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Anxiety: Why We Have It and What to Do About It

Updated on July 1, 2011

Anxiety. All humans experience it. It is that uncomfortable feeling that comes over your body when you feel the urge to run away. Your heart will begin to beat faster. You may feel nauseous. Your skin may begin to itch uncontrollably. No matter how it presents itself physically, it is an uneasy sensation that requires immediate action to ease.

If anxiety is so uncomfortable, why do we experience it? Without anxiety, our species may have ceased to exist some time ago. It is an important part of the fight or flight response, which can play a large part in natural selection. Anxiety tells our body that we are in a dangerous situation. Without that knowledge, we would not know when something needs to be done; we would not feel the danger from a predator about to kill us or from a debt collector about to foreclose on our home.

Anxiety in moderation, therefore, is a healthy thing that urges us to take action. Without it we would not feel the necessity to study before a test, to save for our children's future provision, or to eat a diet low in cholesterol. We study, we save, and we diet because we are anxious to avoid the possible consequences of failing that test, seeing our children without means, and suffering a heart attack. Those who do not see the connection between these actions and the consequences do not feel that anxiety, do not fear what could happen, and therefore do not act. Problems arise, however, when anxiety triggers without a present danger.

My Own Experiences With Anxiety

My problems started in high school. I was your typical overachiever. I would worry about performing well in classes and on tests as well in my after school activities. I was lucky enough to have few problems doing so, and my classmates seemed to expect this pattern. When I applied for acceptance to Stanford, my dream school, I was anxiously awaiting my reply, while my classmates told me I was guaranteed a spot. I was petrified of failing in my eyes and theirs, but again, I was lucky enough to succeed.

Source

Everything came to a head my first year of college. Surrounded by other high achievers, relative failure became a greater possibility. I learned to accept that my grades would slip, pleased with the knowledge that I would accumulate nonetheless. It was the social aspects of college, however, for which I was not ready. I had my first panic attack after my freshman year crush started dating my good friend. I began to fear failing in my relationships and ending up alone. It was at this point that I first sought professional help. I did end up losing one of my best friends when she became afraid of upsetting me emotionally. But the world did not end; I realized that not everyone would leave me just because I was not perfect, and I am eternally grateful to the friends who stuck with me to help me to this revelation.

My anxiety comes in waves. It hit again upon graduation, when everything seemed so uncertain in my life: I had lost my boyfriend, had no clear plans for a career, and had discovered that my parents, my support structure, could move for occupational reasons. After my next romantic relationship failed in its infancy, I became depressed and decided to augment talk therapy with an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication. This has helped me cope with continued anxiety, but it is not always the right decision for someone to make.

I suppose I am telling you my experience as a way of proving my credentials. Throughout this time, I have seen a psychologist one-on-one, been to group meetings for specific phobias and for social phobias, and have taken college classes in general and abnormal psychology. A minor in psychology may not get me a job, but hopefully I have learned enough from my studies to provide some helpful information.

If you cannot leave the situation, picturing yourself in a calm oasis can ease anxiety as well.
If you cannot leave the situation, picturing yourself in a calm oasis can ease anxiety as well.

How to Ease Mild Anxiety

The first group class I went to helped me learn a very valuable skill: deep breathing. How can this help someone prone to anxiety and panic attacks? Anxiety is mental, but it wreaks havoc on the body. By calming the body, you can also calm your mind.

Sometimes all that is needed to ease anxiety is to step away from the situation that causes it. Give yourself a mental break and allow your mind to break free from stressful thoughts so that you can approach the given situation with a mind clear of harmful emotions. Do something that makes you happy. Exercise or watch a funny movie to release endorphins. Relax with a calming bath, hot beverage, or glass of wine. Take time to order your thoughts, realize why they are making you anxious, and attempt to change your thinking to alter your emotional response to the stressor.

On the other hand, if your anxiety response is a more consistent problem to a set of similar stimuli, you need to train yourself to be calm in the face of the stressor, which means stepping away to clear your mind is no longer an option. Being free from anxiety when in a situation that normally causes it is the key to ridding yourself of it completely. The key to this is deep breathing.

