Skip to main content
CNN.com CNN.com -- Health
ASK AN EXPERT
Got a question about a health story in the news or a health topic? Here's your chance to get an answer. Send us your questions about general health topics, diet and fitness and mental health. If your question is chosen, it could be featured on CNN.com's health page with an answer from one of our health experts, or by a participant in the CNNhealth community.




* CNN encourages you to contribute a question. By submitting a question, you agree to the following terms found below.
You may not post any unlawful, threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic or other material that would violate the law. By submitting your question, you hereby give CNN the right, but not the obligation, to post, air, edit, exhibit, telecast, cablecast, webcast, re-use, publish, reproduce, use, license, print, distribute or otherwise use your questions(s) and accompanying personal identifying and other information you provide via all forms of media now known or hereafter devised, worldwide, in perpetuity. CNN Privacy Statment.
Thank you for your question!

It will be reviewed and considered for posting on CNNHealth.com. Questions and comments are moderated by CNN and will not appear until after they have been reviewed and approved. Unfortunately, because of the voume of questions we receive, not all can be posted.

Submit another question or Go back to CNNHealth.com

Read answers from our experts: Living Well | Diet & Fitness | Mental Health | Conditions

Expert Q&A

  • Share this on:
    Share
  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print

How can I calm my anxieties?

Asked by Dawn Armstead, Queens, New York

Open quote
Close quote

How can I calm myself down when anxiety strikes? I hate feeling nervous.

Expert Bio Picture

Mental Health Expert Dr. Charles Raison Psychiatrist,
Emory University Medical School

Expert answer

Dear Dawn,

Your very simple but poignant question suggests all sorts of answers, but also points to what a painful -- and sometimes terrifying -- thing anxiety is. I want to start my answer by tipping my hat to a reader from last week's column who gently took me to task for not giving enough credit to psychotherapy in treating even very difficult psychiatric conditions -- in this case, bipolar II disorder.

As with all psychiatric conditions or symptoms, there are three basic things one can do -- two that require a clinician's help and one that you can do on your own. Clinicians can offer medications and psychotherapy. On your own, you can work to change the things in your life that are contributing to the problem. That in a nutshell is the entire psychiatric world. Each condition and each individual will benefit most from some unique combination of these three elements.

Anxiety comes in many flavors, but in all instances, it tends to share one important thing in common: It is an internal sense of fear, discomfort, panic even, that is out of proportion to the events in the world that have triggered it. Sometimes, people can't even find an event upon which to hang the blame for their terrible, restless sense of unease.

Consider the following statements: "I need help. I get anxious every time someone pulls a gun on me." "I've got a problem. I had real panicky feelings that night I came home to find a robber in my house." "I've got to get a hold of this social anxiety. I was so nervous when President Obama picked me by lottery to come with him to help give the State of the Union address to Congress." We don't call this anxiety (we often use the word "nervous") because the feeling is appropriate to the situation.

The problem with anxiety is not that it feels bad. This feeling bad evolved to help us deal seriously with situations of real danger and to remove ourselves from these situations to the best of our ability. The problem with anxiety is that it is a worthless response to situations that aren't typically dangerous enough to warrant all the misery. And then, of course, the anxiety itself becomes a huge problem in people's lives. In a world of relative safety, very anxious people live as if they are constantly in danger.

Medications can help blunt physical activity in brain and body that give rise to anxiety, and sometimes this is a necessary intervention. But psychotherapy is at least as good for treating anxiety and offers a couple of advantages.

First, a good psychotherapist can help us better understand why certain things make us anxious. Usually, the things that set us off represent troubles from our childhoods. Often these associations are not conscious, and making them conscious can significantly weaken their impact and give us control over them. If I had more words to spend on this piece, I could give you examples from my own life.

Second, a number of psychotherapeutic techniques designed specifically to treat anxiety do so by helping expose us gradually to those things that cause our anxiety. Variously called "desensitization," "exposure" or "extinction," these techniques are built upon the scientific discovery that if we learn to tolerate the things that frighten or bother us, the feelings subside and eventually fade. Not only do these techniques work, but they also provide patients with a skill they can continue to practice at home to deal with new sources of anxiety.

More Q&A

  • CNN's Medical UnitCNN's medical unit brings you the best experts available to answer your questions about current events and health issues that matter most to you.
Expert: Did 'Kony' director have 'manic episode?'asked by: By Dr. Charles Raison, Special to CNN; (CNN)
Do homeopathic treatments for ADHD work?asked by: Asked by Suzie;
Are mood swings a sign of depression?asked by: Asked by Jeffery T. Johnson; San Diego, California
Quick Job Search
keyword(s):
enter city:

CNN Comment Policy: CNN encourages you to add a comment to this discussion. You may not post any unlawful, threatening, defamatory, obscene, pornographic or other material that would violate the law. All comments should be relevant to the topic and remain respectful of other authors and commenters. You are solely responsible for your own comments, the consequences of posting those comments, and the consequences of any reliance by you on the comments of others. By submitting your comment, you hereby give CNN the right, but not the obligation, to post, air, edit, exhibit, telecast, cablecast, webcast, re-use, publish, reproduce, use, license, print, distribute or otherwise use your comment(s) and accompanying personal identifying and other information you provide via all forms of media now known or hereafter devised, worldwide, in perpetuity. CNN Privacy Statement.

The information contained on this page does not and is not intended to convey medical advice. CNN is not responsible for any actions or inaction on your part based on the information that is presented here. Please consult a physician or medical professional for personal medical advice or treatment.

Home  |  World  |  U.S.  |  Politics  |  Crime  |  Entertainment  |  Health  |  Tech  |  Travel  |  Living  |  Money  |  Sports  |  Time.com
© 2013 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved.