“Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes, like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry.” American Psychological Association
Everyone experiences anxiety. It is a non-negotiable part of being human. The good news is adaptive anxiety keeps us safe. It helps us plan and drives us to get stuff done. Without it, we wouldn’t survive.
However, sometimes anxiety gets in the way. It can act like an “outdated” alarm, when there actually is not a current danger. The false alarm can be loud, convincing and relentless. Like a fire detector that signals a 5 alarm fire when positioned next to smoke from a candle, dysfunctional anxiety can interfere with healthy living.
Friend or Foe?
How can you tell the difference between adaptive and outdated anxiety? A good place to start is to ask some questions. Is my anxiety helping me accomplish things, or is it compromising me ability to function because I feel so uncomfortable and distressed? Is my anxiety telling me something about my relationships or environment that I can change, or is it making me more confused and self-doubting because it feels so complicated and uncontained? If there is a problem, education and counseling can go a long way toward a happier and more productive life.
Anxiety is one of the most common psychological problems, and there is a wealth of scientific research to support the idea that is the most treatable. Unfortunately, it is estimated that less than 40 percent of anxiety sufferers get the help they need and deserve. One reason for this gap is it can be hard to know if you need help, where to go for effective treatment and whether talking about the issue will make things better.
Anxiety disorders tend to run in families. While genetics play a role in who is more prone to high anxiety than others, life circumstances can trigger anxiety problems or clinical disorders. Health concerns or illness, trauma, stress, drug use or misuse and other difficult life events can increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
Knowledge is Power
Symptoms of anxious arousal may include rapid heartbeat, fast breathing or hyperventilation, sweating, shaking, weakness, tingling in the hands and feet, dizziness, tunnel vision, insomnia, nausea, diarrhea, flushing and feeling faint. In the face of anxiety, generally we all tend towards a reflex of fight, flight or freeze. These responses can be easily triggered in the brain by possible misperceptions about the situation or people that elicit the alarm. Once activated, the mental and physical reactions that follow the alarm can make life difficult.
Let’s take the example of a student suffering from acute test anxiety. If the exam is perceived as a significant threat, working memory can be impaired and one’s mind might even “go blank.” Understanding what is happening, why it is happening and what to do about it can change the outcome dramatically.
The Role of Avoidance
Anxiety disorders are often fueled by the very thing that helps temporarily manage the symptoms: avoidance. Understandably, people steer clear of what makes them uncomfortable. Unfortunately, avoiding short-term discomfort (as in the case of procrastination) can feed anxiety. Gradually talking about and through the dreaded task or emotions is part of treatment and recovery. Doing so can thicken our skin and help us to extinguish the fire of whatever is feared. This process can feel anti-instinctual and is best undertaken with the support of a skilled therapist. With time, individuals who learn to tolerate distress become better able to master their environment and their responses to it. Similar to the process of climbing a mountain, as one acclimates and builds muscle, one gets stronger. What was once notably uncomfortable, becomes less bothersome. In addition, when you stay focused on reaching a goal, worry tends to take a back seat.
Practice Distress Tolerance
This process of moving forward, with less angst, is a new skill to be learned. Intrusive thoughts, worries and unpleasant feelings may arise. Allow them. Acknowledge they are unsettling. Take stock of your surroundings which can help the anxiety from spiraling out of control. This new way of interacting with the symptoms will take practice.
Getting Where You Want to Go
The aim of anxiety treatment is to reduce suffering and improve quality of life. The more one understands about what is happening in the mind or body when triggered – emotionally, physically and cognitively – the better prepared one becomes to respond. Understanding that there can be a tendency to misidentify danger is a first step. Once symptoms are properly labeled, individuals can learn adaptive ways to disarm the anxiety. Part of this process might mean uncovering behaviors, situations, and even certain kinds of people and relationships that are fueling the anxiety, rather than reducing it. The good news is, when individuals learn the what, why and how of anxiety, troublesome symptoms subside, and life improves.
-Beth Vincent, LCSW