“Anxiety” is a word that is thrown around often, but what does it really mean? Anxiety can be used to describe a feeling/emotion, a body-based sensation, or a mental health disorder that can cause functional impairment. If you’ve never experienced it yourself chances are someone close to you has. Here are five things that are helpful to know about anxiety:
1. Anxiety is common.
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, around 30% of adults in the United States experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, and that is just the number that had symptoms that rose to the level of a diagnosable disorder. Anxiety is all around us, and it can be downright scary, particularly when we see our kids suffering with it.
2. Anxiety can be helpful.
Our brains are amazing things. We are wired to survive, so when our brain senses that our survival is threatened, our bodily systems actually adjust and react. You’re probably familiar with the brain’s fight/flight/freeze responses that kick in during threats; when you’re facing a grizzly bear in the woods your limbic system takes over and you prepare to fight it off, take off running, or freeze in terror. These reactions can actually be incredibly helpful! Our bodies prepare to take care of us by heightening our awareness and abilities.
When we face non-physical threats our brain can react in the same way. These reactions can be helpful in some cases. For example, if you are giving a presentation at work this morning, you might feel some anxiety. If it’s not too much anxiety it can enhance your performance by raising your alertness and heightening your sensitivity. It’s when our brains are reacting as if our survival is threatened when it’s not that things get out of hand.
3. Anxiety can be painful.
Often times, we need bodily sensations to actually tell us what we are feeling. It sounds strange, but it’s true! We know we are happy when our mouths turn up in a smile. We know we are sad when tears come down. And we know we are anxious when we feel it in our bodies. Anxiety might present as a pit in the stomach, fluttering in the chest, trouble swallowing, loss of appetite, back pain, sweaty palms, tension in the shoulders, etc. Sometimes these symptoms reach the level of a panic attack, which may include a pounding heart, shaking, chest pain, nausea, dizziness and numbness/tingling. These are actual physical indicators of an emotion. They are not imagined, they are real. And they can be incredibly uncomfortable and create significant distress and functional impairment.
4. Anxiety can be misunderstood.
Symptoms of anxiety can be confusing to the sufferer, particularly when they seem out of the blue or incongruent with the current situation. Although anxiety can be helpful when trying to convey information in some contexts, (“Get ready to run or fight! That guy is dangerous!”), sometimes the message is not clear right away or it may make no sense at all. Why does my client experience crippling anxiety while watching Netflix with her husband on a calm Friday night, for example? Not understanding where these symptoms are coming from can be incredibly frustrating not only for the sufferer, but for those around them, too. Well-meaning friends and family may say unhelpful things in the face of anxiety, and encouragements to pray more/exercise more/eat differently/try essential oils can be taken as anything but helpful.
5. Anxiety can be explored in therapy.
Many different treatment modalities address symptoms of anxiety. Therapeutic interventions may include working on calming strategies, mindfulness, psychoeducation about the function of anxiety, and being curious about what anxiety may be communicating in your unique context. Your therapist may collaborate with you on ways you can address the underlying causes of your anxiety, and may also explore ways to cope with the pain of anxiety in the short-term. Medication is often a part of treatment for anxiety as well, and your therapist can work with you and your doctor to explore whether this might be a good option for you.
If you can be willing to explore what your anxiety may be trying to tell you, you might find more capacity within yourself to live with it or even to welcome it at times. This journey is not quick or easy, but it can be an incredibly helpful way to shift your perspective on anxiety.