The series “Ask Dan’s Mom” will continue as a one-on-one correspondence for a little while — until my mother and I exhaust the conversation or she gets pissed at me, whichever comes first. At that point, I’ll open the floor to questions from readers, thus turning the series into a new breed of advice column: Dear Abby for Neurotics. If you have a question about anxiety you’d like me to share with my mother, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part 1 of “Ask Dan’s Mom” here.
Good morning, Mom. In last week’s exchange, you mentioned that a tendency toward anxiety may be caused by “the way you were brought up by your parents.” I know that you’ve had a hard week, what with Grandma being sick, so I’m going to let that one pass. For now, let’s talk about treatment. One thing that’s always confused me about anxiety is what exactly to do about it. There are so many treatment options, from medication to psychotherapy to meditation to acupuncture to I don’t know what else: sweat lodges? religious conversion? coffee enemas? What would you say to someone who perplexed by all these offerings?
Thanks for going easy on me this week, sweetheart — though now you’ve got me nervous about future installments!… To begin with, I know how scary it is to feel anxious and to have no clue about where to turn for help. Generally, I think the best idea is to first go to your doctor and let him or her check you out — this to make sure you don’t have any medical problem that may be making you feel jittery. If you’re OK (which you probably are) then I think the next step is to make an appointment with a therapist who specializes in anxiety. Most doctors can give you a referral. Or go to the Anxiety Disorder Association of America’s website; they maintain a list of well-trained clinicians. If you think you need medication then you can ask the therapist for the name of a psychiatrist. Meanwhile, I would definitely try exercise: brisk walking or jogging is just great. Meditation, yoga, or tai chi might help also. Whatever you do, though, it’s very important to be patient. It may take time to feel better, but you won’t always feel the way you do right now.
I’d like to quibble with you on that last part, Mom. You say, “You won’t always feel the way you do right now.” This is something you’ve always told me, and it’s a comforting sentiment. But I first started experiencing anxiety eighteen years ago and I still feel anxious. It’s not as bad, but it’s certainly still there. I still have to fight against it every day. Do you think it’s true of most people who have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder that it won’t ever totally go away? Or am I just exceptionally jittery?
You may be exceptionally jittery; I’m not sure. But probably you’re just a little lazy…. Listen: I think it’s really important to offer hope and optimism here, as well as encouragement. The key is to “follow the program.” By that I mean exercising, eating less sugar, seeing the right shrink, engaging in some sort of meditational activity (which could be anything from dancing to boxing to knitting to formal meditation), and taking medication if warranted. If you do this then yes, you will probably have to continue working at it every day — but you don’t have to have this warlike attitude. You don’t have to think of your life as this great battle against anxiety. You can just think of yourself as leading a healthier lifestyle than the one you were leading before.
And this worked for you? Has “following the program” made your anxiety manageable or even functionally nonexistent?
Yes, for the most part it really has. You know that I’m something of a maniac when it comes to exercising. I take frequent brisk walks and do pilates and (sometimes) yoga. I hardly have caffeine anymore and I eat right. My anxiety still pops up when I’m faced with certain stressors and when I’m trying new things that scare me. But even that I now think of in a positive way. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing that scares you every day.” I agree. I believe that it’s very important to constantly face your fears in order to get stronger and build confidence. It’s worked for me and it works for the patients I see who are constantly faced with fearful situations. As confidence increases, anxiety decreases! So yes, following a program of a healthier lifestyle, therapy and meds when needed, plus doing something “scary” everyday (like revealing yourself in your son’s blog!) has definitely helped me manage my anxiety, which is fairly well contained at this point in my life.
And what point is that? How old are you, exactly, Mom?
Shut up, you little punk.