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Elemental
Your life, sourced by science. A publication from Medium about health and wellness.

Anxiety

In Elemental. More on Medium.

Why you might want to stop talking about your anxiety and try this instead

Photo of a woman putting her hand to her collarbone
Photo of a woman putting her hand to her collarbone
Photo: Kittiphan Teerawattanakul/EyeEm/Getty Images

Let’s back up 50,000 years or so. Imagine you’re a Neanderthal taking a leisurely stroll through the fields. Suddenly, in the nearby bushes, you hear a tiger. In a nanosecond, your entire body starts reacting. Your pulse quickens, your breathing gets shallow, your eyes dilate, your body starts producing adrenaline.

Everything happening in your body is good; you’re prepared to survive this tiger encounter. There’s just one small problem. It wasn’t a tiger. It was a tiny prehistoric weasel. …


Vaccination offers protection against the viral threat, but your brain needs time to reset after a year living with the fear

Multicolored photo of covid-19 vaccine.
Multicolored photo of covid-19 vaccine.
Photo: Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Rachel Gersten is a licensed mental health and wellness counselor and, as she says, a believer in science. All throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the co-founder of a New York–based wellness company followed official public health guidance on safe behavior and avoided illness. She’s on the other side of peak risk now because she is fully vaccinated. Even so, having reached this stage, the 34-year-old is experiencing dissonance: Gersten’s foundation in science tells her on an intellectual level that she’s largely protected from the coronavirus; emotionally, however, her brain can’t catch up.

“If you fall off a horse, you get back…


An overlooked idea from the 1980s yields a promising new treatment approach that anyone can use

Image: sommersby/Getty Images

I’m a psychiatrist who struggles with anxiety.

I had my first full-blown panic attack when I was in residency training. It woke me from a sound sleep like a freight train suddenly blowing its whistle in my ear. Heart pounding and short of breath, I felt like I was going to die.

Instead of calling 911, I went through the psychiatric diagnostic checklist in my head. Check, check, check. Yup, those were all the symptoms of a panic (rather than heart) attack, I reassured myself. …


Social distancing mimics avoidance, which ‘feeds and waters’ social anxiety

Photo: gremlin/Getty Images

Early in the pandemic, I found myself sweating as I prepared for a Zoom happy hour (remember those?) with my college roommates. I’d lived with these women. Our husbands knew each other. Yet somehow my nerves still felt jangly. Then there was a distanced-and-masked walk with a friend one afternoon: I spent the drive home worrying that a joke I’d made had come out wrong. Deep down I knew everything was fine, but I couldn’t stop replaying my words, trying to remember what my friend’s facial expression had been like afterward.

It’s clear that my social anxiety, which I was…


Pandemic Winter Health Hacks

Hold hands and snuggle pets

Though I’ve yet to experiment with weighted blankets, I am familiar with the sensation of being lovingly suffocated by heavy warmth. It happens when my 10-year-old drapes himself across my resting body to snuggle, talk, read, or laugh. As most parents can attest, one version of a no-longer-miniature kid climbing on you can feel squirmy and uncomfortable. But another, calmer version is incredibly delightful and how I imagine hibernating animals must feel in their messy, furry pileups.

Our cuddle usually prompts one or both of our resting heart rates to slow. My son will confess his anxieties and annoyances, and…


Plus, how to make your worries actually productive

Photo: Justin Paget/Getty Images

Worrying has become a routine part of many people’s lives these days. And while stress and anxiety are often categorized as irrational or unnecessary, it’s easy to understand why worry, in the scary universe of now, is ubiquitous.

When it comes to making decisions of any kind, there’s always some degree of uncertainty, but under normal circumstances, it’s limited. When you eat raw oysters, for example, you’ll either get food poisoning or you won’t. However, with this pandemic, there’s a great deal more uncertainty, and that creates a much more unstable scenario where you have to constantly weigh options that…


My Therapist Says

I’m learning to reject the overpowering desire to have the one answer to my anxiety.

Illustration: Kate Dehler

In early 2017, I experienced my first panic attack. I was in a work meeting with my manager when I began to feel hot and claustrophobic, sure I was going to throw up. I kept looking to the door, willing it to open and for an invisible force to propel me out of the room to safety. Eventually, I excused myself, explaining that I didn’t feel well.

On the subway ride home, as in the meeting room, I felt trapped; each time the doors slid shut, a wave of dread washed over me. After a few stops, I summoned the…


The Nuance

Teaching an anxious brain to picture happier scenes or scenarios helps against the inner dialogues that fuel daily anxieties

Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The most frightening movie monsters are the ones you never see. That’s according to a 2020 study of horror films that appeared in the journal NeuroImage.

For that study, researchers in Finland scanned the brains of 37 people as they watched a lineup of scary movies that included The Exorcist, Insidious, and eight others. The study authors found that people were much more frightened by unseen or implied threats than by ones that actually appeared on screen.

That finding isn’t too surprising: “Don’t show the monster” is a timeworn rule in film and television horror, and the great terror writer…


A psychiatrist notes the life moments that hurt most

Photo: Chayanuphol Poona / EyeEm / Getty Images

In my out-patient psychiatric practice, I recently treated a young man who had, among other problems, severe acne. He told me that his dermatologist had begun a new treatment. My patient asked the doctor how long before there might be results. The dermatologist replied, “It depends on your emotional state.” Something inside the young man leapt with excitement to hear this, as he thought he might finally have the chance to talk about his chronic anxiety. But the dermatologist simply concluded the appointment and told him to return in a month.

This patient did well in treatment with me. In…


Different forms of relief — from pain, or from the fretful anticipation wrapped up in a political election — look quite similar in the brain.

Illustration: Sophi Gullbrants

The Greek philosopher Epicurus famously described pleasure as the absence of pain. And, according to some scholars, Epicurus believed that the greatest form of pleasure comes from the abatement of pain — that is, from relief of some form of torment.

“I think it makes a lot of sense to talk about relief right now,” says Jack Nitschke, PhD, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. …

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