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‘There’s nothing wrong with you’

Hope for harnessing anxiety and other mental health struggles

· By Bria Light, Staff Reporter,

· Mar 25, 2021

Though anxiety conditions affect nearly one in five U.S. adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, those suffering from a mental health crisis often feel isolated. Understanding the neuroscience behind these mental states can help relieve the helplessness and shame triggered by such emotions, according to trauma therapist Avani Dilger. (Photo by Bria Light/Telluride Daily Planet)

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It’s been a tough year. In the past year, there’s been a devastating pandemic, presidential election politics and riots. In the past week, there have been two mass shootings, including one in Colorado. In Telluride, we’ve suffered the loss of yet another beloved member of the community.

All that is on top of whatever is going on in your own personal universe: the stresses, fears and pressures of navigating the everyday challenges of being human along with its attendant cortege of swirling emotions. So if you’re feeling anxious, depressed or overwhelmed, here’s a message you may need to hear amidst the mayhem: There’s nothing wrong with you.

That’s the message that Avani Dilger, a Boulder-based trauma therapist and counselor who presented at Tri-County Health Network’s Wednesday evening event titled “Turning your anxiety into your superpower,” would like to emphasize.

In fact, your brain on anxiety and depression — and indeed, a number of so-called “mental health disorders” — is doing precisely what it evolved to do for the past 2million years, according to Dilger. The dissonance between the “stone age brain,” in which fight, flight or freeze responses helped ensure survival, and the modern era, in which such states can become detrimental or debilitating, can often leave us feeling stuck, unsure how to break free from these responses.

“Anxiety or depression are not necessarily mental health disorders,” Dilger said. “They’re natural and healthy responses in our body to being overwhelmed. We need to learn and to receive support around how to work with them.”

Nor are mental health struggles like anxiety or depression uncommon, and they affect children as well as adults. According to Paul Reich, behavioral health program manager at Tri-County Health Network, the average age of onset for anxiety disorders is seven years old, and they can manifest as difficult-to-recognize physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches.

“We all experience anxiety at different times and in different settings in life, but when it impacts our ability to live well, it can become a problem for individuals,” said Reich, who recently accepted a position with the Center For Mental Health. “And learning positive coping strategies is so important — things like exercise, meditation, avoiding the use of substances.”

Even with beneficial mental health support strategies like exercise, mediation and access to nature, that emotional dissonance can sometimes get the best of us, and feel like life’s dealing a swift kick to the shin. But unlike physical pain, mental pain still bears the stigma and loneliness of too much silence. Especially in mountain town culture, where the most visible elements of daily life include expansive natural beauty and grinning, healthy people living life to the fullest, the darker emotions of the human experience too often get overlooked, and those experiencing them feel alone and adrift.

“Individuals experiencing a mental health challenge often don’t feel that they can talk about it in a community that is surrounded by so much natural beauty, where everyone is encouraged to ‘live large’ and so many of us are transplants without strong support networks. It can lead individuals to feel that they are broken,” Reich noted. “Being willing to talk about our own experiences around anxiety and mental illness is so important.”

While experiencing a crisis of anxiety or depression can feel extremely isolating, the problem should not be regarded as a burden solely upon the shoulders of the individual, according to Dilger.

“Anxiety is a collective issue,” she said, and one for which there are helpful free resources available.

On Tuesday at 6 p.m., Tri-County Health Network is hosting a free online screening of the film “Angst,” which will be followed by a panel discussion. On April 7 at 6:30 p.m., the Boulder-based peer mentor program Natural Highs, founded by Dilger, will host a screening of the film “Medicating Normal,” followed by an interactive discussion with mental health professionals. For those interested in a bite-sized bit of insight, Dilger recommends watching Kelly McGonigal’s 15-minute TED talk titled “How to make stress your friend.”

While there is certainly no magic wand with which to banish one’s demons, Dilger emphasized that rewiring the mind is “100 percent possible.”

“Is it easy?” she asked, before answering, “No. But I am certain that you can do it. And I feel that as a society we have to learn to do it together.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to be connected to a trained counselor at a suicide crisis center nearest you.

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