Your heart is racing, chest is tightening and you have feelings of fear, apprehension or panic. Many of us will recognize these symptoms and immediately think of times when we’ve felt them. These symptoms are part of our bodies’ normal reaction to situations we perceive as dangerous, unsafe or stressful (known as the fight or flight response), but today we can label the combination of these symptoms in daily life as anxiety.
All of us experience anxiety at some point in our lives, usually in response to stressful or overwhelming situations. But how do we categorize a “normal” anxious response? How do we know if our anxiety has gone on for too long without treatment? What are the warning signs that anxiety is interfering with our day-to-day lives?
Common anxiety symptoms
Anxiety manifests physically, emotionally, and through behavioural and cognitive patterns. You may recognize that you are having an anxious response to a situation when you experience a combination of these symptoms:
- Increased/racing heart rate
- Tightening chest/shallow breathing
- Stomach upset
- Sore muscles
- Inability to concentrate/loss of focus
- Withdrawing from family, friends, society (avoidance)
- Obsessive thoughts; creating “what if” situations
- Scanning for anxiety/threats
Anxiety can be described as a full emotional and physical response that can occur before or after a stressful situation. Although the physical and emotional experience of anxiety can be distressing, anxiety is helpful to us when it is triggered to alert us of real threats or danger. When we perceive a real threat or stressor, anxiety motivates us to take action to deal with the threat or stressor appropriately. For example, we may feel some anxiety before a job interview or an examination, but the feeling of anxiety should motivate us to prepare adequately in advance (that is, take action).
There are many areas of the brain involved in processing the symptoms of anxiety. Disordered responses to anxiety can occur when the brain processes too many or too little of these symptoms. Sometimes the wrong parts of the brain become involved in processing the symptoms. Some manifestations of disordered anxiety patterns in the brain include:
- an overly intense perception of anxiety – the brain’s response to a stressor does not match the real threat
- an overworked brain due to an accumulation of past stressful memories – in response the brain generalizes fear and worry to present and future situations
- a generalization of threatening and non-threatening situations – the brain cannot judge which is which in real life.
The likelihood of developing disordered anxiety is dependent on both biological and environmental factors. For example, research shows that anxiety is sometimes inherited from our parents (biology). As children, we may see anxious behaviours modelled by our parents, or grow up in a stressful environment which leads us to over-develop anxious responses. Exposure to a traumatic event can also be a precursor to disordered anxiety.
There are many presentations of disordered anxiety, including generalized anxiety (excessive, uncontrollable, non-specific worry), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, social anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
There are several approaches to treating anxiety and its symptoms. The most common treatment method recommended to sufferers by experts is cognitive behavioural therapy. Transpersonal Psychotherapists aim to identify and treat the source of anxiety, and may recommend some lifestyle modifications to treat symptoms.
First and foremost, experts have noted that healing can most easily take place in a healthy body. Therefore, it is important to take care of your body through good nutrition, regular exercise and good quality sleep. Other lifestyle modifications to manage symptoms can include:
- becoming aware of and practicing regulatory breathing
- practicing rhythmic movement such as walking, dancing, swaying, jumping rope or stretching
- limiting stimuli and practicing relaxation or being still
- mindfulness training – staying connected to the present moment.
Getting to the root of anxiety
It’s helpful for sufferers to learn techniques to manage the symptoms of anxiety but ultimately sufferers will receive respite when they connect to the reason(s) they experience disordered anxiety. Therapeutic approaches that are Integrative, drawing on a variety of therapies are helpful in getting to the root. Ultimately, sufferers will need to re-train their brain to prevent disordered anxious responses from happening in the first place. Anxiety sufferers are encouraged to regain community connection, expand/build their social skills, and work with their therapist to develop plans for confronting situations that provoke an anxious response.
When to reach out for help
Anxiety management is one of the most common reason people work with therapists. As many as 1 in 4 Canadians will experience anxiety and require assistance to manage it. How can you tell when it’s time to reach out for help to manage your anxiety?
- Your anxiety is disrupting your normal eating, sleeping, working, educational and relationship patterns
- You can no longer exercise (due to fear of provoking an anxiety attack)
- You have symptoms of anxiety and have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mood disorder
- You start to notice a pattern to your anxiety and/or emotional responses
- Your anxiety symptoms are repetitive, are escalating, and have persisted regularly for longer than 6 months
- Your anxious responses are not proportionate to the actual stressfulness of a situation
- You have experienced a traumatic event
- You abuse substances
- You have a family history of disordered anxiety
- You feel alienated from others and struggle to understand social interaction
- Dealing with your anxiety has become another stressor in and of itself
To find out more about therapeutic approaches to challenging anxiety with Lorena Colarusso Registered Psychotherapist, send a message through our contact page and request a free 30 minute telephone discovery session. Lorena incorporates an Integrative approach drawing on Psychodynamic, Transpersonal, Somatic and Energetic, Attachment, Developmental and Relationship therapies.
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Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute https://ca.ctrinstitute.com/
Risk Factors, Symptoms and Ways to Manage Anxiety http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/risk-factors-symptoms-ways-to-manage-anxiety-0317164