Sunday, January 1, 2012

How To Fear Less in 2012

Free Scared Child Alone in the Dark Creative Commonsby Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

A six year old girl sat in my psychotherapy office crying, "burglars will break into my house and steal me." She can't sleep in her bedroom alone because she can't turn off the fear that "a bad man" will climb through the window and take her away. A ten year old boy fears that his parents will be killed. He screams in terror when his mother leaves to go shopping or his father drops him off for school in the morning. He finds it hard to concentrate in school because terrifying thoughts about losing his family take over his brain, making him miserable.

These children psychologically experience the horrors of crime, without actually experiencing any violations. They suffer from anxiety disorders that prevent them from enjoying life. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in children 9 to 17. About 13 percent of children 9 to 17 will suffer from anxiety at some point in their childhood. Over 25% of children 13 to 18 will meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder, with 5.9% diagnosed with severe anxiety. I see many teens for anger management who suffer from undiagnosed anxiety. Their unreasonable tantrums over food, clothing, and socializing reveal irrational fears about germs, public scrutiny and social embarrassment.

About 40 million Americans, age 18 and older, suffer from the crippling effects of anxiety. This represents 18% of the adult population. Anxiety inhibits social and economic activity, negatively effects health outcomes and causes unhappiness and unnecessary suffering. Irrational fears, or phobias lead to the brain experiencing horrors as limitless as the imagination.

Even those who don't meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder, suffer from worries that impair judgment and inhibit happiness. People worry about terrorism, politics, world war, crime, car accidents, money, health, and anything dark that the mind can imagine. Worries about the future cause the imagination to run overtime playing out negative possibilities at the speed of thought. These thoughts cause the brain to pump out chemicals like cortisol and norephinephrine that put the body in a needless state of stressful arousal. Without a break from this cocktail of stress chemicals, the body can develop symptoms as if it had actually suffered the imagined trauma.

On a positive note, wonderful treatments for anxiety exist today, with high rates of success. Only about a third of people with anxiety actually get treatment for it. This contributes to much of the preventable suffering in the world. Fears of terrorism after the attacks of 9/11 inspired the book Fear Less: Real Truth about Risk, Safety and Security in a Time of Terrorism by threat assessment expert, Gavin De Becker. He makes a living working to protect high profile people from threats by real criminals. He writes about the difference between fear and anxiety. Real fear arises spontaneously when we face an immediate, perceivable threat. For example, a guy running down the street pushes me to the ground, grabs my purse and runs off. My heart pounds, the biochemistry of fear focuses my attention on safety and my attacker. Anxiety mimics real fear, but with one key difference. Anxiety produces fear-like symptoms over something in our imagination. Something not really happening.

One common theme I see in those with anxiety is a sensitive, imaginative nature. Television news reports, films and other media effect them very strongly. In fact, most of us, even those without anxiety, can feel a momentary tightening of the chest, a change in breathing, if we watch alarming news reports. For healthier brain chemistry and for better information, get your news from a variety of newspapers and news magazines. Blogs, without editorial review boards, are not the best source for news information. Blogs, like this one, offer opinions that you should fact check by reading from sources with strong editorial standards.

Gavin De Becker offers suggestions to improve your critical thinking and reduce your anxiety. Remember that television news programs do not exist to inform you. Television news exists to sell products for corporations. They need to keep you watching longer so that you will watch more commercials. To keep you watching longer they use alarming language like "deadly" and "shocking." When one senior citizen dies of the flu, local news reporters write, "officials alarmed by shocking deadly flu case." A more honest and helpful report might say, "some individuals with impaired immune systems could die after contracting this year's flu virus. You can significantly reduce your risk by frequent hand washing and staying away from those with symptoms of the flu." Not that exciting, but more honest.

The language of worry includes words like "possible" and "links." "The suspect, with possible links to Al Queda terrorists, admitted to multiple local bank robberies." A more accurate report might read, "after his recent arrest, a suspect admitted to multiple bank robberies in the Seattle area. An investigation continues." Anyone who has played the six degrees of separation game knows that all of us are loosely linked to everyone. If you have a computer with internet access you're "linked" to everyone else on the planet with a wired computer.

Green smiles, Green fun, Green lifestyle, Green heartbeats, Green luck, Dublin, Ireland, and the world! ST. PATRICK'S FESTIVAL 2010 WEEK!:)`Enjoy plus much more!:)In addition to thinking more critically about the news reports you watch and read, it helps to commit to some brain hygiene habits that lower anxiety, improve your health and strengthen your happiness quotient. According to the authors of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, exercise significantly lowers anxiety, and in some studies works even better than medication. Vigorous exercise increases Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF. BDNF, called "miracle grow" of the brain, helps with all new learning and growth of healthy neurons in the brain. It also helps to repair the atrophy of the memory center of the brain, the hippocampus, after exposure to chronic stress. So don't make a New Year's resolution to lose weight. Instead, resolve to exercise at least 30 minutes every day. Your brain will love you and your body will become more fit.

To relieve anxiety, exercises that requires mental concentration work best. Sports like soccer, tennis, basketball and football require a lot of aerobic exercise and concentration. Activities like yoga, gymnastics and dance also require concentrating your awareness on what your body is trying to accomplish. These activities and many others give a big BDNF boost, to improve memory, reduce anxiety, and strengthen the body. You'll feel happier, look better and fear less. So move it, move it.

Photos courtesy of pink sherbet photograpy and ugg boy ugg girl.


Emily said...

This was really interesting and helpful post. I am a journalist & it's good for me to remember about the way news is presented!

DrGina said...

Thank you for your comment Emily. Glad you found the critical thinking part helpful for your work!