Mental Health America first celebrated Mental Health Month in May 1949 to “raise awareness of mental health conditions and mental wellness for all.” Since then, a strong focus on mental health advocacy, awareness, and education in May is tradition.
This year, Mental Health America is addressing these important issues through two themes:
Do More for 1 in 4 is a call to action to help the 1 in 4 American adults who live with a diagnosable, treatable mental health condition and the fact that they can go on to live full and productive lives. Download the Do More For 1in4 Toolkit.
The second theme, Healing Trauma’s Invisible Wounds, focuses on the impact of traumatic events on individuals and communities. It centers around asking the person-based question: “What happened to you?” Download the Healing Trauma’s Invisible Wounds Toolkit.
Anxiety is fundamentally intrusive, interfering with going to sleep, preoccupying you while driving and preventing you from concentrating on what needs to be done. For many adults and their kids anxiety is always there, and if not, it’s always on the verge of being there.
It’s exhausting, and people want relief.
We live in a pill obsessed culture, so the reflex is to think medication.
Yet, other options are out there, and they often work.
Medications have a time and a place, but a little caution is not a bad thing. Other treatments range the gamut from diet changes, to meditation, to exercise to talk therapy. In addition, some treatments are based on better habits of living that will continue to help you years after the anxiety has abated. Sounds like a win win to me.
Healthy Chill Pills: Can We Have Less Medication for Anxiety?
According to the National Institute of Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness among Americans, with some estimates reaching 40 million people. It’s generally accepted that effective treatment for most anxiety combines medication and psychotherapy. And, I agree. These protocals work and I’ve used them for years. The issue at hand is whether we can do better.
A common trap that people get into with medications in general, and especially psychiatric ones, is thinking that a pill will end their suffering. This may be the case if the ailment has one simple cause, for example, if an improperly treated wound becomes infected by bacteria, an antibiotic can often clear the situation up quickly with minimal side effects. However, anxiety and other psychological issues are more complex, and the effects of medication are less fully understood. And, with all the breakthroughs of modern science, the functioning of the most important organ in our body, the brain, is still oftentimes a mystery.
Example: The placebo effect of psychiatric medications is very high. This means that taking medications does help, but often the effect is less because of the pharmacological action of the agent, and more about your mind “believing” that the pill will work. The message here is that what makes drugs work, may be more complicated than you think. In fact it may be because of the way you think.
Most medications prescribed for anxiety disorders can be characterized as either antidepressants or benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines can cause a relatively quick calm and are much appreciated by patients who are panicky. The antidepressants work more slowly but maintain a blood level every day so they have the advantage of muting some anxiety throughout the day. Side effects are varied. It is easy to get hooked on benzodiazapines because they work so quickly and can be quite effective. The antidepressants have a wide range of side effects, from rare cardiac issues, to weight gain or loss, to night sweats and more. Fortunately, most of the side effects of these meds are relatively benign, but who wants to be on medication if they don’t have to?
And here is the rub. In our society, the doctors, the patients, the managed care companies, and medical industry all push medications. It’s the easiest and, sometimes, the least costly of interventions. But does that make it good treatment?
Good research has shown that medication, especially combined with treatment from a competent therapist, can often give a person what they need to start down the road to recovery. But in the long run, the best way to manage symptoms of anxiety isn’t with a drug that might induce dependence or have other side effects.
The distorted stories we tell ourselves can amplify our anxiety — which, ironically can occur when we’re trying to reduce the worry, jitters and angst. One of the most damaging of distortions is the desire for perfection.
Since we can’t predict how events will unfold, that perfect solution simply doesn’t exist — not to mention that the idea of perfection only puts added pressure on ourselves and sets us up for failure. As Reinecke writes, “When you expect perfection, the only guarantee is that you’ll be disappointed.”
A more helpful way to approach anxiety is by being flexible — which I know is tough because when you’re anxiety-prone, the last thing you probably feel comfortable with is variability. But with practice and a shift in perspective, you can get there.
Reinecke features a three-step process in his book to help readers find a variety of anxiety-alleviating strategies.
To start figuring out which strategies can help, pinpoint a problem that’s bothering you. Then brainstorm at least 10 to 15 solutions (no erasing or crossing off just yet). “Be bold and creative,” Reinecke says. And consider how you’re feeling. Next to each solution, record the pros and cons along with the short- and long-term consequences. Lastly, look at your list and assign each solution a grade from A to F. Eliminate any of the Ds and Fs. After that, you’ve got a good-sized list of strategies.
Try to be flexible if things don’t turn out according to your plan. As Reinecke writes, “Be open to a range of results, and maintain your sense that you are capable of handling a host of outcomes.”
Remember that the only thing you can control is your perception. “Although you can’t control the future, you can control how you view it,” according to Reinecke.
Reinecke starts the chapter with a quote from Winston Churchill that serves as an important reminder for anxiety — and for life: “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no less enthusiasm.”