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Everyone experiences anxiety at one time or another. It’s the feelings of worry, apprehension, fear, and/or panic that occur in response to situations that seem overwhelming, threatening, unsafe or uncomfortable. You may experience anxiety as intense worry before a final exam, nervousness before making a presentation, or the heightened alertness when you believe you are in danger.
Anxiety is your body’s way of alerting you that some kind of action is needed in the face of a situation that is perceived to be threatening or dangerous, and it can be useful whenever it prompts you to take appropriate action in response to an anxiety-provoking situation. For example, anxiety can motivate you to study for an exam or organize a presentation or leave a situation that feels unsafe.
However, anxiety can also be detrimental—especially if it becomes overwhelming and prevents you from taking appropriate actions or prompts you to take actions that are counterproductive. Anxiety may be detrimental if you avoid studying for a major exam that worries you, or if you cope with worry about your relationship by getting unnecessarily suspicious and then yelling at your partner. This brochure will help you distinguish between normal or expected anxiety that everyone experiences and anxiety that may require intervention.
How Do I Recognize if Anxiety is Helping or Hurting?
Because anxiety is frequently intense and distressing, it is quite normal to want to avoid or eliminate these feelings. However, this is not necessarily the best approach to managing anxiety. If you ignore or try to eliminate your anxieties, you miss out on valuable information about your life and about your options for dealing with stressful and demanding situations. It is often a better approach to begin with assessing the degree to which your anxiety works for you or is excessive and is causing problems.
Since anxiety is a basic human emotion, like sadness, how do you know when it becomes problematic? The following will help you determine whether anxiety could be partly responsible for some of the problems you are experiencing:
- Do I feel anxious more often than not throughout my day?
- Have I restricted my activities as a way of coping with anxiety?
- Do I experience panic or panic-like symptoms in certain predictable situations?
- Am I intensely fearful of specific situations or things?
- Do I experience acute anxiety in social situations?
If you answered yes to some of the previous questions, you may have more specific questions about the anxiety symptoms you have been experiencing. The following are various conditions for which anxiety is the predominant feature.
Some Types of Anxiety
A panic attack is defined as a period of intense fear or discomfort accompanied by physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling and chest pain as well as cognitive symptoms such as fear of losing control and/or dying. A panic attack can be also associated with any of the other anxiety disorders. Panic disorder is when you have panic attacks repeatedly and find yourself concerned about when the next one will occur.
A specific phobia is associated with persistent, excessive and unreasonable fear when there is an anticipated or actual encounter with a specific object or situation. There can be significant anxiety and sometimes panic attacks whenever a person with specific phobia is exposed to the feared object or situation. Some examples of specific phobias include fear of certain animals, flying, heights, receiving an injection and seeing blood.
Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)
Social anxiety disorder is defined as a marked and persistent fear of a social situation or a performance in front of others. A fear of public speaking is one of the common forms of social anxiety disorder. The bottom line is that there is acute anxiety whenever the feared situation or performance is anticipated or encountered and there is frequently a strong desire for avoidance.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
The primary feature of Generalized Anxiety Disorder is excessive anxiety and worry that occurs more days than not for a period of at least six months. Such anxiety and worry are perceived by the individual as being difficult to control or regulate. In addition, symptoms of restlessness, fatigue, concentration problems, irritability, muscle tension and sleeplessness may be present.
Treatment of Anxiety
If anxiety symptoms are interfering with your ability to do day-to-day activities, or if you have restricted your life activities as a way of coping with anxiety, you should consider seeking professional help. There are currently a variety of highly effective treatments for anxiety, including psychotherapy (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapies) and medication. If you seek treatment, the recommendations you receive will likely depend on the specific symptoms you are experiencing. Anxiety disorders are treatable and many individuals can learn how to effectively manage their symptoms from treatment.
It is usually helpful to identify the events surrounding the experience of anxiety:
- What provokes the anxiety?
- What thoughts or physical sensations accompany the anxiety?
- What kinds of feelings are associated with the anxiety?
- How are you coping with the anxiety?
Exploring these accompanying events may provide useful information about the nature of the anxiety as well as possible strategies for reducing it. In addition, there are specific changes you can make that may help alleviate anxiety symptoms:
- Exercise or engage in some form of daily physical activity (e.g., walking, stretching).
- Eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet.
- Get an adequate amount of sleep.
- Practice mindfulness and/or meditation.
- Seek emotional support from friends and family.
- Focus on positive aspects of your life.
- Establish realistic, attainable goals that do not rely on perfectionistic values
- Monitor how you think about stress and reduce or change negative thoughts.
- Identify activities that feel overwhelming and reduce your involvement or seek ways to make them more manageable.
- Reduce or eliminate the use of alcohol and drugs and limit caffeine intake.
- Do not assume responsibility for events that are outside of your control.
- Consult with a physician if you are experiencing any medical problems.
- Consult with a mental health professional if you continue to be concerned about your anxiety.
Helping a Person with Anxiety
If someone you care about is experiencing anxiety symptoms, you can be a valuable resource. There is often shame associated with anxiety. If you talk candidly with the individual regarding your concerns for his or her well-being, it will often bring the problems out into the open. Emphasize that your primary objective is to show your care and support. You can also always consult with a mental health professional yourself if you are concerned about how to talk with your friend.
Suggestions for supporting a person with anxiety
- Ask how you can support them.
- Do not minimize the severity of anxiety symptoms.
- Avoid critical or shaming statements.
- Encourage coping strategies which do not rely on avoidance of anxiety-provoking stimuli.
- Challenge expressions of hopelessness.
- Do not argue about how bad things are.
- Do not become angry even though your efforts may be resisted or rejected.
- Advocate for treatment of anxiety.
- Consult with a mental health professional if a person with anxiety refuses necessary treatment.
Want to know more?
Anxiety and Depression Association of America: adaa.org
National Alliance of Mental Illness: nami.org
The Social Anxiety Institute: socialanxietyinstitute.org
Bourne, E. J. (2015). The anxiety and phobia workbook (6th ed.). New Harbinger Publications.
Forsyth, J. P., & Eifert, G. H. (2016). The mindfulness and acceptance workbook for anxiety: A guide to breaking free from anxiety, phobias, and worry using acceptance and commitment therapy (2nd ed.). New Harbinger Publications.
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Get help ASAP
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They also offer a chat option through their website, suicidepreventionhotline.org/chat/.