Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affection 40 million adults aged 18 and older – 18.1% of the population- every year. That is a lot of people getting through life everyday with near-constant fear, worry, tension and the equally uncomfortable physical manifestations of these things – headaches, indigestion and sleep problems, amongst other things. (Have you ever wondered what anxiety feels like?)

Fortunately, because of the prevalence of this disorder, there are a wide variety of professional services available to people. But those can be expensive depending on you financial situation, and it can be uncomfortable to talk to a stranger about such intimate emotional difficulties. I know, because anxiety is something I’ve been struggling – correction: learning to live with – for years. 

Recently, I’ve taken to extreme endurance sports (i.e. running 100 mile races) and through that process have found some unexpected anxiety relief. Maybe it’s because 50 mile training weekends mentally and physically exhaust me to the point where the voice of anxiety in the back of my head has to shut up and sleep for a couple of hours. Or, maybe it has proven to the self-doubt savage living right next door to the voice of anxiety that I really can accomplish something (difficult). The jury is still out on why long distance running has helped ease my incessant anxiety, but I now frequently tell people that I run for my mental health and physical health that comes with it is just an added bonus. And, I’m not the only person who has “discovered” this either – more than a handful of competitive endurance athletes will tell people that many many miles are essential for managing things like depression and anxiety.

This completely natural approach to anxiety management got me thinking about other ways to manage anxiety when excessive miles – or even just a couple of miles – aren’t an option in the midst of life, work, family, etc. 

Darren Becket is a wellness expert and health coach who, in in his own words, “shows people how to find solutions to everyday physical mental and emotional challenges,” through nutrition counseling, body work, personal training and meditation. I asked him about anxiety specifically, wanting to better understand where it comes from and more importantly how to manage it more consistently. He had a few great pieces of advice, the first point being that anxiety isn’t “wrong;” it’s a very physiological experience for people experiencing it. 

“I would say the first thing about helping one who experiences frequent anxiety is to remind them that anxiety is a natural part of our physiology in regards to responding to environmental factors that trigger us,” Darren said. “It’s hard to predict at times and almost always the person affected will need to ‘come down’ from the experience, which could mean using support systems and techniques unique to their challenges.” 

He emphasized that while anxiety is a very real feeling, it can be controlled or reduced if people give an awareness to it and understand what is physically going on in their brain/body. “It takes 90 seconds for the body to chemically shift to an emotional trigger. Understanding the physiology of how anxiety attacks happen in the body can be a powerful ally to sooth the mind.” The key to this is self-awareness. 

Anyone who suffers from anxiety will tell you that it’s an all-encompassing emotion. The smallest gust of wind can feel like a tornado, and what might only be an insignificant anthill mentally becomes and insurmountable mountain. This mental barrier is something that with practice, can be overcome. 

When we are coaching people to move past their perceived limitations and fears, I think we are really talking about is ‘right sizing’ the situation,” Darren said. “‘Right sizing’ refers to a technique where one sees the problem as smaller then we originally give it credit for. This can also refer to asking the right questions, instead of latching on to mental projections of “what ifs.” Questions to ask include, what triggers my anxiety? What environmental factors lead to a higher percentage change of having anxiety? Do I have the right allies to help support me if I have anxiety? Am I focusing on what I have control of, rather than what I don’t have control of?” 

These can be difficult questions to ask in the midst of an anxiety spell or full-blown panic attack. The good news is, no one is expecting you to get it 100% right the first, tenth or even 100th time. Anxiety, like life, is a learning experience. Beginning to understand that it doesn’t have to only hinder us, but can give us the tools for greater self awareness and self care, can turn a perceived curse into a real blessing.