What is Anxiety? What Can I Do?
Updated: Feb 7
Depending on the source, 20-25% of people or more will experience anxiety severe enough to qualify for an anxiety disorder diagnosis. While a full explanation of the different diagnoses of anxiety disorders and their treatment is well beyond the scope of this post, those figures help illustrate the fact that anxiety is a commonly experienced ailment that many people battle and endure daily. Let that sink in. That’s 1 in every 4-5 people. These are our friends, family, co-workers, us.
How do people experience anxiety? What are the common signs or symptoms?
Difficulty controlling worry
Feeling on edge
Anxiety can be experienced as a sense of unease or nervousness. Fear. Stress. Worry. Often, when people are anxious, they will have racing thoughts that can become stressful. It can be hard to focus on the task at hand and can be frustrating when we have a difficult time focusing on a conversation due to our anxiety and associated fear.
Knowing that anxiety is commonly experienced, what is helpful to know and what are some things we can do if we find ourselves facing a bout of anxiety? What if we become anxious about being anxious? There are some helpful things to know about anxiety that will help take the mask off of the proverbial boogey man. The information I will provide will be helpful and informative, but I encourage you to seek an appropriately trained professional if you believe you would benefit from treatment of your anxiety.
People experience anxiety for a wide variety of reasons (i.e., heights, fear of an animal, flying, public speaking, taking a test, etc.) and the anxiety people experience varies in intensity and duration. We will discuss several.
Anxiety can make our world smaller.
When people are anxious, they may become less likely to engage in the activity that makes them anxious. For example, if someone becomes anxious at the thought of public speaking, they may avoid public speaking to avoid experiencing the associated anxiety. To a degree, this makes sense. Not wanting to experience anxiety makes sense. The degree of avoidance can become problematic and can lead to people limiting the activities they engage in. In a way, we are rewarded for avoiding the activity that makes us anxious which will make it less likely that we will engage in the activity in the future. If we are not required to speak publicly often, this avoidance may not become a major issue. If we are expected to speak publicly on a regular basis, the anxiety we experience will be more often and potentially more severe. Also, the more things we are anxious about, the more things we might avoid and this is where our world can really begin to shrink. If we are anxious about crowds, public speaking, and heights, we may no longer enjoy going to concerts even if we love music, we may miss presenting on a topic or cause that is important to us, and we may not be comfortable traveling to our dream destinations due to the anxiety we may have about flying. In this example, our world has shrunk significantly and will likely remain that way unless we can address our anxiety.
Anxiety and the Future
There are several situations when anxiety is about the future. This is often referred to as anticipatory anxiety.
Performance anxiety- a person might be involved in a play or performance and start feeling anxious as the performance approaches. They may worry that they will forget the lines or make a mistake that will embarrass them.
Test anxiety-a student may have a test in the next week or two and start feeling anxiety. They may have dreams where they fail the test or become more nervous as the day of the exam approaches and they do not feel ready to do well on the test.
Social anxiety- involves fear of being around large groups of people and fear of rejection.
Identify Anxiety Early
Anxiety can often feel like it comes out of nowhere and hits like a ton of bricks. While this is certainly possible, typically, anxiety starts low and becomes more severe. For example, if a person is experiencing test anxiety, they may not initially identify that anxiety and may mistake it for something else. As the test approaches, the anxiety is more likely to become more severe. If anxiety can be identified before it becomes more severe, there’s a chance that the anxiety can be managed and possibly maintained at the lower level.
To identify anxiety early, we need to know how anxiety feels to us. Not everyone will experience anxiety in the same way and knowing how we experience it will help us identify those symptoms or signs earlier and hopefully keep it more manageable. Identifying symptoms of anxiety early can help to keep the anxiety at a lower level of distress and help keep things from spiraling and becoming worse.
Talk therapy can help in treating anxiety. Therapeutic modalities can help the client identify the cause(s) of anxiety as well as developing a plan for dealing with situations in the future that are likely to elicit anxiety. One common component of treatment is exposure. Exposing a person to an anxiety stimulus safely can help reduce the Subjective Units of Distress (SUDS) rating which is often used in therapy. This will show a reduction in the degree of distress when experiencing something known to cause anxiety. Exposure must be done carefully and safely. It is important for people to understand that exposure takes time and is not a quick fix. As in all things, please seek appropriate help as needed and do not be afraid to ask questions. As scary and terrible as anxiety can be, there is hope and help that can be found.