Coping with Anxiety
Are you struggling with anxiety? Here’s a quick guide to help you recognize signs, symptoms, and different types of anxiety. Find tips to help get relief when you need it.
What is anxiety anyways?
Anxiety is your body's reaction to stress. It is your body's natural way of warning you about real or perceived danger.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) in humans developed an involuntary, automatic fight-or-flight response to help us deal with threats to safety. Once 'the alarm centre in the brain', the amygdala, is activated by threatening stimuli, it alerts us to 'pay attention'. This process is helpful to the point that it allows us to become aware of threats to our safety, however, it becomes disruptive when our interpretations of stress turn into stories about our inadequacy or worry about our ability to handle threats. Thanks to our evolutionary negativity bias, you'll likely be more inclined to think about negative potential outcomes than positive ones. Although these thoughts are protective in nature, they are disruptive to our wellbeing and largely unhelpful when we get stuck on them or take them as accurate predictions of future events.
Our brain's 'anxiety switch' sends both psychological (i.e., thoughts, visual images) and physical (i.e., heart racing, rapid breathing) signals to indicate that “You're in danger!”; due to the automatic nature of the ANS, we don't have control over the fact the switch being triggered. We do have control over developing skills to respond more effectively in more helpful ways to those triggers. You might recognize anxiety by quickly getting lost in worries and fears and a general feeling of being out of control or even helpless. This is where your anxiety can quickly become overwhelming and debilitating.
Your mind is a powerful entity. Consider this: the conscious thoughts that you have about future danger while in a moment of safety can cue your body to react as if it were experiencing that danger in the present despite no real threat. How incredible is that? Human beings have a great capacity to think complexly and think about the past and future. Often, we use our capacity to think to our disadvantage by getting stuck in rumination or attaching to worry thoughts about future danger. Working with your mind, body, emotions, and thoughts is about learning ways to understand why your mind and body react and function the way they do, listening to these cues, and taking effective action based on what is most wise. That is the beauty that our cerebral cortex offers us; to be able to use creative thinking, consider context of events, meaning-making, and connect with our values to navigate difficult thoughts and feelings.
So how do you know if your anxiety is problematic?
Start by asking yourself two questions:
- Is your anxiety getting in the way of living a meaningful life?
- Is your anxiety interfering with your work, school, relationships, and daily routine?
If you answered yes to either of these questions, please find out how to get help below.
Step 1 - Know the facts about your anxiety
How common are anxiety disorders?
Anxiety and mood disorders are quite common. In fact, right now in Canada 11% of adults report living with an anxiety/mood disorder. Over 32% of people living in the United States have had an anxiety disorder at some point in their life.
Why do I feel alone struggling?
It's common to feel alone in your anxiety. Feeling lost inside your own anxious thoughts and emotions can be isolating and make you feel as if you're 'going crazy', particularly if you're in an invalidating environment.
Most of the clients we treat that struggle with anxiety report that they lose themselves almost daily in their mind by overthinking and worrying about the future. Typically, people suffering from anxiety report having difficulty being present in their lives and feeling disconnected to everyday tasks. Disconnection and isolation emphasize fear and a sense of loneliness, which can contribute to concurrent symptoms of depression.
It’s important to acknowledge when you’re struggling, so you can learn better ways of managing anxiety and even improving your relationship with it. After all, it's a part of you.
Can anxiety actually be helpful?
Anxiety is not necessarily a 'bad' thing. In fact, physiological symptoms of anxiety in certain contexts are designed for our survival, as it could motivate action. If our ancestors were confronted with a lion in the wilderness, one would hope that their sympathetic nervous system (SNS) would activate to help narrow attention to threatening stimuli, increase heart rate, and prepare the body for fight or flight. In a modern context, you might have noticed that anxiety tends to arise in areas of your life that are particularly important to you. What would happen if you turned towards these sensations with a genuine sense of curiosity and understanding that anxiety can help motivate us to attend to important parts of our life that we deeply value and care about? For example, anxiety in a work context could help motivate you to keep plugging away on an assignment because you care about keeping a job for financial means to travel with friends.
