Anxiety disorders, which include everything from generalized anxiety, to social phobia (aka, social anxiety), to obsessive-compulsive disorders, are the most commonly diagnosed mental health problem in the US. In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million US adults. More disheartening is that less than half of those with anxiety disorders receive help for their struggles.
When I work with clients who have anxiety, I often discuss with them the cycling and self-reinforcing patterns that anxiety tends to induce. This three-part series will review common ways that we give in to, and therefore worsen, our anxiety.
Part 1: Ignore It
Ignorance is definitely not bliss when it comes to understanding what your mind and body are doing when you feel anxious. I think about anxiety (vs. appropriate fear) as an incredibly valuable neural response that is being either overblown or misapplied. In other words, the sensations that accompany an anxious state (accelerated breathing and heart rate, sweaty palms, muscle tension, decreased or increased appetite, racing thoughts, adrenaline rush) are highly useful when we are faced with actual threats to our safety or well-being. These bodily and cognitive changes represent our fight-or-flight response that readies us for survival in threatening situations. Our bodies are poised for action with activated muscles and quick respiration and heart rate, and our thoughts are running on high speed to alert us to our surroundings and possible ways to escape. Think about how adaptive this response is, especially remembering what life was like for the original humans fending off vicious predators and fighting for the survival of our species.
However, anxiety happens when that fight-or-flight response is misapplied to situations that aren't actually threatening to our safety, or at least not threatening enough to truly need that type of response. This is where having insight into what is happening mentally and physically can give you some leverage with anxiety - it gives answers to what you are feeling, it fights "anxiety about anxiety" (e.g., thinking you may pass out or die due to how your body feels in a state of fight-or-flight), and it opens up the possibility for challenging your anxious thoughts and practicing physical relaxation training to regain a sense of calm. Truly, knowledge is power when it comes to managing anxiety.
Something to practice: If you are feeling anxious or even just stressed out, try to pause for a minute and notice what is going on in your body and mind:
Keep an eye out for Part 2, which will discuss how giving in to our fears exacerbates anxiety. What strategies do you use to manage stress and anxiety? Share your go-to coping methods in the comments below.
Dr. Bethany Detwiler is a psychologist practicing in Allentown, PA. She specializes in mood and relationship struggles. She also is an adjunct professor of counseling at Lehigh University.