Is anxiety causing you pain or stopping you from doing the things you want to do? Did you know that anxiety and anxiety disorders are two different things? Actually, just because you feel anxious some of the time does not necessarily mean that you need treatment at all. Anxiety is something we all feel some of the time, and mental health treatment is really only indicated when a person experiences too much or too little conscious anxiety or is causing negative consequences – for example, getting in the way of your ability to do the things you want to do.
What is anxiety anyway?
Anxiety is a set of signals that your nervous system sends you to alert you that there is some danger that you need to attend to. In general, a person’s nervous system is wired to send different types of signals when it registers that there is a threat or danger present: physical, cognitive, and emotional. For example, our bodies may physically prepare us to freeze, fight or run, through a series of physical sensations and chemical reactions, causing physical signs of anxiety such as increased heart rate, body temperature changes, and bursts of adrenaline or energy. We also get emotional cues from our bodies, such as a feeling of fear together with an instinct to run or escape, for example. And, there are also cognitive changes or cues that help us deal with danger; for example, it is harder to think logically when we are in danger because we need to act without thinking too much- and losing precious time to save ourselves- so the logical part of the brain gets shut down to some degree, when danger is sensed.
When is anxiety a problem?
Your nervous system may send you false alarms at times. For example, your brain might think that supermarkets are dangerous and send you a whole set of signals each time you think about approaching a supermarket, alerting you to “stay away”. Assuming that there is nothing more dangerous about your local supermarket than any other ordinary situation, this anxiety will stop you from being able to do an everyday activity such as grocery shopping- when there is really no rational reason for you to be afraid of this situation. It’s simply a false alarm that your brain is sending you. Learning to recognize and respond to false alarms is something that is addressed in anxiety treatment.
Another problem can occur when a person loses his ability to judge which situations are safe and which ones are dangerous, due to life experiences in which ordinary safe experiences were actually experienced as threatening. For example, a person usually feels safe in relationships with his family; however, someone who was sexually abused by a family member may no longer view family members as safe, even long after the specific adverse event has passed. He may continue to feel unsafe and insecure around supportive and safe family members in his present life even though he is no longer unsafe. Anxiety treatment may be necessary in this case, to help a person make better appraisals of safety and danger cues. Anxiety can also stop us from taking action in situations where the risks are relatively low or when worrying or “over-thinking” won’t actually solve anything.
Anxiety can also lead to unhealthy avoidance and this is another reason why anxiety treatment may be recommended. You may try so hard to avoid any situation that will cause anxiety, that you end up limiting many of your choices in life. For example, avoidance may lead you to avoid common everyday activities such as social events, public speaking, driving on highways, interviewing for a job, or even going shopping…this requires treatment because it affects a person’s ability to engage in healthy and meaningful life activities. After a while, instead of living a wholesome life, a person is simply living to avoid discomfort. And this is no fun at all!
Another common feature of anxiety is fear of the unknown. If this sounds familiar to you, then you probably know what I mean when I say that some people really crave certainty. You might wish you could know ahead of time whether you’re making the right choices, or you may spend hours analyzing your decisions or obsessing over things you’ve said or done. Sometimes you get stuck in your head and this stops you from being able to take healthy risks and do things that are uncertain but necessary for moving forward in your life.
There are many different types of anxiety and worries that people seek anxiety treatment for.
Some people worry a lot about losing control of their bodies. They think a lot about things that seem wrong with their bodies, worry about getting sick, and wonder if there is something physically wrong that they aren’t aware of. They may also be afraid of losing control, like having a panic attack or throwing up at unexpected times- times when they are not prepared.
Other people worry about social situations. They fear rejection or criticism and have anxieties about whether they will perform well enough in social settings to avoid judgment or criticism from others. There may also be a fear of making a mistake at work or saying the wrong thing, and being assertive may be scary too because of fears of making others angry by speaking up.
For many people, anxiety leads to a lot of “over-thinking”- trying too hard to analyze or figure things out with their minds, even when this is not really productive or helpful. There are many things in life that we can’t solve with our minds, and there are many things we can’t control or know ahead of time. Anxiety may stop you from taking healthy steps towards your goals.
Getting to the root of the anxiety: Another reason why anxiety treatment may be helpful is to help a person learn to recognize whether anxiety is being caused by unconscious feelings or fantasies. Sometimes we focus our anxiety on situations that don’t really have anything to do with what we are really anxious about, which is why it can be so crucial to explore with a therapist whether the source of your anxiety is actually out of your awareness. Some common examples of unconscious sources of anxiety that come up frequently in anxiety treatment are: anxiety about acknowledging feelings of anger or dependency, and anxiety about experiencing painful memories that one is trying to forget.