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 of perceived danger.
The body uses an automatic fight or flight response to help you when you feel threatened. It sends signals to the brain that “danger is ahead.” Your brain produces a neurochemical response, signalling your mind to produce thoughts about a dangerous future.
Your mind can also cue your body that you are in danger when it perceives danger ahead. Think of your mind as having a sort of “anxiety switch” that cues the body to start reacting to stressful or perceived dangerous situations like jumping off a bridge, going to a job interview, or even asking Janice out from accounting.
That anxiety switch sends off both psychological (i.e., thoughts, visual images) and physical (i.e. heart racing, fast breathing) signals that indicate “You are in danger!”
At times, we don’t have control over that anxiety switch. And to make matters worse, you may react to those signals as if something terrible is about to happen. You may start to quickly lose yourself in worries and fears generated by your mind. This is where your anxiety can quickly become overwhelming.
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 impacting 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. 1
Why do I feel alone struggling?
It is a common reaction to feel alone in your struggles with your anxiety. Feeling lost inside your own anxious thoughts (and emotions) can be isolating and scary.
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. Slowly, they tend to report having difficulty being present in their lives and feeling disconnected from the outside world. Disconnection and feeling isolated often emphasizes fear and a sense of loneliness, which can contribute to symptoms of depression.
It’s important to acknowledge when you’re struggling, so that you can take this first step and find out how to get help.
Can anxiety actually be helpful?
Having 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 would activate to narrow their attention to threatening stimuli, increase heart rate, and prepare their 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. Thus, if turned to with a sense of curiosity and understanding, anxiety can help motivate us to attend to the parts of our life that we deeply value and care about. For example, it could help motivate you to keep plugging away on a work assignment because you care about keeping a job for financial means to travel with friends.
It is 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 were able to think about the worst case scenario (e.g. “That lion is going to eat me.”) had a higher likelihood of surviving and consequently, passing off their “anxious” or “negative biased” brains to us. Today, our brains often produce thoughts to help protect us from danger.
In fact, a study by the National Science Foundation (2005)2 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.
However, when anxious thoughts and feelings don’t help us take a desired action, it might be time to evaluate “is my anxiety helping or hindering me in life?”
Step 2 - Find out how to determine if you have an issue with anxiety
Quick Screening Tool- Find out if you are suffering with Anxiety
To start: answer the 4 questions below, thinking about your struggle with anxiety over the last month.
- Does your anxiety prevent you from doing things you care about?
- Does your anxiety impact your physical health in ways that cause you concern (i.e. eating, sleeping, exercise)?
- Does your anxiety 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 have an issue with anxiety. You may benefit from getting a further assessment from a trained mental health therapist.
Different Types of Anxiety Disorders and Symptoms
There are several types of anxiety that may be more specific to your anxiety:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by excessive or exaggerated worry about everyday life events without necessarily being grounded in facts.
It can present itself in physical and behavioural symptoms, such as disruptions to sleep and eating habits, heart racing, feelings of unease, irritability, and sweaty palms.
It is anxiety that is activated in several spheres of your life, including work, social, health, family, and school, which may be particularly tiring to live with because of its generalized nature.
Social Anxiety is characterized by an intense and persistent fear of being judged [unfavorably] by others. Living with social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, can make every day agendas seem daunting.
Engaging with others may require even more time and energy than is already required as it’s spent on worrying before, during, and after interactions. No wonder avoidance is a common consequence; This is exhausting.
Unfortunately, like many things in life, avoidance is a double edged sword that often serves to keep one’s world small.
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 one might mistake for a heart attack if they have not experienced one before.
People who suffer from panic disorder may benefit from identifying thoughts/feelings that precede and exacerbate panic and learning what to do with them in the moment.
Phobias are characterized by an excessive and irrational fear of a certain place, situation, or object. Consequences of phobias might 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 in work and social functioning.3
Step 3 - Understanding the difference between anxiety and PTSD
It is important to recognize that you can have both anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms at the same time.
Typically, individuals diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, such asgeneralized anxiety disorder (GAD), have a longstanding pattern of anxiety that has occured over a variety of situations.
Individuals with PTSD symptoms experience high levels of anxiety following a debilitating life event(s), which can be generalized or in response to reminders of the trauma, otherwise known as ‘triggers’. For example, someone involved in a car accident might experience anxious distress in response to seeing a car on the road..4
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 posttraumatic stress can help inform how you cope with it. Undergoing a psychological assessment and working with a trained mental health professional is one way to help you better understand and cope with symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
Ifyou believe your anxiety could be related to a trauma, you can learn more about trauma here. (clickable link to trauma section)
Step 4 - What can help with your anxiety?
1. Learning to unhook from the future and get back 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 future. As a result, your attention and focus is often taken away from the world around you to an inner world. Grounding skills using your breath or five senses is a proven mindfulness technique that might help you exercise presence..5
2. Give your anxiety a name or label that helps you catch it!
You might notice that when your anxiety very easily snowballs to the point that you forget you’re actually lost in thought. At times, you could be so lost inside when it shows up that you simply appear immobile; lost in thinking. Anxiety shows up and we drift away. Racing thoughts could occur at such a rapid pace that causes you to panic without noticing what your mind is doing.
The interesting aspect about anxiety is that if you can catch it and notice it, then it’s possible to get your attention back. You become aware that it’s your mind - a part of you - that has caused you to lose focus. You wake up in the moment that thoughts and feelings are taking over.
The simple practice of noticing and naming (i.e. “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that…”) can help you start to ‘catch it and guide your attention back to the present.
3. Connect with a Psychotherapist - and learn how to unhook from your anxiety:
Talking to a professional for the first time can be intimidating and anxiety-provoking itself. This is a common reaction tostarting something new and talking to someone for the first time about vulnerable topics. It is completely normal for your mind to try and protect you by giving you anxious thoughts/feelings about therapy.
Please know that a trained and licensed psychotherapist can help you manage anxiety in a number of ways. Your therapist can help you better understand how anxiety may be interfering with your ability to live your life in the way that you want. An assessment of your biopsychosocial history, perceived strengths and weaknesses, and collaboration on your therapy goals, perceived strengths, and weaknesses can help uncover areas where you may be suffering and identify skills and strategies to help manage your anxiety.
Psychotherapists are not here to judge you. In fact, the benefit of helping to find ways to unhook from your anxiety is that you can do it with someone who cares.
Step 5 - Finding 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 like you with anxiety while practicing treatments that are backed by science.
When you connect with a trained psychotherapist, you will collaborate over the first (or first few) sessions to help you understand and identify the specific ways in which anxiety interferes with your life.
Your psychotherapist will assess symptoms that you’re experiencing and identify how they may be impacting your functioning. Typically, the assessment is conducted verbally and offers the opportunity for you to speak further to your struggles with anxiety. They will listen to what is important to you and how your specific concerns may be impacting where you want your life to be. Over 1 to 3 sessions, you and your psychotherapist will work collaboratively on forming a treatment plan that suits your individual needs and goals. Throughout the entire process you have the opportunity to ask questions and modify your treatment plan as you continue to progress.
If you would like to meet our team of ACT psychotherapists, please visit: link
If you would like to book a first appointment with one of our trained therapists visit: link
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Our compassionate and experienced therapists are invested in getting to know you. We’re ready to help you get started.