Coping with uncertainty

February 25, 2009


I suffer from an inherited anxiety disorder. For most of my life, I never knew when a panic attack would occur. When one came, however, it rendered me virtually paralyzed. For some reason my brain would send a signal to release large amounts of adrenaline and that adrenaline would cause my heart to beat very rapidly; it would raise my blood sugar and my blood pressure to extraordinary heights. My chest and head would hurt terribly, my knees would feel weak, I’d begin to perspire profusely, and sometimes I’d just fall down. My fear of these panic attacks came to dominate my life. Since I never knew when one would occur, I always worried that one was about to happen. I had panic attacks during job interviews, examinations, first dates, even sports activities.

In the past decade the pharmaceutical industry has finally developed some drugs that work reasonably well in controlling my attacks. The drugs don’t eliminate the attacks, but they make them less frequent. Instead of having 10 attacks each day, I’ll have one or two.

I’ve also worked with a therapist for many years to help me develop coping strategies not only for when an attack comes, but for sealing with the constant fear that an attack will come at a bad time. Thanks to the medications and my therapist’s wisdom and skill I have been able to lead a relatively normal life in recent years. Before this, however, I self-medicated: I drank too much, I constantly searched for things to keep my mind and body busy in the hope that exhaustion would stave off attacks. And, whenever I could, I’d hide when an attack occurred by pleading stomach problems or some such excuse.

What I have learned in the past decade is that the best thing I can do, in addition to medication and therapy, is develop a lifestyle that is planned in such a way that it helps keep me calm. I have, in effect, learned to act in beneficial ways in order to cope. I avoid crowded places, because these will often set off an attack. I avoid confrontation (and, thus, stay away from faculty meetings). When I know that my anxiety levels are rising, I play with my dogs and, sometimes, I’ll even take a dog to work with me because this helps calm my nerves.

But the purpose of this column is not simply confessional. I noticed that in the past eight months as the economy has begun its “meltdown” and government seems unable to quite figure out how to solve the nation’s financial problems, many of my friends and acquaintances, who have never shown symptoms of anxiety disorder, now are behaving in ways very much the same way I do. Thus, as someone who has coped with anxiety on a daily basis for more than a half-century, I have some suggestions.

Generalized anxiety is particularly difficult to deal with because the person suffering isn’t quite sure of the cause and feels helpless, as a result, and unable to eliminate whatever the problem is that is causing the anxiety. In our present national economic situation, no individual can solve the crisis. Almost all of us face uncertainty: Will we have jobs next month? Will our pay and benefits be reduced? Will we be able to pay our bills? Many people who thought that they were safe financially, now find that they are not because of greed and corruption in the financial industries. They feel helpless.

The fact is that no one is helpless. Each of us, when we face uncertainty and anxiety, need to make a realistic evaluation of our situation and then make plans to improve the situation. We must ask ourselves, if we lose our jobs, what other marketable skills we can use to earn a living. What contacts do we have that can help us find a job. If we are worried about a salary cut, then we must ask, what are the things we can give up? And we must be ready, if necessary to give them up.

The fact of the matter is that the best way of coping with uncertainty and anxiety, at least in my experience, is to remain calm and rational, explore all possible scenarios and plan for each scenario. If you do that, then there’ll be less uncertainty and less anxiety. That’s a coping strategy and it’s something we all need these days.

Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


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