Most of us experience some level of nervousness or anxiety when faced with unpredictable and/or challenging situations. For example, public speaking is arguably the most anxiety provoking activity; and this is normal. Anxiety can develop into a problem when it becomes so frequent and forceful that it gets in the way of our daily activities. In order to successfully manage anxiety, we must learn to understand its purpose and also to differentiate between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder.
The Purpose of Anxiety
Every behavior serves a function in our lives. For this particular article, anxiety is the behavior.
Anxiety is Normal: Anxiety is hardwired into our brains and helps us to survive. It is a normal response to uncertainty, trouble or feeling unprepared. Examples of normal anxiety include occasional worry about circumstantial events such as an exam, job interview, speaking engagement or a break up.
Anxiety is Adaptive: When the brain senses danger, our sympathetic nervous system gets triggered. This is the system in the body that is responsible for our response to fear as well as the way our bodies prepare to defend itself. The activation of this system leads to the production of adrenaline and helps us to deal with real danger. Our body responds to danger through fight, flight or freezing.
Anxiety is Not Dangerous: Our bodies will experience sensations such as heavy breathing, nervousness and sweaty palms. Although these sensations may feel uncomfortable, they are not dangerous. These symptoms serve to protect you from danger and will not hurt you.
Anxiety is Temporary and Will Subside: The aforementioned sensations are short-lived and serve to protect us from perceived threats. Increase in frequency and duration of anxiety could be more problematic. *This will be discussed later in the article.
Anxiety is Common: One in ten adults suffers from anxiety problems.
The distinction between having normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder is whether your emotions are causing a lot of distress and dysfunction.
Signs of an Anxiety Disorder:
Anxiety comes in many forms such as panic attacks, phobias and social anxiety. The following list will provide an overview of signs and symptoms that may indicate more than the “normal anxiety.” If you or someone you know has experienced the following symptoms most of the days for 3-6 months, consult your doctor or counselor.
Excessive worrying: Worrying too much about everyday things large and small. These persistent anxious thoughts must occur on most days of the week for 6 months. The anxiety must be so bad that it interferes with daily life.
Sleep Problems: Difficulty falling and/or staying asleep can be a sign of anxiety disorder. Waking up feeling wired, having racing thoughts and being unable to de-escalate can also be signs of anxiety disorder.
Irrational Fears: Most of us fear things such as but not limited to flying, wild animals, public speaking. The fear I am speaking of becomes overwhelming, disruptive and is not congruent with the risk involved.
Muscle Tension: Constant muscle tension such as balling fists, flexing muscles throughout body and clenching jaw.
Chronic Indigestion: This particular symptom is a great example of how anxiety can start in the mind but manifest itself in the body through physical symptoms. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that consists of cramping, bloating, gas, stomachaches, and/or diarrhea. Research has shown that IBS and anxiety often occur together and the digestive tract is very sensitive to psychological stress.
Self-consciousness: People with social anxiety disorder tend to feel like all eyes are on them all the time. They experience symptoms such as blushing, trembling, nausea, profuse sweating or difficulty talking. These symptoms make it hard to meet new people, maintain relationships and impact productivity at work and in school.
Panic: Panic attacks can be scary. Imagine a random feeling of fear, helplessness, shortness of breath, tightness of chest, pounding of heart, sweating, dizziness that can last for several minutes. Not everyone who has a panic attack has an anxiety disorder, but people who experience them frequently could be diagnosed with a panic disorder.
Flashbacks: Reliving a traumatic event such as loss of a loved one, abuse and violence. These symptoms are aligned with that of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People with these symptoms often avoid reminders of the experience.
Perfectionism: Individuals who constantly judge themselves or anticipate making mistakes or falling short of their standards.
Compulsive behaviors: Compulsive behaviors can progress into an anxiety disorder when the rituals begin to take over your life. These compulsive behaviors include; someone telling himself or herself it will be okay over and over again, excessive hand-washing, straightening items. For example, an individual is constantly late for work because s/he repeatedly checks to make sure the doors to the house are locked.
Self-Doubt: Persistent self-doubt and second guessing could also be a sign of an anxiety disorder. These “doubt attacks” become common when questions cannot be answered or when grey areas occur.
Tips for Managing Anxiety:
Take time out: Most of us are busy. What adult isn’t busy?!?! But if we are committed to managing our anxiety we must find ways to relax. This can include 5-10 minutes per day of alone time, yoga, prayer, meditation, massage.
Eat well-balanced meals: Do not skip meals, eat at least 3 meals per day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and include healthy snacks. Plan your meals at least a day in advance.
Limit alcohol and caffeine: Alcohol and caffeine can trigger panic attacks and aggravate anxiety.
Get enough sleep: Our minds and bodies need adequate rest in order to function effectively.
Exercise: An “organic” treatment to managing stress and anxiety.
Take deep breaths: Breathing calms the reactive part of our brains. When feeling stressed inhale and exhale slowly.
Do the best you can with what you have and where you are: Perfection is not a goal. Set realistic goals and work toward achieving those goals.
Accept the things within your control: Put your anxiety into perspective. Are things really that bad? Are you having a bad day, bad week or bad life?
Maintain a positive attitude: Replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts and smile!
Humor: Humor can be a great “form of medication.”
Learn your triggers: When we understand our triggers, we can learn strategies for managing ourselves when we come into contact with these triggers. Triggers can include any person, place, thing, smell etc. Write in a journal when you are feeling anxious in order to begin identifying patterns.
Talk to someone: You do not have to experience this alone. Talk to friends and family that you trust about your situation. Talk to a physician or counselor for professional help.
Anxiety is helpful and adaptive when it is working to protect us from danger. However, when our minds influence our bodies to live in a state of anxiety when there is no real threat, this level of anxiety becomes our baseline; which can in turn lead to a diagnosis of anxiety disorder.
It is my hope that the discussion of the signs and symptoms of anxiety disorder did not create anxiety. My intent was to bring awareness to the difference between a common day to day problem and a condition that may require attention from a medical and/or mental health professional.
If you or someone you know has questions or is experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms of anxiety; please contact HandinHand Counseling Services, LLC @ 412-414-7782.
Please share your thoughts, experiences and coping strategies you may have used to manage anxiety provoking situations.