"Mild anxiety," says psychiatrist Helen De Rosis, "is a condition of life. Nearly everyone suffers from anxiety, just as almost everyone sneezes or catches cold."
What troubles De Rosis is "the growing number of events that keep producing new forms of intense anxiety. There are large number of persons who are sufficiently unsettled, so that they are critically hampered in their work, play, study, sex and relationships."
Women have been particulary anxiety-prone in recent years, notes De Rosis, who has served in predominantly female clientele in her 25 years of practice in New York City.
"Women have gone through extraordinary transitions in the last 10 or 15 years," she says in her book "Women and Anxiety" (Delacorte Press, 272 pages, $8.95). "Some feel compelled to change more rapidly than they can, or in ways that confuse and upset them.
"Because of that, they've had a larger share of anxiety in this decade than in previous ones, for under any circumstances transition can be anxiety-provoking. These cahnges have touched their whole lives -- roles, attitudes, values, expectations, behavior, goals -- throwing them all into conflict."
Although anxiety prompts some women to depend on mind-altering drugs, she says this same anxiety could be channeled into a positive life force.
"Anxiety can be managed and used to help women make exhilarating transitions and accept and appreciate themselves as never before," she writes. "A state of anxiety produces 'energy units.' They circulate in your body and can create a jumpy, nervous, running-motor kind of feeling.
"Undischarged anxiety can 'puddle' in your body and produce many of the physical symptoms you've come to associate with anxiety. Our task is to mobilize these puddles and get rid of the gunk."
De Rosis poses 20 questions to help resolve anxiety-provoking conflicts -- a program she devised for "anxiety-management" clinics she holds for groups of 50 to 100 people. The method uses anxiety "as a barometer to signal the presence of a conflict," she says, then harnesses the anxiety energy to explore and resolve the problem.
Anxiety, according to De Rosis, is a "feeling of dread . . . a constellation of physical symptoms, of uncomfortable, troubled feelings and thoughts that may be relatively mild or reach the point of utter panic.
"It is a reaction to frustration and to unresolved anger that seems to burn a hole into your very being. It is a response to unbearable stress. It is a beacon light signaling the existence of unconscious emotional conflict."
Recognizing and resolving this conflict is the key to anxiety management, she says. As an example, she cites a woman who has invited 16 family members for a holiday dinner, while juggling a job, caring for her children, shopping, decorating and undertaking a massive pre-party housecleaning.
"She feels obligated to look after everything and feels she has no choice. What she really wants is to get out, to lie down, to rest.
"Yet she feels she shouldn't want that -- it was her choice to have children, a home, a job and invite her family for the holidays. So won't permit herself to rest. She wants two things and is unwilling to relinquish one of them, or work out a compromise.
"That is the essence of a conflict. Differing and opposing goals become incompatible only when you try to do both at once. That leads to inevitable failure, anxiety . . . and finally deep guilt that you can't perform as you should."
This same woman, however, could have realistically lightened her burden, says De Rosis, by being assertive and not feeling compelled to do it all herself. She could ask each guest to bring a dish to the dinner, seek her husband's and children's help, substitute light housecleaning for shampooing each rug and take a day or two off work to handle the extra load.
Some men, and an increasing number of women, have been controlling anxiety for years through over-drinking, overeating or overwork, says De Rosis. She recommends physical activity as a more constructive channeling of anxiety energy.
"I'm convinced that's one reason why running has become so popular. First of all it improvs the body's physical tone. But it also is a great way of getting rid of anxiety.
"That combination makes people feel so good they don't know what hit them. They talk about a runner's high -- but that's because so many people operate at such a low. By harnessing their anxiety energy into physical activity they're eliminating poor physical and mental health habits.
"That kind of anxiety management can result in increased confidence and self esteem, better organization and an improved sense of well-being."