Close your eyes, lay your head back, and employ all your senses as you imagine a place that signifies relaxation. My happy place is in Maui, where I am laying on the warm sand next to my sweet husband, hearing the waves crash and feeling the soft breeze on my skin. Ahhhh….works every time.
4. Make lists. Sometimes anxiety can come when feeling overwhelmed by a task or a situation. Break it down into small baby steps on a list. Focus on completing just one task at a time. Actually cross off the steps you have taken so you can visually see the progress you have made.
5. Find what activities relieve tension for you. Physical activities are often helpful. I myself love running and kickboxing. I feel so much better after a tough workout. Other activities such as knitting, scrapbooking, or playing the piano can be helpful as well.
6. Talk it out. Whether it be a counselor or a trusted friend, talking about what drives our anxiety can help expose it and lessen the power it has over us. Having another person truly “hear”, validate, and support us is invaluable.
Remember, it isn’t the situation itself but our reaction to the situation that matters the most.