Anxiety, fear, and worry are normal reactions to certain situations, we can’t get rid of them, but we don’t have to be a slave to them either. Emotions are designed to organize us to act, the latin root of ’emotion’ is ‘to move’. There are many ways Anxiety shows up in our experience, and Anxiety is actually designed to be helpful, to alert us to danger, and motivate action to solve a potential problem. Anxiety exists in our genes today because it was our ancestors who paid attention to the rustling in the bushes, acted on the alarm bells in their brain and ran away from that potential danger, who survived. Those who heard the rustling, but ignored the alarms bells in their brain and continued soaking up the sun, got eaten by the saber tooth tiger stalking them from that bush.
We can’t get rid of Anxiety, the goal is to change our relationship with it – to be the master of it, rather than bullied by it. Occasional anxiety is healthy and adaptive, everyone feels it now and again. Anxiety is adaptive when it ‘fits the facts’ of a situation, like before an important exam, or a big presentation, or a first date – it motivates action: to be prepared, to plan, to seek support or reassurance. Anxiety is simply trying to alert us to a potential problem, so we can take steps to avoid the problem, or prepare to handle to a potential problem. When Anxiety starts to have a negative and controlling impact on peoples lives, it becomes problematic. When Anxiety contributes to constant and sometimes overwhelming fear and worry, contributes to avoiding situations or people, and won’t let up with the constant ‘WHAT IF ….’ scenarios of dreaded outcomes, ala Chicken Little, it’s an opportunity to learn some strategies to change your relationship with Anxiety.
Problematic Anxiety over-estimates threats, and under-estimates our ability to cope. Anxiety is an over-focus on threat and danger, and it capitalizes on our doubt: ‘what if’ I can’t handle this , or ‘what if’ something terrible happens. Learning to differentiate between ‘Signals’ and ‘Noise’ is one place to start. We want to pay attention to Signals, they are legitimate concerns that are likely to happen – Signals are designed to bring my attention to a realistic problem, in order to start building a plan to prevent the problem, or prepare for how I will handle the problem. ‘Noise’ is more like that annoying chipmunk or chihuahua in the park, barking at everything that moves, dangerous or not: people, animals, leaves, that gum wrapper blowing in the wind. ‘Noise’ is chatter, it is the one million things that could go wrong today, but are unlikely to happen. The difference between ‘Noise’ and ‘Signals’ is the difference between ‘Possible’, and ‘Probable’ – it is ‘possible’ I could travel to Mars one day, but is it not ‘probable’, or likely. When it comes to potential problems, the key is not spending too much energy trying to solve problems that are not likely to happen, or that haven’t even happened yet ( in fact it is impossible to solve a problem that hasn’t happened yet!). Instead, notice Anxiety is telling a story, and remind yourself you will deal with those situations when (if) they happen – and if the problem is likely to happen, start building potential plans, A, B and maybe C. Then focus your thinking on something else, or do something to relax. If the problem is not likely to happen, skip directly to thinking about something else, or doing something to relax.
When Anxiety becomes a bully, it is trying to be helpful, it’s just going about it in an unhelpful way – it can be helpful to name this, thanking Anxiety for trying to help, and reminding it that you don’t need it right now. When we get stuck in worrying, we think the worry is going to solve the problem, but worry is like a rocking chair, it gives us something to do, but doesn’t get us anywhere.
People are often surprised to hear there a few different types of conditions related to Anxiety, it can show up in different ways.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder – this is persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things, usually related to ‘what could go wrong’ – concerns about health, finances, family, work, disasters, and often with no actual proof – anxiety is trying to solve a problem that hasn’t happened yet, it often sounds like ‘what if ….’ People with generalized anxiety disorder are often considered by others to be ‘worry warts’. Common signs include constantly feeling on edge, or restless, difficulty concentrating or paying attention, feeling fatigued, constant muscle tension, irritability or restlessness, and trouble sleeping.
Social Anxiety – anxiety can show up around social situations, where a person develops an intense self-consciousness which contributes to avoiding social situations. It can include fears of being criticized, embarrassed, or humiliated, it often is related to worries about what other people will think, or being judged by others. It is not unusual to feel this way on occasion, but when it is consistent, out of proportion to the situation, and starts to impact a person’s life in a negative way, it can be considered Social Anxiety.
