Anxiety Series Part One: What Is Anxiety And Are You Suffering From It?

Are You Suffering From Anxiety?

Of all the disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), anxiety disorders are the most common. Almost everyone either knows someone who suffers from anxiety or has suffered from it themselves at some point. One study showed that anxiety disorders affect approximately ten percent of the population. They constituted the number one mental health issue among women and number two among men, second only to drug and alcohol abuse. Another study indicated that at least one third of all office visits to primary care physicians were prompted by some form of anxiety.

Out of control anxiety can take several forms including panic, phobias, obsessions, compulsions, post traumatic stress and chronic stress. Common to all of these is that the sufferer is trapped in a state of physiological hyper-arousal which cannot be explained by present circumstance. Another common denominator is that the sufferer has a diminished capacity to attend to anything other than the anxiety symptoms they are experiencing. In other words, anxious people experience a fixated fearfulness without sufficient environmental cause in the present to explain it. Nonetheless, the fear anxiety sufferers feel is very real.

What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

Anxiety is often experienced in several dimensions, often simultaneously. Physiologically it can be experienced as increased heart rate, muscle tension, dry mouth, shortness of breath, shaking, sweating, choking, digestive discomfort, dizziness and hot flashes or chills. Psychologically it can be experienced as a fear of dying, of losing control, of going crazy, or as a sense of detachment, startling easily, exaggerated apprehension or unease and as an inability to concentrate or focus on anything other than the anxiety symptoms. Behaviorally, anxiety can interfere with your ability function in any number of capacities including at work, as a parent or in various social settings and tends to result in avoidance of activities in an attempt to ease anxiety symptoms.

Because anxiety is experienced in each of these distinct dimensions, it is important to also address it in these dimensions, i.e., physiologically, psychologically and behaviorally. Before delving into these dimensions the very first step in addressing your anxiety is to forgive yourself for having it. No one chooses to be anxious. It is not your fault and it is not the kind of thing you can simply will away, nor is it a moral weakness.

There are many explanations for why you may be anxious ranging from your genetics, to your life history, to your present day circumstances or some combination of these, but none of these reasons makes you weak or somehow culpable. The very fact that you are reading this blog indicates that you have achieved a useful level of self awareness and that you have a desire to better your situation for yourself and possibly for those who care about you. This takes courage. Give yourself credit for your willingness to make some changes and for believing in your ability to do so.

Soothing Anxiety That Is Out of Control

A certain amount of anxiety is adaptive. We evolved the capacity to register threats to our well-being and to achieve a heightened awareness of them in order to respond to and to survive them. Some anxiety is thus necessary and useful for managing life’s challenges.  Typically the range of our responses to danger is described as “fight, flight and freeze”. We either prepare to combat the danger (fight), escape from it (flight) or play dead (freeze) in relation to it. These responses to real threat in the environment are adaptive.  They keep us safe.

What is not adaptive is when our flight, fight and freeze responses get stuck on over drive and/or become chronic, that is, when they are not a realistic response to present-day circumstances. For example, when our anxiety gets so intense as to become incapacitating as in a panic attack or relentless as in generalized anxiety disorder. In these examples it ceases to serve a useful function and becomes a problem in itself to the person experiencing it.

If you are one of the many unfortunate people who are affected by anxiety you may wonder what you can do about it short of or in addition to taking medication. The blog posts to follow in this series are intended to help you answer this question. I will cover several skills and coping strategies that can help you when you are experiencing non-adaptive anxiety.

All strategies will have a greater chance of success if you maintain a generally healthy lifestyle involving wholesome nutrition, adequate exercise, proper sleep and good relations. Relief from anxiety which has run amok involves using a multi-pronged approach which will touch upon many aspects of how you live your life.

Although the strategies I will cover in upcoming blogs can be accomplished on your own, if you are really suffering and unable to find sufficient relief on your own, you may want to work in conjunction with a therapist to assuage your anxiety. If you are interested in working with me to help you reduce your anxiety please click here (contact) to fill out a simple form and I will contact you about your options regarding counselling. I offer a free thirty minute consultation for you to determine if I can be of assistance to you. I offer counselling sessions in person, by telephone and through video formats.

Recent research suggests that shifting a person’s mental/emotional state toward a state of relaxation and greater well-being is something that can be accomplished interpersonally. In other words, the regulating of affect such as the soothing of anxiety can be accomplished between people, with one person (the regulator) monitoring and attuning to the other person’s (the regulated) internal state and coaxing the other person’s state increasingly more toward one of well-being (i.e., wherein less anxiety is experienced). In the literature this is referred to as “dyadic affect regulation”. A dyad just refers to a pair of two.

Research also indicates that this is precisely how as infants we learned how to regulate our emotions, that is, in a dyad with our primary caregiver(s). In these early life pairings with our primary caregiver(s), we learned bit-by-bit over time how to modulate our affects through the interactive ministrations of our caregivers as they met our needs for soothing, comfort, and pleasure.

If our caregivers did not or could not serve this function for us as well as we needed them to as we developed (for example, if our caregivers themselves struggled with anxiety or were not consistently available to us), it may have made it more difficult for us to be able to regulate our emotions on our own as adults. Fortunately, however, these skills can still be learned at any age and working with a skilled therapist trained in how to impart these skills can make a significant difference.

How Do You Know if You Are Just Experiencing An Ordinary Amount Of Stress As Opposed To Serious Anxiety?

There are several ways to discriminate between serious anxiety and a normal stress response to life difficulties which everyone experiences periodically. Below are several questions you can ask yourself to help you to discriminate between the two.

Assuming that there are not external circumstances which explain your anxiety, one question to ask yourself is whether your anxiety is interfering with your normal day-to-day functioning. For example is your anxiety significantly or chronically disrupting your sleep or your appetite? Is it affecting other bodily functions like your digestion? Is it interfering with your capacity to work, to parent or to socialize? If you answered yes to any of these questions, there is a greater chance that you are experiencing something beyond an ordinary normal stress response.

Another question to ask yourself is whether you feel you have any control over your anxiety or if you feel powerless in relation to it. Are you able to notice that you are experiencing it and then do something to relieve it without the use of substances? The more you feel powerless over it and that it controls you, the more likely it is that you are experiencing something beyond ordinary life stress.

A related question to ask yourself is how you manage your anxiety. How do you respond to that which worries you? If your only or primary strategy is avoidance at the expense of adaptive action, it is more likely that you are suffering from debilitating anxiety.

A final question to ask yourself is whether there is a substantive circumstantial reason which explains your anxiety. In other words, does your anxiety have a focus which is based on something that is actually happening in your life and in the present? Anxiety generally has some focus, but the question here is whether it’s focus is real and whether it warrants the degree of anxiety being experienced. If there is not a present-day circumstantial explanation for how you are feeling, it is more likely to be an issue with anxiety.

Overall if what you are experiencing is highly intense or long-lasting or interferes with your ordinary life significantly, cannot be controlled by you and is not explained by circumstances, it is more likely that you are suffering from serious anxiety.  Take heart, there are very effective ways to manage anxiety both in conjunction with and independent of taking medication.

Check back soon, for the next blog in this series to learn coping skills and strategies to manage your anxiety.

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