Archive | Anxiety

When Anxiety Drives Decisions – You Tend to Go in Circles

May/June 2017

The purpose of decisions is to usher you into the possibilities of life so you can live life more fully.

Anxiety cripples your ability to make good decisions and live life fully.  Why?  Because anxiety pushes the brain into a place of fear… that place is called the amygdala.  When you make fear-based decisions from the amygdala, the decision-making process feels rigid, uncertain and shaky. 

The Journal of Neuroscience published research from a University of Pittsburgh study that demonstrates how anxiety works to disengage the part of the brain that is essential for making good decisions. The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is located in the front of the brain and it infuses an aspect of calm, creativity and flexibility into the decision-making process.

The PFC is the part of the brain that evaluates pros/cons, looks at consequences, generates options, scans for additional possibilities, and generates ideas of how to negotiate.  It looks at your emotional responses as well as those of your loved ones as important information and includes that as data in the decision-making process. And, oh-so-importantly, the PFC calms the amygdala, the part of the brain that runs on instinct, impulse and raw emotions (e.g. fear) – so that decisions are more balanced and flexible.

3 Tools to Take Anxiety Out of Decision-Making:

1.  Engage the Pre-Frontal Cortex with Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where you are and what you’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around you.  Mindfulness strengthens the pre-frontal cortex and keeps you out of the fear-based amygdala. Mindfulness limits the influence of the things that don’t matter, so you can focus on the things that do.  

Takeaway:  Eliminate the distractions and allow your mind to be fully present in the moment. Engage in mindfulness practices to quiet the fear in the amygdala and strengthen the PFC for decision-making:  Sit quietly in nature –pray – reflect on your bigger purpose in life – meditate – turn off the TV/radio/internet – put down the drink or smoke or dip – stop the busyness – spend time with who you are and who you want to be.  

2. Take the Best

Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, whose work was cited in the Malcolm Gladwell bestseller book, Blink, has found that people make the best and most solid decisions based on limited information. Gigerenzer coined the phrase  “Take the Best.”  When we use a take-the-best strategy, it means that you reason and calculate only as much as you absolutely have to; then you stop — and begin to move forward in implementing the decision.   

Takeaway:  Lay out the pieces of information that you think should be considered to reach a decision.  Look for the one piece of information that is clearly more important than the others.  Stop. That one piece of information is often enough to make your decision. You don’t need the rest.  

3. Trust the experience of others

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of the bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness, has done a lot of study around “decision-making”. Gilbert argues that if we don’t have the knowledge or experience to make a decision, the best course of action is to ask a friend, colleague, mentor, spiritual director or anyone you trust.

Takeaway: Ask someone you trust – not what you should do – but how they handled a similar decision and what their experience was — what were the upsides and downsides to their decision.  Often times when someone else has gone through something similar – their experience is an excellent data point to be considered.  It takes some of the mystery out of your decision.  

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Money Worries Bankrupt Your Well-Being

September 2016

Money is a major source of stress, according to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association (APA). Almost 3 out of 4 Americans feel anxious about money.

A study found that Millennials (born 1980 and after) and Gen Xers (born between 1965 – 1980) have significant financial worry as they struggle with under-employment, student loans and parenthood.

Worrying about money and debt impacts people individually and it tarnishes relationships. The APA reports that roughly 1 out of 3 couples fight about money.

Having more money does not relieve financial anxiety (2015 UBS survey). Half of those with a net worth of $1 million to $5 million believe that one wrong move, such as a job loss or a drop in the market, could cause their financial position to crash. And people in this bracket feel like there is not be enough time to recover and earn that wealth back, if that were to happen.

Why? The fear response of not having enough money goes back to caveman days. If a big black bear were to appear in the field as the cave dwellers were gathering berries, they would immediately go into fight, flight or freeze mode. As the sense of physical danger increases, their bodies responded accordingly (rapid heart rate, increased adrenaline levels, increased perspiration, dry mouth, tightened muscles, dilated pupils, etc.).

No differently than 4,000 years ago, our brains continue to be geared towards safety. The emotional part of our brain does not know the difference between emotional safety and physical safety. Money touches upon both physical and emotional safety – so it’s a double whammy to our brains.

On top of it all, financial anxiety feeds other anxious feelings – such as fear of failure, fear of being a disappointment, fear of letting the family down, fear of being seen as a loser or fear of feeling inadequate.

If financial anxiety is not dealt with in a healthy way — the increased physiological responses of these fears can destroy one’s health and emotional well-being.