Panic Disorder – is characterized by experiencing recurring and unexpected panic attacks, and constant concern about experiencing another panic attack. A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers a severe physical reaction when there is no real danger or threat. Panic attacks have physical symptoms (ie pounding heart, feeling short of breath, sensation of choking, sweating, dizziness, chills, nausea) as well as cognitive symptoms, like fear one is dying or having a heart attack, or fear of losing control/going crazy. Panic Disorder leads to avoiding places where the person previously experienced a panic attack in the past, and avoiding travel, or places like malls, or busy locations with line-ups.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Everyone has worries now and again, as well as certain rituals or ways of doing things. I sometimes double check that I’ve turned off the stove, or locked the front door, this is not problematic. Worries that consume a person are considered obsessions, their nature is usually ongoing, unwanted and intrusive thoughts and fears. In order to reduce or suppress the obsession, a person has to act out certain rituals or behaviours, which become compulsions and can last for hours. Obsessions are the thoughts, Compulsions are the behaviours, and they become problematic when they start interfering with how people live their lives. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is characterized by its time consuming nature and the distress it creates, as well as impairing one’s ability to function in important social, occupational or relationship contexts. Common obsessions include fear of contamination, repeated doubting (‘is the stove turned off’, or ‘did I lock the door’), a focus on exactness or order, a fear of harming oneself or others, a fear of blurting something out in public, preoccupation with religious thoughts/blasphemous thoughts, or forbidden or unwanted sexual thoughts, images or urges. Common compulsions include cleaning/washing (hands, objects), checking (that the stove is turned off), ordering/arranging, hoarding (collecting seemingly useless items, like paper, magazines, bottles), and mental rituals, like praying, or counting, or repeating words.
Phobias – Fears are common, however when the fear becomes intense and unreasonable, or out of proportion to the situation, and limits a person’s ability to live their life, it can be diagnosed as a phobia. Phobias are often a fear of a specific object, or situation, such as heights, flying, or spiders. The fear goes beyond what is reasonable or realistic, it is out of proportion to the situation and leads to avoidance. Common phobias include animals (mice, spiders), natural environments (storms, heights), blood/ injection/injury, situations (elevators), and ‘other’ – fear of vomiting, or choking.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: this is a response when people have experienced a shocking, overwhelming or dangerous event. Symptoms of PTSD include: (1) Re-experiencing the event, through flashbacks, bad dreams or frightening thoughts; (2) Avoidance of anything related to the event; (3) Arousal/Reactivity, like being easily startled, constantly feeling tense or on edge, having difficulty sleeping or angry outbursts; (4) Cognitive and Mood Symptoms: trouble remembering key features of the event, negative thoughts about oneself or the world, distorted/excessive feelings of guilt and blame and inability to enjoy activities or relax. Of course these symptoms are a natural response after a dangerous or shocking event, it’s when they get stuck, persisting longer than a month (or show up well after the event has happened) and affect one’s ability to function, that it becomes problematic.
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Here is one of my blog posts on Worry, aka the brain’s attempt to be useful: http://simmscounselling.com/index.php/2019/03/11/worry-the-brains-attempt-to-be-useful-part-1/#more-181
And here is a blog post regarding anxiety and healthy coping skills from one of my favorite neuropsychologists, Dr. Rick Hanson – he researches and teaches how to use our brain ‘for us’, rather than ‘against us’, “From Anxiety to Security”: https://www.rickhanson.net/from-anxiety-to-security/?highlight=anxiety
Helpful resources for Anxiety:
- “Learn to Relax: A Practical Guide to Easing Tension and Conquering Stress” Mike George https://www.amazon.ca/Learn-Relax-Practical-Tension-Conquering/dp/0811819086
- “When Panic Attacks” Dr. David Burns: https://feelinggood.com/tag/when-panic-attacks/
- Free: “Playing with Anxiety” Dr. Reid Wilson, (for Teens and Children, but I think it’s helpful for anyone) : https://www.playingwithanxiety.com/download_ebook.html
- Dr. Reid Wilson’s website, lots of free resources here: https://anxieties.com/homepage/index
- “The Worried Child: Recognizing Anxiety in Children and Helping Them Heal” Dr. Paul Foxman: http://www.vtcenterforanxietycare.com/books-and-products.html
- “The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety” John Forsyth & Georg Eifert: https://www.drjohnforsyth.com/the-mindfulness–acceptance-workbook-for-anxiety.html
- “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom” Dr. Rick Hanson www.rickhanson.net
- Rick Hanson’s JOTs – Just One Thing, simple practises for re-wiring the brain: https://www.rickhanson.net/writings/just-one-thing/just-one-thing-simple-practices/