’Anxiety’ is a common word in our vocabulary. Yet, many of us do not know exactly what it means in clinical terms. We might use the word to describe mild, everyday stress, which wouldn’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis of anxiety. Overuse of the word causes confusion about what anxiety really is; furthermore, it devalues the term, which makes it harder for actual sufferers to get the recognition they deserve.
What is anxiety?
Let’s start with its sibling emotion: fear. Fear arises when your nervous system interprets an environmental cue as something dangerous, which sets off a fight/flight reaction. For example, a snake on the sidewalk or a man with a gun. So, fear is quite rational. It serves to protect us against real dangers.
Anxiety, however, can be defined as fear without a known object or source. We experience fear, but we can’t really tell what we’re afraid of. That can make anxiety feel rather surreal. Often, anxiety is triggered by thoughts about potentially dangerous situations, which haven’t taken place yet, and perhaps never will.
Another interesting definition of anxiety comes from existential psychology: Anxiety arises when a part of me wants something that another part of me is afraid of. So, anxiety can also be of an existential nature: about life in general and the bigger-picture choices we make. Hence the common term ’decision anxiety.’
Anxiety can be triggered by life stressors such as an overwhelming workload, a frantic school schedule, or unhealthy relationships. It can also have biological causes—that is, some physical diseases can lead to anxiety.
But anxiety can also strike without any obvious cause. In these cases, psychodynamic therapists believe that there might be hidden—unconscious—reasons behind the anxiety, and work together with the client to shed light on them.
Symptoms of anxiety
The reason why anxiety often gets confounded with everyday worries or stress is that the symptoms are quite similar:
• Neurological: headache, vertigo
• Digestive: tummy ache, nausea, dry mouth
• Respiratory: rapid breathing rate or shortness of breath
• Cardiac: rapid heart beat (tachycardia) or chest pain
• Muscular: fatigue, weakness, tremor
• Urological: frequent urination
The list of symptoms above explains why anxiety can get mixed up with normal stress. What separates anxiety from other related conditions is the intensity of the symptoms, and their causes.
Types of anxiety
There are many distinct types of anxiety. Anxiety can be generalized, existential, panic-related, or belong to a more specific subset.
This can be either generic, when a person is afraid that they won’t meet the high standards they set for themselves in all aspects of life; or it can be more specific, for example focused on athletic or work-related performance.
This subtype revolves around social interactions, either limited to strangers (starting at a new school or workplace, travelling with public transport, talking to shop assistants, etc.), or it can include all social contact—even with friends and family. Social anxiety often stems from a fear of behaving in an embarrassing or off-putting manner, which could lead to social disapproval or rejection.
Fear of being separated from someone, either generally (all significant relationships) or specific (e.g., separation from one’s parents).
This is a philosophical (and existential psychological) concept. It refers to a broader kind of anxiety, related to life and death:
What is my purpose in life? Am I doing the right thing? Why do I even exist?
Death anxiety is also common. It can be triggered by a sudden insight about one’s own mortality, by a fear of dying before having completed important life tasks, or by thoughts about what may happen ’on the other side,’ after death.
Generalized anxiety (GAD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder)
This type is not related to specific events or objects; it originates from the person’s own psyche, and the intensity can shift back and forth without obvious external causes. Therefore, the triggers may appear completely random, which makes it more challenging to manage. For GAD sufferers, anxiety can linger for a long time after the trigger event has passed, as if it had a ’life of its own.’
Anxiety and stress
Stress can cause and/or exacerbate anxiety. Therefore, an anxious person is likely to feel worse when faced with severe disease, loss of loved ones, or other significant negative life events.
Anxiety and depression
These two conditions often go hand in hand. A depressed individual typically experiences some amount of anxiety. However, the conditions also have many dissimilarities. Some therapists suggest that anxiety levels increase when the repressed emotions of a depressed person start to surface. So, sometimes it might be necessary to push through a period of heightened anxiety to truly recover from depression.
Short-term anxiety treatment
Try to withdraw to a safe and secluded space, place your feet on the ground and focus on your breath, allowing it to slow down to a healthy pace. By regulating our breath, we can actually influence our autonomous nervous system, which otherwise is out of our conscious control. (Yoga and meditation practitioners have known this for thousands of years; neuroscience is now starting to catch up.)
”Box breathing” is another potent technique. Box breathing is an easy technique that anyone can practice. It is effective in improving focus and calming yourself down when feeling overwhelmed. It entails breathing into the count of four, holding the breath for four seconds, exhaling through the mouth for four seconds and repeating the aforementioned steps as many times as you need to feel more relaxed.
You might also wish to examine your mental state. Observe your thoughts without getting too attached to them. Allow them to float in the air, without grabbing hold of them. Look for the thoughts that trigger the anxiety and ask yourself whether they’re objectively true. Maybe there is another way of interpreting the situation? Learning to identify your personal triggers can help you regain control of your emotional state.
Long-term anxiety treatment
It’s important not to allow anxiety to take hold of your entire life. Avoiding potential triggers (e.g., staying home instead of going to a party) is a common—and seemingly rational—coping strategy which might give you temporary relief. In the long run, however, it’s counterproductive and may increase overall anxiety levels. Avoidance is a vicious circle, as it adds one restriction after another to your life, eventually reducing your ’comfort zone’ to a minimum.
Instead, carefully approaching your triggers step by step is a proven CBT technique that works well for most people. This is called exposure. For example, going to a party for just five minutes is better for someone with social anxiety than avoiding it completely. After a few five minutes exposures, this person might feel safe enough to increase the time span. Eventually, they may even stay all night and enjoy themselves without fear.
So stepping out of that comfort zone, thereby increasing its size, is crucial. But it must be done very gradually, and with great self-compassion. A licensed CBT therapist may be of great help in the process.
Sound sleeping habits are also important, as is physical exercise. Sleeping well is essential for recovering from stress and calming down the central nervous system. Exercise reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression. It also boosts the regrowth of neurons (brain cells), and increases blood flow to the brain.
Substances like alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine may increase anxiety in some individuals, so avoiding or restricting consumption of one or more of these stimulants can reduce symptoms.
How to get rid of anxiety
Some people may need professional help to manage their anxiety. They should reach out to a licensed psychotherapist or a psychiatrist.
CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, has been proven to be effective in many cases of anxiety. This treatment can be provided face-to-face or online. Meeting online via video call or chat may be handy for people suffering from agoraphobia, a condition where the patient may have a fear of leaving their own home.
Ideally, ‘talking therapy’ has a two-fold effect. Firstly, it may in itself improve your condition. Secondly, the therapist will offer tools and techniques that empower you to manage any future relapses on your own.
Talking to someone about anxiety
If you believe that you or someone you know suffers from anxiety, this should be taken seriously. Anxiety can be incredibly taxing to cope with, and may seriously reduce your quality of life if it’s allowed to gain ground—like a weed taking over a beautiful garden. Thus, it’s crucial to deal with these challenges at an early stage.
If your anxiety restricts you from doing things you normally would enjoy (e.g. work, leisure activities, social relationships), don’t hesitate to seek professional help.