Close your eyes and picture yourself in a place where you feel safe and calm. As you take a deep breath in, count to four. Hold your breath for another four counts. Then release your breath continuously for eight counts. This process forces your body to breath deeply and evenly. The release of breath causes your overall breathing to slow. Soon the tempo with which you count will slow as well. Keep up the pattern of breathing in for four, holding for four, and releasing for eight counts and take note of the release of tension in your body. When you no longer feel the symptoms of anxiety, you can attempt to address the situation at hand. Whenever the anxiety returns, repeat the deep breathing exercise to force your body and mind to quiet.

Helpful Tools For Easing Anxiety

Yoga for Stress Relief
Yoga for Stress Relief

Yoga stretches with a focus on releasing tension in the body and relaxing the mind. Not for someone looking to exercise with yoga.

 

When Anxiety Becomes a Disorder

As I have said, everyone experiences anxiety at some point in time. It is in some ways a healthy thing to feel. It becomes a problem, however, when anxiety begins to hinder one's ability to live his or her life successfully.

Once I chose to seek help, a simply survey led me to the realization that I have mild social anxiety disorder. I am able to function well enough in certain circumstances, but when I can get away with it, I actively avoid social situations such as picking up a phone, going to a party, or making small talk with a stranger in an elevator. This may not seem vital, but when my anxiety concerning social situations begins to isolate me from my friends or inhibits me from trying to find employment, then it becomes a major problem.

Other anxiety-based disorders may seem normal to some degree as well. Some people may be overly concerned with cleanliness, but it can become a disorder when someone who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder begins to ritualistically wash his or her hands to stave off disease. Similarly, someone may be uncomfortable with wide open spaces but would be labeled with severe agoraphobia when this fear keeps him or her from leaving the house.

No one wants to be infected with bacteria, but when fear of bacterial infection adversely affects the decisions someone makes, it becomes a problem.
No one wants to be infected with bacteria, but when fear of bacterial infection adversely affects the decisions someone makes, it becomes a problem.

The more severe the effect on one's ability to live life, the more necessary it is to seek some sort of treatment from a professional. Given the difficulty to overcome such problems, however, it is important that the person suffering is the one to seek treatment as he or she will have to make the commitment to therapy.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (or CBT) is the current standard for psychological intervention for people suffering from anxiety disorders. It focuses on identifying the abnormal thought processes that cause anxiety and modifying the avoidance behavior that makes living life difficult.

For a more in-depth discussion of CBT, please refer to the following:

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    • Breanne Ginsburg profile image

      Breanne Ginsburg 

      3 years ago

      Megan,

      I think you do a great job of sharing your experiences and reminding all of us that with hard work we can get through our anxiety. I agree with you that finding professional help is not for everyone, but is important for some and hard work is always a must. I also like how you mention that doing things such as watching relaxing movies or reading relaxing stories are important when focusing on other things than our fears.

    • Megan Kathleen profile imageAUTHOR

      Megan Kathleen 

      5 years ago from Los Gatos, CA

      Thanks for the read and comment, Sam. I think therapy can be very important if your anxiety is severe enough, but there are some things you could do on your own if your anxiety is more on the mild side. I just googled "CBT help online" and found some activities you could work through, like this one: http://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/cbtstep1.htm. Small steps could do a world of good.

    • profile image

      Sam 

      5 years ago

      I know that talking to a therapist would help, as would changing a lot of things. The problem is convincing my parents to allow me too

    • Megan Kathleen profile imageAUTHOR

      Megan Kathleen 

      6 years ago from Los Gatos, CA

      Thank you so much, Matt! Diet and cardio are extremely important in balancing your thoughts and emotions. The hardest part is finding the motivation to start, and when anxiety is paired with depression, this gets even harder. Although I feel like I have come a long way, I know I can always do better, and I know that exercise is the key to getting back on track.

    • mattdigiulio profile image

      mattdigiulio 

      6 years ago

      I dealt with anxiety for years. Finally I discovered mindfulness and meditation, and when combined with a change in diet and a bit of cardio my life has altered drastically for the better. This is a very important hub -- I hope those who need this info will find it. Voting up, interesting, useful.

    • Megan Kathleen profile imageAUTHOR

      Megan Kathleen 

      6 years ago from Los Gatos, CA

      Thank you so much, Reishaaa!

    • Reishaaa profile image

      Reishaaa 

      6 years ago from London, UK

      Great article. Rated up!

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