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Anxiety: Should we fear natural disasters and global unrest?

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

Get control of unhealthy anxiety

Are recent global events keeping you up at night or consuming your thoughts all day, every day? Even if a natural disaster or a global event doesn’t happen in your backyard, you can still experience mounting – even debilitating – fear and anxiety over your family’s safety. We talked to Dr. Gregory Jantz, author of the upcoming book Overcoming Anxiety, Worry, and Fear: Practical Ways to Find Peace (Revell, 2011), about the health consequences of chronic anxiety and how to put your fears at ease.

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Feeling powerless causes anxiety

The Japanese radiation threat, increased tensions in the Middle East and even the national economic situation can lead you to believe the sky is falling and you can't avoid being hit. Though anxiety is normal, if you can't sleep at night or have trouble focusing at work, your mental and physical health depends on your ability to manage that stress.

"We're enveloped in global events that are wreaking havoc all over the world. The uncertainty and feelings of powerlessness are leaving people to worry about their safety," explains Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center for Counseling and Health Resources. "But there are easy and fast ways you can relieve this stress and stay as calm and relaxed as possible."


Rein in unhealthy anxiety

Every person is going to experience anxiety, but there is a difference between healthy versus unhealthy anxiety. According to Dr. Jantz, who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), grief, and trauma, the difference lies in whether anxiety leads you to positive action or negative paralysis.

"For example, when faced with a test at work or school, it is healthy to use this anxiety to motivate you to study and prepare for the test," explains the mental health expert. "It is unhealthy to allow this anxiety to overwhelm your thoughts, scatter your concentration and undermine your confidence in yourself." With healthy anxiety, you'll be better prepared to succeed, while with unhealthy anxiety, you'll have failed before the test even begins, he adds.

Chronic high levels of stress take a toll on the mind and body

The stress response is designed to propel you into action. Dr. Jantz uses the example of your body's response when you step off a curb and see a car swerving toward you. "Your breathing accelerates, your muscles tense, your heart pounds, your focus intensifies – all designed to help you quickly jump back out of harm's way," he explains. "The reactions are intense and should also be brief because people weren't meant to live on red-alert. Living daily with heightened levels of fear and anxiety is stressful to every physical system."

High anxiety can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms

No surprise that fear and anxiety produce physical and emotional stress, but the longer and more pervasive, the greater chance this stress will find ways for release of the pressure – and oftentimes not in very healthy ways. Dr. Jantz says some people will walk around with volcanic anger and emotional venting while others will numb this painful stress through alcohol and drug use, and still others will smoke to quiet their fears or eat to soothe their jangled nerves.

Don't panic unless the threat is immediate

Dr. Jantz isn't recommending that we all ignore global threats, but he says going into panic mode is not necessary if there is no immediate threa t. "It is normal to be concerned over traumatic events, such as the disaster in Japan – these are real events happening to real people," he says. "But the earthquake is over and the tsunami has passed. Yes, there is the ongoing threat of radiation but it is localized … the people scooping up kelp tablets and making a run for sushi bars for the iodine in kelp are having an unnecessary fearful reaction." When anxiety strangles your ability to act based on information, leading to panic-driven impulses, it becomes not only unnecessary but also damaging.

Overcome your unchecked fears

According to Dr. Jantz, the imagination is the essence of unchecked fears. "The mind concludes there is danger and the imagination extrapolates it into total disaster," the doctor explains. "In order to stop your imagination in its tracks, and return you to the realm of normal and healthy, you need to stop your racing thoughts, take a deep breath and examine those fears." Stop thinking the sky is falling when it isn't, so your imagination doesn't run wild with terrifying conclusions.

Up next: Five easy tips to ease your anxiety >>

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