1. Create a plan. Gain a sense of control by writing out goals and targets. Whether the goals are to reduce expenses or increase savings – look at where you are at now and create a plan. Gallup reports that 80% of non-retirees and 88% of retirees with written financial plans had more confidence that they could achieve their financial goals than those without a plan.

2. Start Small. By focusing on what you can see ahead of you and the action that you can take now – will begin to reduce your anxiety. Start with the small goals first – the bigger goals will be easier as you accomplish the small ones.

3. Focus on the Positive. It is human nature to focus on the negative – what you’re doing wrong. Take some time to look at what’s going well for you with your money, debt, savings —maybe you’ve increased your 401(k) contributions or you’ve started to take your lunch to work or the value of your home has increased.

4. Use Anxiety as a Temporary Motivator. Anxiety can be a sentinel for the things that need to change. Once you begin to make those changes, allow yourself to let the anxiety go. It’s no longer useful.

5. Let It Go. Ask yourself: What’s the worst that could happen? Yes, you may have to cut up some credit cards, cut back on vacations or share a car with your spouse. These changes are not life threatening. Stop and soothe yourself: There’s no big black bear. There really is no black bear.

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Weeding Out Anxiety Organically

August 2016

Everyone feels nervous, jittery or anxious during times of stress —it might be when a relationship is ending, preparing for a job interview or waiting for the results from recent blood work.   That’s normal and most people experience anxiety from time-to-time.

Anxiety becomes a bigger problem when it is constant or at such high levels that it begins to negatively impact one’s life and the ability to function well in everyday situations.  Maybe you notice it’s hard to “stop and smell the roses”.

Reducing your anxiety levels “organically” means making changes to your behaviors and thoughts, so anxious thoughts don’t rule your life.  No matter the level of anxiety you experience — simple changes can go a long way to reduce feelings of stress.

One common form of anxiety is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), women are twice as likely to be affected with GAD as men.  GAD negatively impacts 7 million U.S. adults each year.

When a person suffers from GAD, they feel anxious most days and it impacts them in significant areas of their life (work, home, relationships). Generalized Anxiety is diagnosed when the individual has 3+ of the following symptoms for at least 6 months:
•    Irritability
•    Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
•    Fatigue
•    Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep)
•    Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
•    Muscle tension

It’s always a good idea to get a thorough physical and to tell your doctor about your symptoms so that they can rule out any possible medical problems.  Medication for anxiety is always an option — your doctor can help you make that decision.

Anxiety is treatable.  Making behavioral changes and shifting your thoughts is a way to organically reduce anxious feelings.


1. Soothe Yourself
Develop short, self-soothing statements that whisper right into the heart of your anxious thoughts/feelings.  Some of my favorites are:

  • I’m trying something new right now and it’s an experiment.  If I don’t do well, I’ll try something else – I can’t fail.
  • Other people’s opinions don’t define me.
  • Bad decisions from my past don’t define me.
  • I am doing the best I can with what I have.
  • I can’t control people, places or things.
  • One day at a time.
  • I’m not perfect and that’s ok.
  • No one can make me feel inferior without my consent. (Eleanor Roosevelt)

2. Limit Caffeine and Alcohol Consumption
Caffeine is a stimulant that triggers the fight-flight response (e.g. increase in heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, etc.) which triggers anxious feelings.  Alcohol can create a temporary escape from anxiety but can also exacerbate anxiety and cause panic attacks.  Be mindful of what happens to your anxiety after you drink alcohol or caffeine.

3. Reduce Social Media
In a recent article, I wrote about FOMO – Feeling Of Missing Out – and the accompanying anxiety.  Limit your involvement with social media sites to avoid comparing your insides to other people’s outsides.

4. Curtail Time Spent Watching/Reading the News
Sound radical?  The media feeds on sensationalism to provoke excitement, big reactions and fear.  Cut back on your news consumption for 30 days and see if it makes a difference for you.

5. Exercise
Physical exercise reduces anxiety and is a great stress management technique. Regular exercise creates a sense of calming, improves sleep, provides stress relief, and increases self-esteem. Even a 20-minute daily walk can be beneficial for anxiety.


  • Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults (age 18 and older) — that’s almost 20% of the US population. (Original Source: National Institute of Mental health).
  • Anxiety is highly treatable.  Despite that fact, only one-third of people who suffer from anxiety seek treatment.  
  • According to a study published in the The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry,  people with anxiety disorders seek relief for their symptoms often through their medical doctors because the symptoms of anxiety mimic physical illnesses.
  • Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.
  • Women are twice as likely to be affected with GAD as men.  GAD negatively impacts 7 million U.S. adults each year.

