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Under Pressure: Stress, Anxiety and You

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By: Chris Collins, LCSW, ACSW- TPCA Behavioral Health Department

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. In fact, anxiety affects over 40 million Americans each year. The World Health Organization estimates that the number of new anxiety diagnoses has increased nearly 50% since 1990.

If you’re like me, you may be wondering why we’ve seen such a stark increase in anxiety diagnoses over the past eighteen years. One likely culprit is sleep deprivation. In an age of increased responsibility and technology, it seems like we are always going and this is a problem. If you’re old enough to recall the nostalgia of the Energizer Bunny commercials of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, you may realize that we don’t see him on television that much anymore. I imagine this is because sleep deprivation got to the poor guy. Whatever happened to the poor fella, he’s a good example of how rabbits – like people – aren’t hard wired to function well without sleep. Sleep deprivation, according to the National Institute on Health, is linked not only to anxiety, but increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. How do you combat this? Easy. Start in bed! Our bodies crave routine, and establishing a bedtime routine where you head to bed and wake up at the same time each day is a solid step in the right direction. And are you, like so many of us, guilty of using a smart phone or tablet in bed? If so, stop now. The human brain, despite it being… well, the brain, is not fine-tuned to understand why we would watch television, read, or play on smart devices in an environment meant for rest.

A solid night of sleep is an excellent start to combating anxiety and stress. The other piece to this puzzle is something you already do: breathe. While each of us does plenty of this every day, we aren’t always doing it with a purpose. To help deepen your breath control and thereby gain control over your anxieties, try a simple 4-part breathing. To do this, start by visualizing a square box. Next, imagine your favorite color bright and sparkling (think fireworks). After visualizing your box and color, gently close your eyes. As you inhale through your nose, imagine the bright beautiful light tracing along the right edge of your box for a count of 4 seconds. After your inhalation, continue tracing the top edge of the box as you hold this breath for a count of 4 seconds, before tracing and releasing for a count of 4 seconds down the left. Finally, you will finish tracing the box in your mind while holding your breath for a count of 4 seconds. All you have left to do is repeat the exercise! Proper breath control is like an extinguisher to even the worst anxiety. If this exercise seems too daunting a task, consider downloading the Headspace application for mindful breathing exercises without the thinking. Also, don’t think that you can’t practice breath control exercises at school and work; I call these mindful minutes. Every hour try and take just 60 seconds to slow down, deepen, and control your breathing.

Now that you’re ready to sleep and breathe like a pro, you can start the hard work with self-care. Self-care is vital to our continued success as people. Whether you’re a hard-working mother of three or a football playing honor student, we all need to take care of ourselves. At this point, you may be telling yourself you don’t have time for yourself. To that I say: make time. When we stop giving to ourselves, we eventually become unable to give to others. In that sense, self-care is as much a gift to others as it is yourself. Self-care can be accomplished in a variety of different ways: a healthy meal, a consistent exercise regimen, a massage, a pedicure, or a weekend boating trip. My challenge to you is to take a break for you and reward yourself for all that you do every day. Each of us deserves to be happy, healthy, and well (self) cared for.

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