“Calm down!” “Why don’t you just relax?” “It’s all in your head!” “You’re going to work yourself up!”
A lot of myths and really unhelpful advice have surrounded the topic of anxiety. People often struggle privately, not understanding what is happening within them. Day-to-day life feels impossible, with psychological and physical symptoms that are terrifying and often unmanageable. Individuals are left fearing that they are losing control, going crazy, or that something dangerous is happening to them.
When anxiety becomes disordered
Anxiety is actually a very normal part of being human. It is a function of the brain whose purpose is to keep us safe and well. In small doses, it can also help motivate us to complete important tasks. Anxiety is a product of our sympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves that are responsible for our fight, flight or freeze response. When triggered, the sympathetic nervous system activates physical processes in the body that are meant to protect us in physically dangerous situations. Here are some of the common anxiety symptoms reported:
– Heart racing
– Tightness/pressure in the chest
– Trembling, feeling shaky
– Tingling in the hands, feet, or face
– Nausea, diarrhea or stomach upset
– Hot flashes/chills
– Feeling nervous
– Trouble falling asleep
– Difficulty concentrating/paying attention
– Tiring easily
These symptoms are the product of a brain response meant to keep us safe in the face of physical danger. The brain does this by activating resources in the body to help us move (i.e., increased heart rate and arousal) as well as turning on processes that protect us from injury (e.g., minimizing blood flow to the hands and face so we don’t bleed to death). These symptoms would likely be unnoticeable or would feel normal in the context of running away, hiding, or defending oneself. The problem arises when these responses get triggered by more common daily stressors such as school demands, the toxic work colleague, financial worries, or relationship difficulties. The system that was designed to keep us safe from physical danger doesn’t always feel helpful with more cognitive or psychologically based stressors.
Anxiety becomes unhelpful when it is so high that it begins to interfere with day-to-day functioning. Sometimes symptoms get so severe that they result in a panic attack. A panic attack is the sudden onset of intense fear that triggers many of the symptoms listed above. The symptoms can be so severe, that people often fear that they are having a heart attack, are suffocating, or that they are in danger of dying. A panic attack typically reaches it’s peak after a few minutes. Panic attacks generally subside within a few minutes to about 20 minutes; however, it is possible in more severe cases, to have several panic attacks in a row, or throughout the day.
The symptoms of anxiety can be so frightening, that people will do almost anything to avoid them. They begin to avoid people, places and activities that trigger these symptoms. Unknowingly, some of the strategies people use to try to manage anxiety such as excessive rest, avoiding triggers, and consuming recreational drugs and alcohol, may work in the short-term, but actually worsen anxiety symptoms in the long-term.
Treating anxiety with help from a psychologist
The good news is that anxiety (and panic attacks) can absolutely be treated! Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy that has a solid grounding in science, with proven effectiveness in treating anxiety-related disorders such as Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety, Health Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Agoraphobia, and Specific Phobias. A psychologist trained in CBT can work with you to identify the negative thoughts and behaviours that are maintaining or making anxiety worse. A psychologist can formulate a treatment plan with you to help you manage and ultimately improve anxiety symptoms and everyday functioning. They do this by working with you to interrupt and challenge the negative thoughts that trigger anxiety. They also help you target and reduce the behaviours that make anxiety worse.
What is important to remember is that no matter how scary or intense anxiety feels, it is not dangerous and does not mean that your brain is “broken”. It is the product of a natural mechanism that is designed to keep us safe in the face of danger. Although these symptoms may help us in certain situations (e.g., running away from a bear), they are not helpful when we are managing more common daily stressors (e.g., important deadline coming up). Therapy with a psychologist trained in CBT is a powerful approach to improving even the most severe anxiety symptoms, allowing individuals to resume their normal activities and to get back to the things that they love (or want) to do!