Well-Being//

The Unusual Thing I Do To Beat Anxiety

After years of experimentation, I've found a method that works for me.

Jennifer A Smith/ Getty Images
Jennifer A Smith/ Getty Images

By Felena Hanson

When you Google “anxiety,” the first two synonyms presented are worry and concern. Which, according to author Elizabeth Gilbert, are two very different things.

In a 2018 talk she gave for the annual National Association of Women Business Owners conference, she stated that the word “worry” originates from the word “to wring”…like to wring out your wet t-shirt. Think of it as twisting something until it’s strangled. This is not a pretty picture. She instead suggests that we should be “concerned” about the perils of the world vs. “worried.” With all that is happening in the world, I can understand why people are “concerned.” Life is complicated!

This prompted me to start digging into the data, which in turn gave me cause for “concern.” According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 40 million Americans over the age of 18 are affected by anxiety — roughly 18% of the nation’s population. Current estimates put this number much higher – approximately 30% – as many people don’t seek help, are misdiagnosed, or don’t know they have issues with anxiety.

And women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety disorders as men. Besides physical symptoms or discomfort directly associated with anxiety — such as an upset stomach, for example — evidence suggests that people who suffer from anxiety are also at greater risk for developing a number of chronic health conditions.

According to The Economic Burden of Anxiety Disorders, a study commissioned by the ADAA and based on data gathered by the association and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, almost one third of the $148 billion total mental health bill for the U.S.

I was shocked to find out that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. People with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) often spend over 300 minutes a day worrying. That is a lot of wasted time! And totally futile because the last time I checked, we cannot control the future or change the past.

Young, wild, and free – not anymore.

Teens are feeling more anxious than ever. My recent work with teen girls (through a non-profit organization called Girls Rising) opened my eyes to this. My mentee not only had anxiety, but it seemed all her friends did, as well. They talked about it regularly…like it was just part of being a teenager.

Based on diagnostic interview data from National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A), almost 40% of adolescent girls have General Anxiety Disorder – 38.0% for females and 26.1% for males. At the age where you should be wild and free of life’s challenges, teens are increasingly tying themselves in knots.

So, why are teens feeling more anxious than ever? Some argue that our society’s increasing materialism over the years has eroded personal relationships and families. We now value money and personal luxuries more than relationships. This explanation can answer the question of increased anxiety for both adults and teens.

Some experts also point to a strong sense of narcissism and entitlement among young people today. Our teens have been raised to believe that they can do anything, so they feel inadequate when they don’t see themselves living up to these expectations. For many, there is a very visible measuring stick.

[Related: Millennial Mindset: Get Real About Your Mental Health]

Comparison steals joy.

I believe one of the biggest issues (and likely the main issue with my mentee) is the proliferation of social media. Everyone is showing off the “highlight reel,” and when we look at our own lives, they just don’t seem that glamorous.

We are constantly asking for approval in the number “likes” a post receives. When we are on social media, we are not present. We are somewhere else, watching the fantasy of someone else’s life.

This is a significant problem. Many teens don’t know how to just be in their own head. Not to mention the issue of cyberbullying. According to the i-SAFE foundation, over half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and about the same number have engaged in cyberbullying.

So, how do we fix it?

Many of our modern day self-help gurus tout the benefits of a regular meditation practice to help minimize one’s anxiety. It’s long been of interest to me, as I’m a big proponent of Eastern philosophies over Western pharmaceuticals. There is something very alluring to the promised state of “zen” or “peace”…who doesn’t want that?

Over the last decade, I’ve taken numerous classes and workshops on the topic and found it to be, well, very, very difficult. Every time I would try to quiet my thoughts, I found that even more thoughts would flood into my subconscious. It almost had the opposite effect on me (which I know means I need a ton of practice).

The other challenge is that I frankly don’t like sitting still. So eventually, I just gave up! I kept my routine of running every morning and counted that as my meditative time. And I don’t run with music, which you will find ironic in a moment.

Self-talk.

Let’s go back to the 300 minutes of worrying. What is happening in the mind of someone with GAD? As described in the book The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, many people have constant chatter happening in their mind – like a hamster wheel – and they just keep circulating the same conversations or they continue to play out what-if scenarios about everything from work to personal relationships.

It wasn’t until I listened to the book on audio that I realized I don’t do this. In fact, I found the book frustrating, so much so that I didn’t even finish it. I went back to my friend that recommended the book to have a discussion…and this is where the “aha!” moment came in.

I realized that instead of this internal dialogue, I’m playing music. I’m literally hearing a whole band play one of my favorite songs. I can often trace the impetus for the song by thinking back over my day…something I heard in the grocery store or a phrase someone said that triggered the lyrics to a song I know.

I do this every waking moment: when I’m working, when I’m in the shower, and even sometimes in my dreams. Pretty much anytime I’m not speaking or listening, I’m in my own private concert.

Many studies have argued that anxiety may be hereditary, which made we wonder if my habit might also be hereditary. When I traveled to Sweden with my aunt Jan, I noticed her consistently quietly humming.

After a week of this observation, I asked her about this behavior and presented my unscientific theory. She agreed that this internal symphony also keeps her from overthinking things. So I made a call to my dad when I returned from the trip, and guess what…he does the same darn thing!

[Related: Postpartum Depression: A Survivor Speaks Up]

Is there science behind this?

Up until recently, I guess I just assumed that everyone walked around playing music in their head. Once I was alerted that was not the case, I started to wonder if I was “strange.” I was pleased to find via this Quora thread that I’m not alone!

I started to dig into the research behind music on the brain and came up with phrases like “music hallucination” or “ear worms,” which sounds like a disease. What I found relevant was that music is strongly associated with the brain’s reward system.

According to Robert Zatorre, professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Montreal Neurological Institute, it’s the part of the brain that tells us if things are valuable, important, or relevant to survival. He suggests that we may associate particular songs with positive events in our life. For example, Madonna’s “Holiday” reminds me of summer girls’ trips to Mexico.

At the point in a piece of music when people experience peak pleasure, the part of the brain called the ventral striatum releases dopamine. But here’s something even more interesting: Dopamine is released from a different brain area (the dorsal striatum) about ten to fifteen seconds before the moment of peak pleasure.

Why would we have this reaction before the most pleasurable part of the piece of music? Zatorre’s research goes on to show that the brain likes to figure out what’s coming next. He explains, “As you’re anticipating a moment of pleasure, you’re making predictions about what you’re hearing and what you’re about to hear. Part of the pleasure we derive from it is being able to make predictions.”

Music is the new meditation.

Whether I’m playing a song in my head or I’m watching a live concert, I’m filling the void where I might trend towards those hamster wheel conversations.

I’m not saying it’s the antidote to anxiety, but it works for me…at least until I can master the art of enlightenment via my meditation practice. Ha! Right after this Green Day song leaves my head!

[Related: 100 Days of Meditation Can Help Your Career]

Felena Hanson is the founder of Hera Hub, a spa-inspired shared workspace and community for female entrepreneurs. She is the author of “Flight Club – Rebel, Reinvent, and Thrive: How to Launch Your Dream Business,” which provides tools and resources to women at every stage of launching their businesses.

Originally published on Ellevate.

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