"You know you live in an anxious time when your worry level is color-coded," says Richard Restak, neurologist, psychiatrist, and author of Poe's Heart and the Mountain Climber
(Harmony). The book pulls seamlessly from psychology, medicine, history, and popular culture to explore anxiety from all angles and offer advice on managing it. (The title invokes both Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart," whose antihero is overcome by fear, and mountain climbers, who expertly control theirs.) Restak's drug-free suggestions for weathering a rush of distress, whether it's sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security or a spider on the ceiling:
Exercise the brain-body connection.
Upsetting images and thoughts alter the balance between the frontal lobes and the amygdala—the parts of your brain that detect and respond to perceived danger; in reaction your heart rate jumps and you begin to sweat and take shallow breaths. Restak suggests that you close your eyes, breathe deeply, relax your neck and shoulders, and concentrate on a wonderful moment in your life. This will help moderate your mental and physical responses.
Know the facts.
Heightened anxiety usually springs more from imagination than from reality, Restak explains. In a 2002 travel magazine survey, more than half of respondents said they would cancel a pleasure trip if the risk of a terrorist attack were 1 in 100,000 or greater. By this logic, they would also have to avoid walking down the street, because of the much higher—1 in 45,200—risk of getting hit by a car.
Instead of worrying about your anxiety, try to accept it as a normal and necessary function of living. "We're all anxious, and it's good that we are," says Restak. "At its optimum level, anxiety can help you formulate possibilities and imagine yourself in the future. When you ask yourself, Can I perform at the best level? you're having an anxious thought, but it's leading you to strive toward something."