Anxiety is a normal part of life. In fact, studies have found that a moderate level of anxiety, compared to low and high levels, results in greater performance on a number of tasks. So anxiety is healthy. It only becomes a problem when it interferes with your daily functioning.
Most people think of an anxious person as looking nervous, always worrying, or acting impulsively. But anxiety can manifest itself in ways that seem to have little to do with anxiety. Irritability and anger can be a byproduct of anxiety. Taking more than an hour to fall asleep may be a sign of underlying anxiety. Daydreaming and being preoccupied with your thoughts can be signs of anxiety. Anxiety has many shades.
Anxiety is usually associated with depression, and vice versa. I would estimate that over 90% of the people that come to my office are struggling with anxiety and/or depression. Anxiety can manifest in a number ways: physically (e.g., excessive sweating, difficultly breathing, trembling), physiologically (e.g., abdominal pain, heart palpitations, and chest pain), and cognitively (e.g., inability to concentrate, excessive worrying, and memory problems). These are a handful of the many symptoms experienced by individuals suffering from anxiety.
My therapeutic approach (for anxiety and most disorders) is to understand the root causes of your anxiety. When did it begin, how was your anxiety managed at a young age, what is anxiety like for you, what happens when you become anxious, how have you tried to cope with anxiety? These questions require analysis of the present and the past, to gain insight into life experiences that may reveal pieces of the anxiety puzzle.
In many cases, anxiety is related to a fear or avoidance of 3 things: the unknown, the unpredictable, and the uncontrollable. It is common for someone suffering from anxiety to have had an unpredictable, negative life experience (e.g., sudden move, loss of a loved one, betrayal/violation of trust, instability in early life, accident with major injury, etc.). In almost all instances, the person describes the experience with a sense of feeling out of control, helplessness, and fear. These feelings begin to drive your behavior, in an attempt to avoid the unknown, unpredictable, and uncontrollable.
The result is you try to control too much of what is happening to and around you. At some level of consciousness, there is a drive to avoid the negative emotions of feeling out of control, powerless, afraid. If you believe you are in control, then you can limit the probability of an unpredictable, fearful event. You can avoid those experiences of helplessness and uncertainty. Unfortunately, this type of strategy can only be maintained for so long before our mind falters, and anxiety starts to spiral out of control. Perspective is lost, and the ability to manage anxiety has been replaced by the crippling feeling that nothing can help.
Anxiety is like a leaky faucet. Initially, it doesn't seem like a problem. Maybe ignore the dripping or try to tighten a nut. If it still drips, it's okay because it is dripping slowly. Over time that slow drip quickens. All of a sudden, the water is flowing and it can't be stopped. At this point, control has been lost and the anxiety takes over. Anxiety feels overwhelming, paralyzing. I have had patients describe anxiety as a "recurring tsunami" and "chains that tighten as you try to escape." If you can relate, there are ways to get help.
There are a number of resources available to overcome severe anxiety. Therapy can be very helpful. Simply talking about your anxiety can alleviate symptoms. By addressing personal experiences (past and present) associated with your anxiety, you are confronting distressful thoughts and feelings that were once seen as unapproachable. You will become more aware of your tendencies in anxious situations, which will better prepare you for the next anxious experience. You will gain clarity on how to effectively cope with anxiety; which strategies are effective and ineffective. Anxiety will no longer be as daunting as you thought; instead, it will become approachable and ultimately manageable.
The first step is always the hardest, but it can be the simplest. Talking about your anxiety can seem impossible, but when you find the strength to do it, you will find relief.
As usual, feel free to share this post via facebook, twitter, etc. Comments are welcomed!
Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!