Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress and serves as a critical internal alarm system. It alerts us to potential threats, protects us from danger and motivates us to reach important goals. In order to survive and thrive we need some anxiety. However, if your anxiety is causing severe suffering, interfering with your life and becoming chronic, then you may have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety counselling can be crucial in feeling better and moving forward in your life.
- Anxiety isn’t dangerous. Healthy anxiety feels uncomfortable but is temporary and will eventually decrease. These body sensations are hardwired to keep us vigilant and safe. They are normal, and part of our body’s natural survival response mechanism that help us prepare for action when in danger and to soothe once the threat has subsided.
- Anxiety shouldn’t be avoided or it will take over. For some people anxiety creeps into all aspects of their lives and takes over. When people feel anxious there is a tendency to avoid the activating trigger or situation. It is imperative to resist the urge to avoid because it will make things worse in the long run. If we avoid every time we feel anxious, the brain starts to view everything as threatening and the individual never gets a chance to learn how to cope. Coping with anxiety is a critical life skill that is necessary for a healthy balanced life. These tools can be learned.
The Flight-Fight-Freeze response
Anxiety/stress can trigger our internal Fight-Flight-Freeze response. This response is the body’s automatic, hardwired system that is designed to protect us from threat or danger. Here are common examples physical changes that occur when we are under threat:
- Rapid heartbeat and rapid breathing: In order to garner strength and speed to fight off danger- the body speeds up and redistributes oxygen rich blood to your major muscle groups and essential organs.
- Sweating: Sweating cools the body so we can run further and fight harder without overheating. It also makes the skin more slippery and difficult for an attacking animal or person to grab hold of you.
- Nausea and stomach upset: When we are in danger, the body shuts down the digestive system so that critical life saving energy can be redirected to more helpful organs/muscles. Because of this, anxiety might lead to feelings of stomach upset, nausea or diarrhea.
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded: The fast redistribution of oxygen rich blood from your brain to your extremities prepares you for action. This faster more shallow form of breathing can also result in hyperventilation and dizziness.
- Heavy legs: As our legs prepare for action, increased muscle tension and blood flow to those muscles, and can cause a heaviness sensation.
- Numbness and tingling sensations: This experience is caused by numerous factors. Hyperventilation and redistribution of blood to major muscles may leave fingers and toes tingling. Also the hairs on our bodies often stand up when in danger to increase our sensitivity to touch or movement.
- Tight or painful chest: Your body may tense as it prepares for danger. Resulting in your chest feeling tight or painful when you take in large breaths.
- Surreal or distorted vision: When in danger, our pupils dilate to let in more light to ensure that we can see clearly. The vision may look brighter, fuzzier, and/or sometimes surreal.
Ordinary anxiety is a feeling that we all experience. It comes and goes, but does not interfere with day to day life. Anxiety is critical to survival when there is a real threat; and helps us thrive when we need to be pushed to achieve our goals.
Anxiety disorders are the most common form of emotional disorder and can affect anyone at any age. In the case of an anxiety disorder, the feeling of fear may be with you all the time. Remember when your brain interprets threat, the body automatically reacts with the flight-fight-freeze response even if there is no actual danger. This false alarm can be intense and sometimes debilitating. False alarms, excessive anxious suffering, and life disruptions tell us that anxiety has become a problem. If left untreated, the anxiety could keep getting worse and bleed into all facets of a person ‘s life.
Do any of these sound Anxiety disorders sound familiar?
- Panic Disorder is when individuals experience extreme recurring panic attacks at unexpected times. There is a constant worry of when the next attack will come and people often fear that they will die.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a common anxiety disorder that involves constant and chronic worrying, nervousness, and stress. This form of anxiety is non specific and is experienced as a general feeling of dread or unease that impacts many aspects of a person’s life.
- A phobia is an extreme fear of a specific object, situation, or activity
- Social Anxiety disorder is the extreme fear of being judged by others
- Illness anxiety disorder is extreme and often irrational anxiety around health issues.
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur after a person has experienced a life altering or threatening event
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by repetitive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and irrational, excessive urges to do certain actions (compulsions).
Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety feels different depending on the person experiencing it. Feelings can range from butterflies in your stomach to a racing heart. You might even feel out of control, or a disconnect between your mind and body. Being aware of what anxiety looks like for you can help you better manage it. When you know how to recognize anxiety, you can start to take steps to better manage it.
Physical Symptoms of general anxiety include:
- Feeling nervous, restless or tense.
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom.
- Having an increased heart rate.
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Feeling weak or tired.
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry.
- Trouble sleeping
Thinking patterns as a symptom of anxiety:
Anxiety also impacts how we think and what we do. Anxious thoughts can be ruminative and based on history. Or they can fixate on negative predictions of future worst case scenarios. “What if” thoughts are often a signal that anxiety is present and may be coupled with the urge (action) to avoid or escape from the stressor. Here are some common examples of “what if” thoughts
- What if I make a fool of myself at the party?
- What if there is bad traffic and I am late for the meeting?
- What if I am not smart enough to go back to school?
- What if I am not strong enough to cope with this situation?
Behaviors as a symptom of Anxiety:
When we are anxious it is common to either avoid, escape, or create safety behaviours for the specific stressors. Here are some common examples:
- Calling in sick to work
- Declining a social invite
- Leaving a social event early
- Avoiding asking for help
- Excessive research before starting a new adventure, challenge etc.
- Rechecking things to feel safer
Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety are two sides of the same coin. Stress is the result of demands on your brain or body. It can be the caused by an event or activity that makes you nervous or worrisome. Anxiety is that same worry, fear, or unease. Stress and anxiety are not always bad. Both can motivate you to accomplish a challenge before you. However, if they become persistent, they can begin to interfere with your daily life. In that case, it’s important to seek treatment.
Once you’ve been diagnosed with anxiety, there are different levels of treatment options to consider. For some people, lifestyle changes can be effective to relieve daily stress and anxiety. Most of the natural solutions consist of caring for your body, participating in healthy activities, and eliminating unhealthy ones. Here are some ideas to start with:
- Appropriate amounts of sleep
- Mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises
- A healthy balanced diet
- Avoiding alcohol, non prescription drugs, caffeine, cigarettes
Medications typically used to treat anxiety include antidepressants and sedatives. They work to balance brain chemistry, prevent episodes of anxiety, and ward off the most severe symptoms of the disorder. Medications are most helpful when you take medications consistently as prescribed and you are collaborating with your family doctor or psychiatrist.
Seeing an anxiety therapist provides you with support, stress management skills, and new ways of coping with the illness. I have been working in the mental health field for over 20 years and have helped many people overcome and learn to manage their minds and their bodies. If you feel like anxiety counselling could be helpful for you, I can customize a health plan that is practical, helpful, and manageable for you.
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