Reclaiming happiness in the midst of anxiety
By Dr. Marisa Tomasic
Anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety, can undeniably relate that it takes away from the ability to experience the joyful moments of daily living. While the majority of people have felt at least mild anxiety or nervousness on occasion, perhaps noticing sweaty palms, racing thoughts, or rapid heartbeat before a job interview or test, others suffer to a much greater degree. The anxiety that accompanies Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) might be felt at a much greater intensity, with symptoms persisting over longer periods. This type of anxiety may often appear spontaneously and unexpectedly. Life seems unsettling, overwhelming, and sometimes frightening. Whether in the form of a short burst or a protracted battle, anxiety has a distinct way of sabotaging pleasure, happiness and peace.
How dare this entity, which is merely a signal that something is out of sync, become the unrelenting monster that it is when it grips us in a stronghold, the overriding focus tends to be that of survival. Mental, emotional, and physical energies are consumed by working hard at eradicating, or at least controlling, uncomfortable thoughts, painful memories, or frightening what-ifs. Averting and staving off panic attacks can start to become a normal part of the routine. It’s as if there’s a gargantuan-size neon sign flashing “danger ahead!” as refuge is sought from what amounts to a perpetual mindstorm.
Doing battle with anxiety is exhausting and depleting. It’s difficult to imagine contentment, let alone joy, when trying to handle such adversity. For some, the mere relief accompanying symptom-free moments, or the resolution of an acute surge can give rise to happiness and hope. The active process of reclaiming some of life’s joys include treatments that are taught, prescribed, or conducted within the mental health provider’s office and assimilated into the person’s everyday life. In my previous work providing psychotherapy for anxious and depressed adults, I made it a point to ask about times when they could recall being free, or almost free, of anxiety, and felt more peaceful and joyful. The purpose of this task was to have them acknowledge realistically that they had the potential to feel happier and healthier. In doing so, hope started to resurface from gloom and darkness. I also discovered that some of the therapy techniques implemented to alleviate anxiety were, in themselves, adept at both quelling symptoms, and generating happiness during the healing process.
A psychotherapy technique that appears to have the capacity to facilitate pleasure, calm, peace, and feelings of well-being is known as mindfulness, or being present in the moment. Most anxiety sufferers would be quick to acknowledge the extent to which they struggle with being “in their heads,” finding it challenging to be in the present. Whether they are intrusive or racing thoughts, distressing memories, or fears of the future, these thoughts sap our energy and joy.
The anxiety associated with PTSD is not always predictable and can arise at unexpected times. It keeps us in our heads with worry thoughts, interferes with our productivity, and steals our joy. Being prepared and open to manage it with the help of trained professionals and our own playbook of what works for us is a formula for recouping health and well-being. Anxiety is a signal that something is out of harmony and sync. Understanding this, and knowing that we can feel good again and experience peace during the healing process, can provide welcomed reinforcement in reclaiming what this joy thief has taken. Connection to the present moment embodies a variety of uncomplicated, easily implemented, activities that can bust stress, produce calm and relaxation, and facilitate the restoration of happiness. While conducting research on simple stress- and anxiety-relief backed up by science, I identified at least 50 ideas that appear to meet these criteria. A few moments of prayer or meditation, smiling and laughing, physical movement, looking at or smelling flowers and herbs, singing, and listening to music have been shown by research (in addition to anecdotal, or self-reports) to alleviate stress and promote relaxation. In essence, they have the potential to assemble a foundation from which happiness can evolve. Similar activities include watching fish swim around, getting out into the sun, and connecting with someone.
Dr. Marisa Tomasic is a licensed counseling psychologist with a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh.
Dr. Tomasic is currently opening a new practice in Mt. Airy, N.C.