Anxiety is a normal feeling. Everyone experiences anxiety at some time in their life. We can feel anxious about different things such as our finances, our relationships, our career, our future, etc. There are also situations that can prompt anxiety like a job interview, a first date, public speaking, etc. For some, anxiety is temporary and resolves after addressing the stressor. For others, anxiety can be overwhelming and can cause a lot of suffering. If you are someone who experiences chronic anxiety, know you are not alone.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotion with many parts. Anxiety can be intrusive thoughts and worries, uncomfortable physical sensations, and avoidance of situations that can prompt more anxiety. Anxiety can also be feeling nervous, afraid, tense, irritable, and unable to relax/slow down.
Clinical anxiety conditions are when our daily functioning becomes impaired and our life becomes limited by anxiety. We may not be as effective at school/work and unable to fully engage in our life/relationships. When we try to manage our anxiety by escaping and avoiding our fears, our world becomes smaller while our anxiety becomes bigger. Take some time to consider, what have you missed out on in life because of anxiety?
Why Do We Experience Anxiety?
Anxiety and fear are important emotions we are born with and continue to exist through evolution to ensure our survival. While fear is more about dealing with present moment threats to protect our imminent safety, anxiety is more about worries for future events that may or may not happen. These worries can be about worst case scenarios, predicting what will happen, and/or replaying painful memories with fears that they will happen again. Experiencing fear and anxiety are adaptive; they help us to deal with real and perceived dangers.
You can learn more about the evolution of the human mind and anxiety in a video by clicking here.
Different Types of Anxiety
Each person’s experience of anxiety can be slightly different, because there are several types of anxiety symptoms. We can also meet the criteria for one or more anxiety conditions. Below is a brief description of some anxiety disorders according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Excessive anxiety and worry, occurring more days than not for at least 6 months, about a number of different events/activities (e.g., work/school)
Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
Feeling restlessness/on edge/irritable
Being easily fatigued
Sleep issues, including difficulty falling asleep/staying asleep
Recurrent and unexpected panic attacks
Persistent worry about having additional panic attacks
Avoidance of places/situations to prevent additional panic attacks
Some panic attack symptoms include: rapid heart rate, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, chest pain/discomfort, nausea, lightheadedness, fear of losing control/”going crazy”
Social Anxiety Disorder (click here if you are interested in learning more)
Anxiety in social situations (e.g., meeting new people or giving a presentation), in which others can evaluate/judge you
Fear about others noticing your anxiety symptoms
Social situations almost always cause anxiety
Social situations are avoided or endured with intense anxiety
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Unwanted thoughts/urges/images that cause anxiety
Engaging in repetitive behaviors to reduce anxiety
The intrusive thoughts/compulsive behaviors are time-consuming
There are additional anxiety disorders that you can read about here:
How to Cope With Anxiety
Below are general recommendations to managing anxiety symptoms:
Focus on one thing at a time to prevent you from becoming overwhelmed
You can read more about mindfulness here
Take care of basic needs like eating, sleeping, and exercising
You can read more about PLEASE skills here, which focuses on caring for your basic needs
Focus on things within your control (e.g., some of the coping strategies listed above) and try to accept things outside of your control (e.g., other people’s decisions)
You may also consider therapy to address anxiety symptoms. It is important to find the right type of therapy for your specific anxiety condition(s).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on shifting unhelpful thought patterns and behaving differently in situations to reduce anxiety
You can read more about unhelpful thinking styles here
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is a type of CBT that focuses on exposing yourself to anxiety-provoking thoughts/situations, learning to tolerate the distress, and not engaging in compulsive behaviors
Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) focuses on developing a different relationship to your anxiety by accepting uncomfortable feelings, responding compassionately to your emotional pain, and living by your life values
You can learn more about ACT and anxiety in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCp1l16GCXI
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) focuses on increasing mindfulness skills, learning to tolerate difficult emotions like anxiety, and how to regulate your emotions, so you can ride through emotional waves without more suffering
While we cannot get rid of anxiety as anxiety is a helpful and adaptive emotion, we can learn to understand and cope with our symptoms. If you are experiencing anxiety, know there is nothing “wrong” with you. There are likely many reasons you feel anxious (e.g., high levels of stress, critical self-talk/high self-expectations, genetics/growing up in an anxiety-provoking environment, a traumatic event). Our brain is trying the best it can to keep us alive and may need some fine tuning to work more effectively with us.
If you are interested in learning how to manage your anxiety, you reach out to us here.
Stay tuned. Our next topic is "How to Have Meaningful and Quality Relationships."
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Written by Susanna La, Ph.D.
Edited by Elena Duong, Psy.D.