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What is Anxiety?

By |2017-11-27T14:46:00-04:00August 30th, 2016|

A mind-body perspective on understanding and coping with our anxiety.

Anxiety is… our body communicating with us.

Would you believe me if I told you that anxiety serves a purpose?

Anxiety could be described as a physical reaction to psychological stressors. Our body has a built-in alarm system to let us know when we are in danger. You may remember from 7th grade science class learning that there is something called a “fight or flight” reaction in all of us. This sort of a reaction evolved in order to help keep us safe from danger. Biologically; this makes sense, when we are walking down an empty street late at night and see a shady character; we want to be alert and on guard, ready to react in case of danger. This is, in fact, very useful!

Our pores open and perspire, our pupils dilate, our circulation and breathing increase, our stomachs tighten to stop digestion…We are ready for action. But what happens when we are not, in fact, running from a saber toothed tiger as our ancestors were, but our body reacts as if we are? These days many of us are facing psychological stressors. Deadlines at work, overwhelming demands of family life, difficult interpersonal dynamics…these things prove to be a threat to us as well. Only this is a different kind of threat. These are a threat to our ego, not our physical body. These days, our body may be trying to protect us from psychological harm, not bodily harm. Unfortunately, the body can sometimes have the same reaction whether the threat is embarrassment rather than injury or death.

So, anxiety is not inherently negative. There is a purpose to our body’s reactions to stress, primarily keeping us safe and alert. Some even describe anxiety as a motivator, to help them focus when facing a last-minute project or a big game.

However, for many, anxiety symptoms may become overwhelming. A culmination of overwhelming symptoms can become a panic attack. Additionally; chronic stress, exposure to trauma or abusive or neglectful conditions can lead to an anxiety disorder. As a result of chronic or acute traumatic or anxiety-provoking experience(s), an individual can develop generalized anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, among various other types of diagnosable conditions related to anxiety. Today we will continue to look at anxiety in a general sense, not necessarily as it relates to any specific disorder.

Anxiety is… physical and emotional symptoms.

Physical symptoms of anxiety are triggered by a reaction from the sympathetic nervous system and can impact various body systems. Physical symptoms are your body’s way of sounding the alarm, letting you know when to be on guard. Unfortunately for some; this alarm works a little too well, and can go off in situations where we are not actually in harm’s way…

  • Nervous/Circulatory System– tingling hands or fingers, shakiness, increased sensitivity to stimuli, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, headaches
  • Digestive System- nausea, indigestion, heart-burn, upset stomach
  • Respiratory System– shortness of breath, tightness in your chest, dizziness, lightheadedness

Mental and emotional symptoms of anxiety can be either a cause or an effect. Every person is unique; some may find that mental symptoms are a precursor or trigger to the physical sensations of anxiety. Some may feel the physical effects first.

  • Mental Symptoms– racing thoughts, negative thinking, pessimism, cognitive distortions, thought-blocking
  • Emotional Symptoms– fear, frustration, sadness, feeling overwhelmed, helplessness, irritability/agitation, disconnected

Not everyone’s symptoms are exactly alike, and anxiety can feel different in your body from someone else’s. It can be useful to pay attention to and track your own personal symptoms of stress and anxiety. Awareness and familiarity with your own symptoms can make them less scary, more predictable and allow you to choose the coping techniques that may work best for you personally.

Now that we understand a bit more about what anxiety is, where it comes from, and what it looks like, let’s move on to how to cope. Check out our next post which will cover coping techniques for managing anxiety!

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