- Mental Health
Anxiety: Why We Have It and What to Do About It
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- NIMH Anxiety Disorders
A National Institute of Mental Health publication that describes the symptoms, causes, and treatments of the major anxiety disorders, with information on getting help and coping.
- WebMD: Anxiety and Panic Disorders Center
Panic and anxiety disorders affect an estimated 2.4 million Americans. Panic attacks are twice as common in women as in men. Find panic disorder and anxiety attack information including its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and effective treatments.