*The source for the information cited above is from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)

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FOMO: Fear of Missing Out

JUNE 2016

Pronunciation: /ˈfōmō/
Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on social media.

This word/acronym is new.  It was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013 to describe the social angst tied to the usage of social media and electronics.

The anxiety that “others have a better life” has always been somewhat common among 20-somethings as they find their feet in this world as an adult.  They hear of their classmates landing exciting jobs in flashy organizations and can feel overwhelmed as they focus on their college debt and wanting-it-all-right-now.   Facebook and other social media amplifies that feeling – “you’re not doing as well as others”.

The social angst of “missing out on something” also hits 30/40-somethings that believe they should have it all together.  They embrace the fairy tale story woven through Facebook that others are rich, happily married and quite successful. They might notice a sinking feeling inside as they view the in-your-face affluence of a high-school friend, who posts a dozen pictures of her Hawaii vacation.

Even 50/60-somethings experience intensified feelings of inadequacy, regret in relationships and disappointment in fading career choices.  Looking through the lens of social media, it’s easy to say, “Look at Ben enjoying retirement — I should have taken that Federal job when I had the chance.  And, Sara’s grandchildren visit her often — mine don’t.”

Even those in the workforce who have a company phone or Blackberry might notice they regularly check their work email in the evening and/or weekends.  This is another form of FOMO.  The Fear of Missing Out in the workplace has underpinnings of anxiety (such as fear of failure or fear of being judged/criticized).   This type of FOMO drives people to be “attached to work” through their electronics, even though they are supposed to be off work and enjoying work-life balance.

Popular writer on psychology and technology, Nir Eyal (author of  “Hooked”), states that it’s important to remember that the feeling of FOMO is common and not unusual.  Nir offers these tips:
•    Delete social media apps from your mobile device. It is not as radical as quitting Facebook altogether but is a quick and relatively easy way to reduce social media use when you are away from the computer.
•    Take a hiatus from social media. Try staying offline for a day, a week, or maybe even a month. Examples abound of people cutting themselves off and waking up to the wonders of the real world.

My suggestions to clients include:
•    Create a written gratitude list (with pen and paper) to remind yourself of the good things in your life.
•    Focus on what you want from life and begin to live your life more fully, in ways that are important to you (not others).  I found the book, “Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren a game-changer for me in my early 40’s.
•    Have a basket by the front door — any work-related devices get placed in it upon arriving home for the evening.  It’s a great place for personal devices too during family dinners and social gatherings.
•    Develop a gentle mantra as you use Facebook, “This is not an accurate representation of reality” – so that you can relish in the good things happening to others while not robbing yourself of peace or contentment.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

― Theodore Roosevelt

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Anxiety — Fear — Worry. Oh My!

March 2014

The distinction between “anxiety”, “fear” and “worry” is minimal and often indistinguishable. Whatever your emotional vocabulary, these feelings are uncomfortable, sometimes debilitating and not easy to avoid once they move in.

Unhappiness and discomfort in life is typically fueled by a few emotions; including anxiety, fear, and worry. They may feel like guests who showed up at your door and don’t want to leave. When tragedy or hardship hits, they might tighten their grip, setting up home in your head and heart.

These emotions can wash over you like a tidal wave or be an undercurrent of your daily life. Unrelenting doubts and fears can interfere with good quality of life while sapping your emotional energy.

Sara, a client from years ago, said to me, “I fear failure.  I worry about being rejected.  And, I certainly avoid making any mistakes.   That’s just who I am and I’ve always been with way.”.  Sara had difficulty sleeping through the night, was snapping at her husband/children and was eating more due to stress.  She sought help from me to experience more joy in daily life, worry less and sleep better

In one of the early sessions with Sara – she asked if we could use scripture verses in our work because they gave her peace, comfort and security —  and tied into her identity as a Christian.  Together, we chose this verse:
“The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6/ESV)

Sara began to shift into a new reality that she could live life without fear and anxiety in the forefront.   She was able to relax her anxious parts and address those fears with a calm and heart-felt interest.  Sara began to get to know these uninvited guests with patience and curiosity.  As her understanding and compassion for those emotions increased – their grip decreased – and she welcomed them with open arms.

Only when we heal the anxiety/fear and stop trying to make it go away – can we begin to live more fully in the present moment and move into the future with courage, clarity and hope.

Peace be with you.

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