Anxiety is a normal part of human life, as well as a common mental health issue. It’s normal for people to feel worried or nervous about new or challenging situations such as public speaking, job interviews, or a first date. However, anxiety can become problematic when the level of distress is extreme, and the nervousness and worry reoccur or are prolonged following a stressful event.
Anxiety is a protective instinct related to the fear response, and is triggered by an imagined or future threat – this is the same reaction that is triggered by immediate danger. In the face of real or imagined threat, physical and mental processes are activated to meet the demands of the situation and promote coping and survival. It can be said that with problematic anxiety, the alarm system is working extremely well, but it’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, like a smoke detector directly above a toaster – creating false alarms.
Anxiety involves three main components: physical sensations, threat based thoughts, and avoidant behavior. Even though anxiety might start with a threatening thought, most people initially become aware of anxiety in their body. Butterflies in the stomach, muscle tension, and the quickening of your heart rate help to cause alertness and attention. In small doses, this physical arousal can serve to wake you up or draw your attention to something important, which can be helpful in challenging situations. However, as anxiety increases beyond a moderate level, it becomes less helpful. At higher levels, the threat response is triggered, causing physical symptoms such as a pounding heart, shaking limbs, shortness of breath, and dizziness. The triggering of these responses can be very distressing and interfere with one’s performance.
In addition to body cues, our thoughts also play an important role in anxiety. Being perfectionistic or holding unrealistic expectations for yourself can lead to normal life challenges being perceived as threatening, which can increase anxiety. Reminding yourself that anxiety is normal and all challenges, regardless of their outcome, provide an opportunity for learning is a helpful approach. This type of optimistic self-talk is associated with reduced anxiety and effective coping.
It’s natural for people to want to avoid challenging or anxiety provoking situations, which may offer relief in the short term. However, long-term avoidance can result in a higher sensitivity to situations, causing your threat alarm to go off more quickly. The adage, “Face your fears,” has been proven somewhat effective. Approaching anxiety provoking situations gradually, with strategies and support, is the most effective approach to reducing anxiety.
Helpful strategies for managing anxiety include:
1. Developing awareness of your physical cues for anxiety. Notice what happens to your body when you are feeling worried or nervous, and view these body clues as part of a natural alert system.
2. Don’t resist or tense against anxiety. Instead, settle your body with calming strategies such as relaxation breathing or muscle relaxation to keep anxiety at a manageable level.
3. Think of helpful personalized coping thoughts, such as “Breathe,” or, “I don’t have to be perfect.” A specific thought that is meaningful can be written on a cue card or posted on your phone as a helpful reminder.
4. Approach anxiety provoking situations in a gradual way, taking small steps with calming strategies, helpful self-talk, and social support.
5. Develop a personal wellness plan that includes regular exercise, time in nature, and social time with individuals or groups that you find enjoyable. A wellness plan can help reduce and prevent problematic anxiety, enabling you to effectively manage the inevitable challenges of life.
While problematic anxiety is distressing and limiting, it also reveals important information about your natural defenses and abilities. When people learn to manage anxiety problems, they often report that they feel stronger and freer than they did before the difficulties began.
This blog is a sample from an upcoming book CTRI is publishing titled Counselling Insights: Practical Strategies for Helping Others with Anxiety, Trauma, Grief, and more. This book will be released January 2018. For more information please visit ACHIEVE Publishing.