Just about anyone and everyone can attest to experiencing the emotion of “anxiety”. Whether related to passing an exam, or anticipating meeting someone on a first date, anxiety is a universal emotion that just about everyone, even in infancy has experienced. From an evolutionary standpoint, anxiety is supposed to protect us from situations and things that could be dangerous, so therefore it’s a necessary emotion to have.
However, its severity can affect people in different ways. Anxiety is the most common disorder affecting over 40 million Americans and 18% of the population. It can be debilitating and have a perilous effect on an individual’s ability to function. There are many ways to treat it, including prescription drugs like Xanax or Klonopin. TheFutureofPR sits down with anxiety expert Dr. Lisa Cortez to find solutions to optimize mental health, especially during this pandemic, where anxiety has become more commonplace.
Dr. Lisa Cortez shares some of her advice on overcoming being overwhelmed by anxiety and holistic ways you can treat it. Her first piece of advice is not to fear the anxiety you harbor, but rather embrace it.
How does one initially develop anxiety typically? What ages and why/how does it come about?
Dr. Lisa Cortez: There are many reasons why someone can develop an anxiety disorder. Some of those reasons include stress, trauma, hormone imbalance, thyroid issues, a loss of a loved one, even a person’s personality. People that tend to have a natural worry personality can experience anxiety as children. Parents might not see it until the child is around 7 or 8 years old. The reason being this is when children can express and explain what they’re feeling a litter better. When someone comes to see me in my office with anxiety, and they say they feel as if they’ve always worried, I ask them, If they ever worried as children that your parents weren’t going to pick you up from school. Almost everyone says YES! That’s one of the earliest fears that people with a worry personality have.
Why do you think from an evolutionary standpoint anxiety exists?
Dr. Lisa Cortez: So anxiety is a normal emotion. We all experience anxiety, it’s when we can’t control it, and it takes over that we develop an anxiety disorder. We are made to have anxiety. Our Amygdala, a part of our brain, is made to scan our environment for any threat. It’s meant to process fear. This creates the fight, flight, or freeze. We were made to have this part of the brain to survive. This kept our ancestors from not running into a lion’s den. The problem with this part of our brain is that once we trigger that amygdala, sometimes anything that mimics anxiety can process it as fear, hence the anxiety disorder develops. Because with anxiety, we feel a lot of different emotions; anything can trick the brain into thinking it’s in danger. If you get heart palpitations when you experience anxiety, then when you work out, you can trigger an anxiety attack.
What are the most effective methods of treatment you’ve used to help patients who struggle with anxiety?
Dr. Lisa Cortez: When we experience severe anxiety, we tend to start fearing it. This fear will keep the anxiety going, making it worse. The most effective method for treating anxiety is to teach the brain that you are not in danger. First, learning not to fear anxiety, practicing meditation, eliminating things that trigger someone’s anxiety, and then exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is a form of therapy used to treat anxiety. It’s having the patients exposed to things that he or she may not feel comfortable with. Some of the things that people stop doing because of anxiety is going out in public, driving, or socializing. I first give my patients coping skills, minimize the anxiety attacks, and slowly integrate exposure therapy. If the anxiety comes from any trauma, hurt, or pain, we treat that to eliminate the anxiety.
What are some factors that contribute to the cause of anxiety?
Dr. Lisa Cortez: Hormone imbalance, other medical conditions, certain medications, certain foods, too much stress, vitamin deficiency, intrusive thoughts, racing thoughts, dehydration, lack of sleep, drug use, being a perfectionist, not setting boundaries, and even rapid heartbeat. Sometimes a person doesn’t realize the trauma they’ve been through actually affects them. Some people try to block it out, but the mind is powerful. The mind remembers everything. So we must learn not to let anxiety control you.
Do you think there are alternatives to medication, holistic treatments, and how do they work?
Dr. Lisa Cortez: Absolutely, anxiety is one of the easiest mental illnesses to treat without medication. Cognitive behavior therapy, exposure therapy, along with meditation, journaling, empowerment, confidence, exercise, supplements, CBD oil, vitamins, teas, and a healthy diet, can all eliminate anxiety. All this will retrain the brain, not to fear when nothing is happening.
What are some techniques you can use to help someone who is having an anxiety attack?
Dr. Lisa Cortez: Meditation, tapping, breathwork, guided imagery, muscle relaxation, exposure therapy, and mindset work are techniques I use for my patients. These techniques are what I’ve used to help thousands of patients. It continues to work. But I always lost learning no only from books but from my patients.
Why did you want to become a specialist in treating anxiety? Did you ever experience it, and what’s your relationship to anxiety?
Dr. Lisa Cortez: When I was 18 years old, my parents dropped me off at college, and as soon as they drove off, I had my first full blown panic attack. I had no idea what was going on; I thought I was going to die. I remember thinking I don’t want to call my parents because I didn’t want them to say, “You’re not staying.” It was the most horrible feeling I ever felt. I then went 3 years without a panic attack, and again it hit me my senior year. I learned what to do to help myself and continued to learn when I went to grad school. So I decided to dedicate my life to helping people with anxiety. I never wanted anyone to feel the way I did. This has become my passion. I truly believe that because I’ve been through anxiety, I can understand my clients more. This helps me be a better therapist. Unless you’ve had an anxiety disorder, you don’t know what it truly feels like. I might be the expert, but that doesn’t stop me from always learning more. I do this to be better for my patients. I love what I do, and I love helping others.
How would you recommend people cope with anxiety especially during these difficult times of Covid? Have you noticed that anxiety has spiked? What’s your take?
Dr. Lisa Cortez: Fear of the unknown can be very stressful and can cause anxiety. With this current pandemic, it has caused many people to develop the fear, which can lead to anxiety. Our lives have changed so much with this new normal. We are all a little fearful, but I’ve noticed that people that typically didn’t worry are now experiencing anxiety. It’s normal for us to fear something none of us have ever experienced. People are not only worried about Covid itself; they’re worried about their loved ones. They’re worried about their jobs and their finances. On top of all that, we’re isolated at home. We’re not doing our normal activities or socializing with our friends and loved ones. I’ve seen a jump in calls in my practice. I’ve been fully booked, so I decided to start groups to help more people learn to manage their stress and anxiety.
The advice I give people is to try to keep your schedule as normal as possible. If you’re working from home, try to keep the same routine. Dress up once in a while to feel more empowered, keep a routine, exercise, go outside, meditate, plan zoom dates with friends and family. Waking up and thinking about what you’re grateful for is something that helps a lot. And number one, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with covid, limit reading about it. Stay informed but be cautious about what you read. We’ve got this. Stay positive.
Alexa Caroline Modugno is the US Consulting Associate Editor for TheFutureOfPR.com. An NYU graduate, she was a viola performance major with a minor in French studies. She currently also works as an arts journalist and culture editor of Frontrunner Magazine where she has interviewed and featured many prominent figures in the arts, film and music world. She also has an active role in the film scene, working as an actress for several indie films and has been a Q&A moderator, film judge and presenter for Winter Film Awards and Chelsea Film Festival. More about her here.