Anxiety is a state of mind and body that is associated with feelings of fear, worry, uneasiness, dread, or nervousness. Although a certain degree of anxiety is a normal part of life, when it occurs too often, too severely, or is unmanageable, anxiety can be classified as a disorder. If you are concerned about how your level of anxiety is impacting your day-to-day life, relationships, or physical health, it may be time to take action. Increasing your understanding of anxiety and discovering what tools may work best for you is a good foundation for you to build upon as you learn to take control of your anxiety.
Anxiety, for the most part, is a normal part of the human experience. In fact, without the feelings of fear or uneasiness, our ancestors may not have survived. Anxiety, or stress, is what drives us to dare to meet a challenge. If we do not have enough anxiety or stress about an issue, we are likely not to respond or respond with very little effort. On the other hand, if we are overly-anxious or terribly stressed about an issue, we may not be able to adequately respond if we are able to respond at all.
Think of the deer in headlights example that we often hear used for someone’s reaction. It is what is referred to as a “fight or flight” response. When we are caught unaware or are suddenly overwhelmed by something, our bodies and minds immediately switch to an automatic pilot system of sorts. It is our autonomic nervous system that regulates hormones and neurotransmitters that is responsible for turning up the bodily functions we may need to save our lives and to put all systems that are not helpful for protection or escape on hold. That is the way it works for all of us.
It is important to understand that what may arouse anxiety in one person doesn’t necessarily do so for another person. This is due, in large part, to the fact that our anxiety (our response to a threat) is actually our response to our perception of something, not the actual values of the thing that we are threatened by. Have you ever had a bad dream or a nightmare? You wake up to a racing heart, heavy legs, perhaps in tears or even mid-scream. Your response is real and it is measurable. Your response was also to something that you perceived as real but that had no reality outside of your head on the pillow.
From being a chronic worry-wart to experiencing post traumatic stress disorder, from a constant nervousness with a need to plan to only doing things in threes, the range of characteristics or symptoms included under the heading anxiety is very broad. The main difference between what is generally seen as normal anxiety and clinical anxiety is the degree to which the anxious response interferes with someone’s ability to function effectively and comfortably. It is much like a hiccup in the autonomic nervous system. The threat may be gone or at least not life threatening but our system isn’t returning to the non-anxious baseline.
It is not unusual to double-check a door to make sure it is locked from time to time. It is debilitating to be unable to stop checking the door even though you are fully aware of having checked it already once or twice…or a hundred times. In this example, checking the door confirms that it is locked. It is like the brain knows this and feels good for a moment but the nervous system didn’t get the message. This leaves the person with little choice but to check the door again in hopes of confirming it is locked and anticipating that the nervous system will correct itself, over and over and over again.
Clinical names used for some of the anxiety disorders include phobias, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic disorders. Do not be nervous or confused if you find that you identify with more than one anxiety disorder. It is not unusual at all. In fact, research shows that around 50 percent of the people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are actually found to be suffering with more than just one anxiety disorder.
We all experience anxiety at one time or another but we do not all experience anxiety at the same time, in the same manner or under the same circumstances. We all will experience the sudden arrival at the edge of a cliff with some degree of anxiety. In their book, Your Mind: An Owner’s Manual, Drs. Cortman & Shinitzky first described the key to understanding the process as “Investment + Threat = Anxiety”. This brilliantly simple equation gives us the opportunity to figure out what it is that is resulting in this anxious state.
Let’s think of spiders for a moment. If you are not afraid of spiders, reading about them probably doesn’t trigger much of a reaction. If you have been bitten by a venomous spider, you likely had a very strong negative reaction. You may not even be reading this any more. Regardless of which of the two camps you fit into best, the investment here could be seen as your life. That’s a reasonably significant investment for most of us. Moving to the second part of the equation, threat, is where the differences in the outcome lie. If you are not afraid of spiders or perhaps even think they are cute, you will not experience anxiety. Your life + no threat = no anxiety. If you have had that negative prior experience with a spider, your equation may read more like your life + scary dangerous spider threat = high anxiety. If you change your perception of either the investment or the threat, the outcome changes.
Once you have practiced identifying whether the investment or the threat can be changed, change it. Sometimes, however, the equation may read all of my money + rapid stock market changes = anxiety. You must keep your money, literally your investment, somewhere. You are not able to change the stock market. This is where trust and faith, in yourself, in another, or in a higher power becomes a must. Your investment has to go somewhere. If you do not feel you have the knowledge to determine the best or safest place for your investment, place your faith in someone you trust to have the knowledge or skills you don’t. And then leave it with them. If you trust them to look after your interests, truly trust them and have faith that you have done your best.