It's also true that we will all feel nervous or anxious at different points in our lives. We often forget that our own brains were evolved to serve one primary purpose; that is to protect us for survival. Indeed, our ancestors that thought about worst case scenarios (e.g. “That lion is going to eat me,”) had a higher likelihood of surviving. Consequently, our surviving ancestors' anxious or negatively biased brains were passed on to us. In the 21st century, our brains still produce thoughts to help protect us from real or perceived danger. Thanks, brain!
In fact, a study by the National Science Foundation (2005) found that up to 80% of our thoughts throughout the day are negative. Therefore, it is quite common to get wrapped up in a brain that perceives most external and internal stimuli as a threat to our survival.
"Anxiety isn't you. It's something moving through you. It can leave out the same door it came in." - James Clear
Step 2 - Find out if your anxiety is problematic
Quick Screening Tool: Find out if you're suffering with anxiety
It's possible to experience anxiety, but not be distressed or negatively impacted by it. Like most behaviours in life, we don't seek to change things that aren't problematic.
Assess your level of suffering by answering the four questions below as you consider your experience with anxiety over the past month:
- Does your anxiety prevent you from doing things you care about?
- Does your anxiety negatively impact your physical health in ways that cause you concern (i.e. eating, sleeping, exercise, substance misuse)?
- Does your anxiety negatively impact your relationship with yourself and others in ways that concern you?
- Do you have difficulties being present and enjoying activities you value because of your anxiety?
Results: If you answered “Yes,” to any of the questions above, you may benefit from getting a further assessment and collaboration with a licensed mental health professional.
Different Types of Anxiety Disorders and Symptoms
Anxiety can develop into different types of psychological disorders recognized by the DSM-5:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by excessive or exaggerated worry about everyday life events without necessarily being grounded in evidence for concern.
It can present itself in physical and behavioural symptoms, such as disruptions to sleep and eating habits, a racing heart, feelings of unease, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and sweaty palms. Generalized anxiety is present in several spheres of your life, including work, social, health, family, and school, which is particularly tiring to live with because of its generalized nature. Living with GAD can feel as if you're living in a perpetual state of threat and worry.
Social Anxiety is characterized by an intense and persistent fear of being negatively judged by others. Living with social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, can make daily tasks and obligations feel extremely daunting.
Experiential avoidance is common among people who suffer from social anxiety because of the mental and emotional exhaustion that results from worry leading up to, during, and following interactions with others. Unfortunately, like many things in life, avoidance is a double edged sword that typically leads to further problems. Often, people who have used experiential avoidance as a coping mechanism note that it only offers short-term relief.
Panic Disorder is characterized by recurring, spontaneous panic attacks and ensuing worry about having another panic attack and/or heart attack.
Panic attacks are most often terrifying to the person having them due to the intensity of physical symptoms (e.g., heart palpitations, sweating, difficulty breathing, shaking) that can be mistaken for a heart attack if they haven't experienced one before.
People who suffer from panic disorder may benefit from identifying thoughts/feelings that precede and exacerbate panic and learning how to respond to them in the moment. Treating panic symptoms requires you to disengage from the urge to spiral and commit to doing what's effective: ground your body and focus on the present.
Phobias are characterized by an excessive and irrational fear of a certain place, situation, or object. Consequences of phobias include: avoidance behaviours, panic, extreme discomfort, or a deep sense of dread when confronted with a phobia or stimuli cue related to the phobia.
Due to the intensity at which one fears a specific stimuli [and depending how commonly encountered the place, situation, or object is] this anxiety disorder has the potential to impact one’s quality of life from mere inconvenience to debilitating work and social functioning.
Step 3 - Understand the difference between anxiety and PTSD
Anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms can exist concurrently.
