I was late to work. What if I lose my job? How will I find time to grocery shop? My family is going to starve. Could this headache mean I have cancer?
Even if your head doesn't spin with these exact worries when it hits the pillow at night, there's probably something similar whirring through your brain, keeping you up just when you should be powering down. As a psychiatrist and contributor to the Today show, I see many women who battle with anxieties, and not just at night. They obsess about their children, their marriage, their finances, their job, their parents; about sickness, accidents, disappointments and assorted other upsets that come under the heading Bad Things That Could Happen. This is the nature of anxiety—an unpleasant emotional experience caused by the unpredictability and uncontrollability of the future and the ways that it could hurt you.
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We all experience anxiety. It's the mental part of fear, which is a biological response to a threat or danger. From an evolutionary perspective, fear is what has helped us humans survive for so long: It impels us to run away or hide if we see, say, a bear approaching. And if you are in a park known to have many bears, it's totally normal and logical to feel anxious even if you don't see one, because this makes you cautious and keeps you from leaving food out at your campsite. But what if you are at work and you start thinking about a camping trip you might take with your family and grow very worried that you could encounter a bear that might maul you or your kids, resulting in utter tragedy? This is when anxiety no longer serves a useful function and becomes a real problem—when you can't stop obsessing about the possibility of something terrible happening, no matter how small or remote it is.
Trying to have it all just adds to the anxiety many women feel. I hear frequently from Today watchers and my New York City-area patients that the burden of balancing a healthy relationship and turning out great kids while remaining financially afloat (and looking young and staying fit, of course) leaves them fried and fretting. A patient I'll call S.W. came in reporting that she was exhausted from waking up in the middle of the night concerned that she wouldn't get the next big project at work, her son wouldn't make the basketball team, her husband wouldn't get that raise and they wouldn't be able to afford a down payment on the house she wanted. Then, when she was awake, she felt little jolts of stress all over again. S.W. did not have an anxiety disorder per se but rather a normal, albeit hefty, dose of worry.
It is possible, though, to retrain an anxious brain. I helped S.W. learn how to lower both the frequency and the amplitude of her worry so she could sleep better and be much more productive during the day as a result—and you can learn how, too.