Healthy coping skills will take you a long way in controlling your anxiety. Many of us use some of these naturally and some of us will use parts of these but in unhealthy ways. For instance, many people will cope with their feelings by eating ice cream, or cake, or some other “comfort” food. While, indeed, that is one way to cope, it is actually more like medicating and certainly not healthy. While there are almost countless healthy ways to naturally reduce anxiety levels, the most effective tools or skills include:
- Breathing properly (belly-breathing or diaphragmatic breathing)
- Practicing mindfulness
- Learning to relax (progressive relaxation)
- Smiling (a real smile) or laughing
Once you are able to feel centered or grounded, the following tools or skills are much more readily useful:
- Identifying your options
- Guided imagery
- Systematic desensitization
Of course, being as healthy as possible goes a long way in your efforts to control your anxiety. The less physically healthy we are, the more difficult it is to maintain emotional or mental balance. Our over-anxious responses and long-lasting stress reactions happen much more easily in a system that is operating with poor or inadequate supplies. Striving to meet the healthier standards by:
- Getting adequate sleep
- Exercising as much as is reasonably safe for you
- Eating a well balanced diet of fresh, unprocessed or minimally processed foods
- Maintaining an even blood sugar level
- Avoiding caffeine, nicotine, and other chemical stimulants
Avoidance is by far the easiest means to skip the whole anxiety experience. While that may seem to make sense on the surface, it becomes obvious that the more you avoid something, the more anxiety provoking it becomes. Avoidance works by not experiencing elevated anxiousness in the moment. However, every time you avoid something and don’t feel the awful feelings you believe you would have otherwise, you reinforce the need to avoid it again. It is like feeding the beast. While it may feel like a short-term gain, in the long run, your task becomes increasingly more frightening.
A passive, or roundabout way, that you may be tempted to avoid actually confronting and controlling your anxiety is to dismiss the “do” list above. Much of it is familiar. Everyone, except perhaps Chuck Norris, feels anxious from time to time. You knew that. And you are already breathing, right? You could very easily review the “do” list and tell yourself you already know these things. If you knew them and were capable of using them, you would not be reading this article. It may help you to think of this like swimming. Imagine you had read about swimming several times. You may have even watched someone do it in a movie. Indeed, you may “know” how to swim but the likelihood of being able to do so without practice while highly anxious or even panicking is zero. These are skills. Practice, practice, practice. If you pick only one to do for now, start with breathing.
You have been taught to “not feel”. We all have been. Somehow, feeling discomfort has become construed to be something to make disappear. Anxiety, like many other physical issues that people have learned to treat as unwanted or useless, actually serves a good purpose. Normal anxiety helps us stay alive. Your headache may be telling you that your blood sugar is low or that your eyes need to rest. Your headache didn’t arise because of a shortage of a medication in your system. But that is how you have likely been taught to perceive and respond to it. You can take a pain reliever and your headache will probably go away.
Anxiety that arises, or continues, in the absence of a life-threatening stressor, no longer serves the purpose for which it is meant. You can also medicate that discomfort away. You may find that you use alcohol, food, sex, gambling, prescription or street drugs, and anything else that causes your biochemistry to change, making you feel different. Different is better than anxious or stressed. The desire or need for relief from anxiety is real and compelling. The effects of doing this, though, are devastating. Figures between 20 to 60 percent are common in the literature that compares anxiety and substance abuse. If you self-medicate, your likelihood of accidentally becoming addicted to whatever it is you use, is high. In the end, you’ll be dealing with abuse or addiction disorders in addition to your anxiety. Medication only hides the symptoms.
Change is often difficult. If it were easy, you’d already have done it. Don’t listen to your negative self-talk when you face your anxiety and you can’t just “get over it”. Don’t judge yourself harshly for failing to immediately remember the techniques and tools that you had planned to use. Most of us have very ugly, critical, self-talk. You would likely never say aloud to someone else all of the things you say to yourself. Regularly using your new coping techniques will result in them becoming a more natural and automatic action. Almost every other behavior you use daily was acquired by practice. If you forget to respond the way you had intended, acknowledge it to yourself, and correct whatever is within your power at that moment.
It can feel incredibly difficult and frustrating to let go of anxiety. Fear, or anxiety, is natural and contributes to our survival. Anxiety disorders, however, are characterized by this life-saving anxiety response becoming overactive or remaining in high gear when the need is not real. Anxiety disorders can truly limit your ability to live the life you want. Whatever you feed, whether accidentally or intentionally, grows. If you give all of your attention to your fears, to the negative aspects, and have practiced avoidance, expect them to get bigger. If you focus on the “do” list, your coping abilities will increase proportionately. Your stronger and effective coping skills will decrease the intensity of your desire to avoid whatever it is that triggers your anxiety. When avoidance is no longer the only effective tool in your anxiety toolbox, you will be able to address your stressors and fear effectively.
For many people, the source of the anxiety lies further back in our lives than we can recall. Or, while we can determine the investment and the threat, we are unable to change either factor on our own. Psychotherapy is the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders. Recent research indicates that people with unresolved anxiety issues age faster than people who either have never had an anxiety disorder or who have resolved them for 10 years or more. While some of the anxiety disorders may cause mild on-going difficulties in your life, others may have much more drastic implications. Research shows that 70 percent of people who try to kill themselves have an anxiety disorder. Please seek help from a licensed professional sooner than later.
Taking control of your anxiety is a process and one that takes time and practice…like everything else worthwhile. Simply having read the information shared here, your level of concern about your anxiety or worrying may already be decreasing. It is perfectly normal to feel “abnormal” at times. If you are thinking of addressing your anxiety, you have already made a move in a positive direction! Awareness is the first step to being able to change anything. Be patient, be kind, and be as consistent as possible. Before you know it, you will be the master of your anxiety and no longer feel like a victim of it!
More expert advice about Anxiety and Stress
Photo Credits: auremar/bigstock.com; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com