Typically, individuals diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), have a longstanding pattern of anxiety that has occurred over a variety of situations.
Individuals with PTSD symptoms experience high levels of anxiety following a distressing life event(s), which can be generalized or in response to reminders of the trauma (i.e. triggers). For example, someone involved in a car accident might experience anxious distress in response to seeing a car on the road.
A person can have concurrent diagnoses of anxiety and PTSD, but a traumatic event can aggravate the anxiety they experience. Being able to recognize the difference between normal levels of anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress can help inform coping strategies. A psychological assessment and working with a trauma-informed mental health professional is one way to help you better understand and cope with symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
If you believe your anxiety could be related to a trauma, you can learn more about trauma here.
Step 4 - Tips for coping with anxiety
1. Learn to unhook from the future and return to the present.
When anxiety arises it usually drifts your attention away from what is happening to what could happen. It pulls you away from the present moment to deal with a worst-case scenario future that might never transpire. Consequently, it's only in retrospect that you realize how much of your valuable time was spent focusing on something that never happened. Grounding skills, such as paced breathing or tuning into your five senses are proven mindfulness techniques that can strengthen your ability to live in the present.
2. Give your anxiety a name or label that helps you catch it.
You might've noticed that anxiety very easily snowballs to the point that you're lost in thought and unaware of your surroundings. Racing thoughts occur at such a rapid pace that it can feel overwhelming and difficult to grasp them individually. The interesting aspect about anxiety is that if you catch it and notice it, then it’s possible to refocus your attention. You become aware that it’s your mind that has caused you to lose focus and you remember that your mind is simply a part of you, while you have control over your body's movement. As soon as you notice a racing mind you have a choice to stop, pause, and either use your breath or write down your thoughts to help slow them and make sense of them. After all, we're better equipped to deal with our thoughts when we understand why they're showing up.
The simple practice of noticing and naming (i.e. “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that…”) can help you ‘catch it' and defuse from it. Another cognitive defusion strategy is to simply thank your mind - not in a sarcastic way, but because you understand why it's doing what it's doing. Your mind generally does it's best to help you. Ultimately, if it's causing distress then it's a good indicator that you need to pause and ask yourself, 'What's really going on?"
3. Connect with a psychotherapist and learn evidence-based strategies to loosen the grip that anxiety has over you.
Meeting with a mental health professional for the first time can be intimidating and anxiety-provoking itself. This is a common reaction to starting something new and talking to someone for the first time about vulnerable topics. It's completely normal for your mind to try and protect you by producing anxious thoughts/feelings about therapy. It's encouraged that you talk with your therapist about these concerns so that they can help provide understanding and reassurance about the process.
Please know that a registered psychotherapist can help you manage anxiety in a number of ways. Your psychotherapist can help you better understand how anxiety interferes with your ability to live your life in the way that you want and build skills for reducing its negative impact. An assessment of your biopsychosocial history, perceived strengths and weaknesses, and collaboration on your therapy goals can help uncover areas of improvement, clarify your direction, and bridge the skills gap to meeting your goals.
A good psychotherapist should provide a safe, judgment-free space to listen, see you, and work with you to explore uncertainty and build skills to help you feel better about where you're at.
Step 5 - Find a psychotherapist to help you with anxiety
As a client seeking help from a mental health professional, you have the right to ask if your therapist has experience working with anxiety and practices treatment that is evidence-based. At ACTion psychotherapy, each of our therapists is experienced in helping people discover strength and resiliency in the face of anxiety.
Once you're connected with one of our therapists, you'll start with an initial session. During the first session, your therapist will listen to your concerns and collaborate with you to clarify your best hopes for therapy. Your psychotherapist will take a brief psychosocial history to get to know what's most important to you and how you want things to change. You'll work collaboratively with your psychotherapist to form a treatment plan that's best suited for your needs over the first 1-3 sessions. Throughout the entire process you have the opportunity to ask questions and provide your feedback as you continue to progress.
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