Is your anxiety normal? Recognizing what anxiety is and when to get help
Updated: May 17
Everyone has experienced anxiety at some point in their lives. Maybe it was before an important job interview or during a school exam. Whatever the case, there are plenty of instances where anxiety is completely normal and to be expected. However, anxiety can easily become a problem if we are not taking steps to manage it.
With 1 in 5 people experiencing a mental health problem and an increase in mental health awareness, the stigma surrounding anxiety and other disorders is on the decline.
This is fantastic news, but many people might be tempted to discount or minimize the impact of their anxiety, chalking it up to be “normal”. Recognizing when anxiety has become a problem is important in ensuring your overall wellbeing and preventing it from interfering with your life.
WHAT IS ANXIETY?
In general, anxiety is a feeling in response to a situation or event that is usually associated with worry and uneasiness. It is important to note that anxiety can show up in a lot of different ways for many different people. There are physical, emotional, behavioural, and cognitive signs and symptoms of anxiety. Some common signs and symptoms include:
· Increased heart rate
· Difficulty breathing
· Tightness in chest
· “Butterflies” in stomach
· Nervousness or tension
· Sense of danger or panic
· Trouble sleeping
· Difficulty concentrating
ANXIETY IS NECESSARY
Many people associate anxiety with being “bad” or “problematic”, and while this can be true, anxiety actually serves an important purpose. Have you ever heard of the term “fight or flight”? It is an instinctive reaction that is hardwired into us as humans to either fight or run away in the face of danger. Essentially, anxiety alerts us to dangers or threats and prepares our bodies to respond accordingly.
From an evolutionary perspective, we need anxiety to survive.
Our ancestors needed anxiety to prepare them for combat against enemies or run and hide towards safety. Acting quickly in response to danger was literally a matter of life or death. Using a modern-day example, anxiety can be helpful to us to prepare for an upcoming exam. For students, acing an exam can feel like a matter of life or death- failing a class may mean not getting into the desired college or university program or disappointing parents. Feeling a sense of anxiety may allow a student to study harder for the exam to ensure their success (i.e., survival).
SIGNS OF AN ANXIETY DISORDER
It is normal and natural to experience anxiety occasionally, so how do you know if your anxiety is out of control? It is first important to outline some key characteristics of normal anxiety to better understand when it may be a problem.
It is specific to a situation or problem
It goes away after the situation or problem is resolved
It is a realistic and proportional response to the situation or problem
The key here is that the anxiety response makes sense and is reasonable given the particular situation or problem. For instance, a student may feel anxious before and during an exam, but after the exam is over their anxiety goes away.
Anxiety disorders ultimately come down to experiencing excessive anxiety that disrupts daily functioning.
It is difficult to control or manage
It comes unexpectedly without a clear reason
It occurs even after the situation or problem has been resolved
It is unrealistic or out of proportion to what one would expect given the situation
It prevents you from living your life
Keeping with the student example, signs that anxiety may be closer to an anxiety disorder include the student excessively worrying about performance on the exam to the point that they cannot sleep or concentrate on studying. The student may even avoid studying because it causes too much anxiety that is unbearable. During the exam, they may also have trouble focusing due to racing thoughts or even start to feel physically unwell that prevents them from performing their best. After the exam, the student may have trouble controlling their worries about whether or not they passed; it may keep them up at night, further impairing sleep. When the exam is over, they might still be consumed by thoughts and anxities about it, which is now out of their control.
THERAPY FOR ANXIETY
Fortunately, there are treatments that are proven effective for managing anxiety symptoms and disorders. Treatment generally falls into three main categories: medication, therapy, and self-help.
Medication for Anxiety
Depending on the severity of your anxiety, certain medications may be prescribed to alleviate symptoms and help you get back to living your life without overwhelming anxiety.
Speak to your doctor to see if medication is right for you.
Therapy for Anxiety
Counselling and psychotherapy are quite effective for treating a range of anxiety disorders,
including Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), Panic Attacks, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Treatment often involves Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques that address excessive, uncontrollable and irrational
thoughts and worries associated with many anxiety disorders. Find a therapist who specializes in CBT for anxiety if you are experiencing mild to moderate symptoms.
Severe anxiety may be best treated using a combination of medication and therapy.
Self-Help for Anxiety
There are several practical things you can do to manage and cope with anxiety on your own. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is vital in preventing anxiety from getting out of control. Eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, exercising frequently, and limiting alcohol and caffeine intake are all ways you can manage anxiety better. Also, leaning on friends and family for emotional support during stressful times can help stop normal anxiety from becoming problematic. There are dozens of easy coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety you can incorporate into your daily life.
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