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After my mother was hospitalized twice in two months for falls, I found myself consumed with worrying about her. The worries were various and boundless. When my cellphone kept buzzing one day with calls and texts while I was in an important work meeting, I worried that someone was urgently trying to reach me to say she'd fallen again. Or perhaps, I fretted silently, she'd been found wandering outside. Or maybe she had accidentally burned her apartment building down. Even as I faced my boss impassively, my mind was frantic with realistic and unrealistic concerns.
After the meeting, when I was finally able to check my phone, I found that my worrying had been unwarranted. The messages were about other matters; my mother was fine. It was then that I realized I was suffering something more disruptive and uncontrollable — rampant anxiety.
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How do we distinguish the two? When stressed, it is normal for us to worry about potentially bad outcomes. As uncomfortable as worrying feels, it is the way many of us think through and plan for future contingencies. When all turns out well, we feel relieved.
Anxiety is what we experience when the worries are so numerous and intense that we can no longer think clearly. Our minds become fixated on worst-case scenarios and overwhelmed by feelings of fear and helplessness, even when real danger has passed. We have difficulty making decisions or interacting with our loved ones calmly. Our bodies, too, may suffer symptoms, such as palpitations, tremors and tense muscles.
Anxious caregivers, for all their good intentions, are often hobbled by their fears. But fear can be reduced to normal, manageable worries if we are willing to approach our anxiety as a treatable condition. Here are some ideas how.
Nagging worries are bothersome, but we can push them away and focus on other things. What clinicians call "anxious ruminations," on the other hand, are troubling thoughts that we can't stop mulling over for very long no matter how we try to distract ourselves from them. Such ruminations cause us to be preoccupied and inattentive during the day and keep us awake for hours at night. They greatly detract from our enjoyment of living. If you recognize your experience in this description of anxiety, then it is time to seek help in order to become a happier and more effective caregiver.