Expert offers advice for anxiety

It’s rare to hear peals of laughter from the audience when the subject is “Coping with Anxiety,” but James Cook, from Norwalk Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry, knows how to make serious subjects entertaining as well as instructive.

At The Green’s second Community Health Series, Mr. Cook set the tone with a few refreshing jokes. Then he gracefully moved into his social worker mode. He helps people identify the reasons they’re anxious, which he says is the first step in managing anxiety. “There’s no point in worrying about things we can’t control, like bad drivers, rude people, terrible weather. Getting upset about growing older isn’t going to change anything and will probably make things worse.”

The remedy, he said “is learning to live in the moment. The past is gone, the future is unknown, what’s here and now is your life. Why not make the best of it? Appreciate the good things (there are always some good things) and break the terrible habit of expecting the worst.

“We’re all a little neurotic,” Mr. Cook admitted. “Unless worrying is getting in the way of your life, don’t worry so much about worrying. My wife is an anxious person. But she has an outlet. She vacuums the garage. We have the cleanest garage in Connecticut.”

Some anxiety can’t be totally prevented, according to Mr. Cook. People get anxious about public speaking and when they enter a roomful of strangers. “It’s social anxiety and I have it,” he said. “But after the first three minutes, it usually melts away.”

What’s unfortunate is the “slow whining” of some people. “Those kinds of complainers can wear you down. So when I’m in a situation that drags me down and doesn’t feed my spirit, I leave. There’s a difference between being concerned about something and being anxious about it. Being concerned is good, it means you’re not isolated. Having a social network is important. Once we understand that anxiety is something we do to ourselves, that it’s a bad habit, like smoking, we can break it.”

Everyone in the room enjoyed Mr. Cook. Though his subject was serious and affected people’s health, he gave it a humorous spin.

“Don’t join the ‘ain’t it awful’ club,” he advised. “Treasure the present  moment.” When anxiety starts overtaking your life, cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims at changing your thinking, can be very successful.

He recalled (or invented) a tombstone in a cemetery that said, “Died at 40, Buried at 80” as an example of someone who stopped himself from living, probably too anxious to tackle what each day brings.

The audience seemed  tickled pink to discover that anxiety isn’t a terminal disease.

In the next session, Thursday, May 2, Dr. Ian Weir, director of Norwalk Hospital’s Insomnia Center, will uncover some new ways to conquer sleeplessness. May 9 will bring new insights about dieting. The series is free. Dinner is at 5:30, the presentation is at 6. RSVP to 203-761-1191. The Greens at Cannondale is at 435 Danbury Road.