Anxiety is a universal human experience, a natural response to stressors and challenges we all encounter in life. While it's a common emotion, it's often misunderstood and can manifest in a variety of ways. Here are some important things you should know about anxiety.
ANXIETY IS A NORMAL EMOTION
Anxiety is a completely normal and adaptive emotion. It's our body's way of preparing us for potential threats and dangers. In moderate amounts, anxiety can even be helpful, sharpening our focus and preparing us to deal with challenging situations.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NORMAL ANXIETY AND ANXIETY DISORDERS
While normal anxiety comes and goes in response to life's ups and downs, anxiety disorders involve persistent and excessive worry and fear that can significantly impact daily life. Conditions like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder fall under this category.
PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL SYMPTOMS OF ANXIETY
Anxiety doesn't just affect your mind – it has physical manifestations too. Racing heart, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, and stomach discomfort are common physical symptoms. On an emotional level, you might experience restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and a constant feeling of dread.
ANXIETY TRIGGERS CAN VARY WIDELY
Anxiety triggers can be unique to each individual. It might be a looming deadline, a social gathering, financial concerns, or even a seemingly minor decision. Identifying your triggers can help you manage and cope with anxiety more effectively.
DIFFERENT TRIGGERS, SAME FEATURES
As mentioned, different people have different triggers. However, different forms of anxiety – social anxiety, generalised anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, health anxiety, and so on – nevertheless often share common features. These include a tendency to catastrophise or awfulize; intolerance of uncertainty and needing to know “for sure”; counter-productive safety behaviours; avoidant behaviours; future-oriented thinking (“What if…?”); feelings of uneasiness and dread; over-estimation of risk and under-estimation of coping abilities; and ruminative, repetitive worrying.
ANXIETY CAN BE CHRONIC
For some, anxiety can become chronic, impacting their daily life for an extended period. Chronic anxiety can lead to avoidance behaviours, where people avoid situations that make them anxious. Avoidance feels good in the short-term, but it ends up reinforcing anxiety over time. Getting a grip on anxiety means cutting out avoidant behaviours.
ANXIETY AND OVERTHINKING
Overthinking and anxiety often go hand in hand. When you're anxious, your mind can get caught in a loop of negative thoughts, magnifying potential dangers and uncertainties. This can lead to a cycle of increased anxiety and further overthinking.
ANXIETY IS A BLUFFER
Sometimes, you will look back on something you were worried about and think, “That was no big deal, why did I get so worked up about it?”. The simple reason is anxiety makes everything important. Anxiety has a way of magnifying the significance of everything, of creating a sense of urgency. Anxiety is a great bluffer, convincing us we’re in danger when we’re not. Most of the time, however, the actual situation usually turns out to be far less nerve-wracking than your anticipatory thoughts led you to believe.
With that in mind, here’s a simple tip: next time you experience butterflies in your stomach before an upcoming event, just label it "anticipatory anxiety." Instead of buying into your anxious thoughts, remember it’s just another automatic message from your brain, one likely to be just another false alarm.
ANXIOUS FEELINGS CAN'T BE TRUSTED
People often advise others to go with their gut, to go with their feelings. However, if you suffer from anxiety, always going with your anxious feelings is a recipe for disaster. For example, if you have OCD, relying on your feelings to determine if a threat is real is ‘a little like asking the Devil for directions to Heaven’, says OCD expert Dr Steven Phillipson.
Similarly, if you fear flying, your anxious brain will be screaming at you to not get on the airplane. If you are socially anxious, your anxious voice will be telling you to avoid that upcoming social event.
Remember, feeling afraid doesn’t mean you are in danger. If you suffer from anxiety, it’s generally a good idea to do an opposite action – that is, do the opposite of what your feelings are telling you to do.
(First published in Southern Star on 09/11/2023)