What is Anxiety?


What is Anxiety?

There was once a time when all I knew was that things just didn’t feel right, or that a persistent feeling that something was wrong, or a general sense of unease on a pretty constant basis. Little did I know at the time: I was experiencing anxiety.

There are many people who experience a high degree of stress over time, who may not realize that they are, in fact, feeling stress or that they may have developed anxiety or even generalized anxiety.

Due to my own experiences with stress and anxiety, I take a particular interest in working with clients who identify with experiencing high stress and/or anxiety, and have decided to understand and manage these experiences differently.

Before going any further, please note. These are NOT what this post and site are: A means of diagnosis or providing a treatment plan.  If your experiences of anxiety or stress are acute, intolerably intense, ongoing or unmanageable, please consult a trusted medical and/or mental health professional.

While many people can identify with having an experience of generalized stress and anxiety (a condition that is felt on a more-or-less ongoing basis), there are also specific forms of the condition as well.

Including, but not limited to, agoraphobia (a fear of being in public or in a public place), social anxiety condition, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fears and phobias related to specific situations, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and separation stress and anxiety disorder.

Currently, there are no specific medical tests or brain scans that can conclusively detect or diagnose anxiety and anxiety disorders.

One way of understanding it is this: As human beings, we have a naturally built-in alarm system that is designed to alert us if there is a threat or concern for danger.

Whether due to consistent and sustained stress on a frequent basis or more complex emotional trauma, the alarm can become too sensitized and the system can ‘malfunction’ by sounding the alarm, even when it is not required.

The cerebral cortex and the sympathetic nervous system can get overwhelmed and not work as intended trying to identify real risks from perceived, exaggerated ones:
If someone is disappointed in or disapproves of me, does this make me a bad person or does everyone else think/know that I’m a bad person, too?

If I can’t have a sense of complete control, will everything then be completely out of control in my life?

The feelings of stress and anxiety are uncomfortable and frankly, those feelings feel bad.

But as I am often known to say, “Just because it feels badly, it doesn’t mean it is bad.”

That said, feeling badly is your internal system’s way of letting you know that something is up and requires your attention.

After all, the world can be difficult and complicated to navigate and your consciousness needs a method to get your attention when you’re possibly encountering something or a situation that is risky or scary.

The amygdala, located in the depths of the temporal lobes with the job of identifying fears, and the cerebral cortex, the evolved area of the brain responsible for consciousness, cognition and perception are the two regions of the brain that have been tasked to be keeping watch.

The amygdala processes extremely fundamental and survival-related emotions, such as anger, envy, and fear — and manages them quickly without conscious thought.

Whether you feel fear when in an unknown, cold and dark place (an actual situation), and the fear you experience from a horror film (artificially induced) sets off exactly the same alarms in the amygdala.

It is actually quite amazing, as these alarms can be tripped within literal milliseconds, which is an absolute necessity for survival, if the actual threat is real.

The higher processing cerebral cortex takes over to consider whether the alarm pulled by the amygdala is real or perceived. If the cortex is appropriately able to accurately assess the risk as false, it would be able to call off the alarm.

But even the more evolved cerebral cortex can be fooled with constant stressors present in modern day life. With heightened stress and the alarm for many people being set off too often, a state of consistent anxiety can arise.

To gain a better understanding of whether anxiety may be an issue for you, take a look at following indicators… Are any of them true for you?

You often feel distressed

Distress can be understood as extreme anxiety and/or prolonged suffering.
Like most things, degrees of feelings, and specifically anxiety in this case, can be placed on a spectrum. If you’re feeling nervous about an interview or an exam or managing a new and unknown situation, it is understandable that you might experience a heightened level of worry or stress.

Similarly, if there are situations that are specifically difficult or stress inducing for you, such as nervousness associated with social gatherings, public speaking or a fear of heights, you’re likely going to feel some anticipatory stress associated with the upcoming event.

However, if you find that you are feeling elevated stress over a prolonged period of time, hours or even entire days, which are more predominant in your mind than tasks at hand, there may be more of a cause for concern.

For instance, if you are so distracted by the thoughts and feelings that worry you that you are unable to concentrate at work, school or with family and friends and/or notice that your sleep has been disrupted this may be an indication that you are experiencing a high level of consistent distress.

It can be helpful to keep track of feelings of persistent stress and anxiety, as these instances can escalate to more pronounced physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, a quickened and pounding heart rate, or a feeling that you are separate or removed from you body.

If left unmanaged, these kinds of physical symptoms can become more frequent to the point that a fear of not having a sense of control could also develop. Worry upon worry can build itself to more intense feelings of anxiety, and more sustained feelings of distress.

You find that you avoid things due to fear

Like an ever-present security monitor, the brain is always scanning, recording and learning.

Sometimes, one highly emotionally charged difficult situation can have the brain adapt itself to avoid similar experiences.

Other times it can be a series, but nonetheless just as impactful, emotionally challenging experiences that can have the amygdala decide that these experiences should be avoided if at all possible.

While it might rationally make sense to try and control situations by avoiding difficult or painful experiences, avoidance can lead to incessant worrying, or conditions such as phobias, Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Obsessive Compulsive Disorders.

If left these tendencies are left unmanaged, trying to control situations become more of a priority. Which in turn, a higher level of stress and anxiety become more of your moment-to-moment reality than being able to self-regulate and experience life and situations as they unfold.

Worrying can become a habit. And as with all habits, the longer the habit persists, the more difficult it can be to break or change as the brain entrenches those habits more firmly into your unconscious.

As much as anyone can try to completely control every aspect of life, it is not possible for anyone to completely avoid difficult, stressful or anxious situations.

What if rather than to control situations, we instead learn and believe that we can handle whatever situations may present themselves.

In other words, metaphorically speaking, rather than to try and control the waves in the ocean, wouldn’t it be more productive, efficient and even most realistic to learn to ride the waves instead?

One thing I often say, because I believe it to be true, is that: Situations are not binary. There really isn’t one way or the other that is right absolutely.

Going back to the metaphor for a moment, it’s not possible to control the waves in the ocean, but what you can control is how you learn to navigate the wave and what equipment you use to do so. You can practice, you can learn about the particular surfing location and its tendencies, you can ensure that you have the gear and equipment most suited to you… you can try a surf board… but maybe you’ll opt for a Seadoo or maybe even a boat!

So know that there is no way to completely control a situation, but you can know what you can control and strengthen your ability to self-regulate through stressful situations.

Your feelings of stress and anxiety are interfering with your daily life

It can be one thing to be constantly thinking and worry about something to the point where you are unable to concentrate, but left to keep intensifying, it can also lead to having it negatively impact important areas of your life.

What if your heightened anxiety and stress prevents you from completing projects/tasks at work or school? What if there is so much distress that you find that it doesn’t feel possible to get to work or school or engage in the important relationships in your life?

Things can start with persistent feelings, but having difficulties managing crucial life situations can then lead to physical symptoms, like extreme fatigue, disrupted sleep and social withdrawal.

But when these feelings are more and more prevalent and begin to start interfering in everyday life, it may be time to start taking notice.

How to start dealing with stress and anxiety

If you’re here, I imagine it’s because you have identified that you are looking for something that can help you get a better understanding, handle or ways to manage your feelings of anxiety and stress.

While there isn’t a foolproof answer for what’s going to be helpful for everyone, whether it’s one tactic or a multi-model approach, I encourage you to look through the resources on this site to see what might feel like the right fit(s) for you.

There are recommendations here for videos and other articles that are available online, as well as books, technologies and therapeutic approaches, and more.
If you’re interested learning the approaches I took and still use to manage my anxiety and stress, please take a look at: How I learned to deal with my stress and anxiety

Again, it is crucial to stress: This post and this site is not a means of diagnosis or providing a treatment plan.  If your experiences of anxiety or stress are acute, intolerably intense, ongoing or unmanageable, please consult a trusted medical and/or mental health professional.

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