What is anxiety and why do we experience it?
We all experience anxiety from time to time. Anxiety is an emotional response to real or perceived threat. It's a sibling of worry, nervousness, stress, and fear. Anxiety is a normal emotion, and is often helpful despite it being unpleasant to experience.
Way back in our past, we evolved to experience anxiety as it kept us physically safe. If we noticed a bush that was rustling, our brains and bodies would react almost instantaneously, putting us into a state of fight or flight. This is the anxiety response. Anxiety would prepare us to fight for our lives or run away in case the rustling was a saber-toothed tiger. If it turned out that the rustling was caused by something non-threatening, like a bird or rodent, then no big deal. Better to be prepared (i.e., anxious) just in case. On the other hand, if we didn't experience anxiety, and there really was a saber-toother tiger in the bushes, we'd likely get eaten because we weren’t ready to fight or flee. Put another way, anxiety is like an alarm system, and better that the alarm system is overly sensitive than not respond when a threat is real.
While anxiety keeps up physically safe, it also keeps us safe psychologically/emotionally. We tend to become most anxious about things that are important to us. It often signals that there's a threatening problem for us to solve.
Some examples of how anxiety can be helpful:
- If we weren't a little anxious when standing at the edge of a cliff, we might not be aware of what we're doing and accidentally fall off.
- If we didn't get a little anxious about the tasks that we need to complete for work or school, we might never get around to doing them or might never focus our efforts on doing them well.
- If we didn't get a little anxious about problems in our relationships, we might become complacent or check out.
Anxiety is both a psychological experience and a physiological experience. Emotionally, we feel on edge and may have worrisome or fearful thoughts. Physically, anxiety manifests as a racing heart, quick breathing, sweaty palms, a sick feeling in the stomach, and a sense of being under pressure.
When does anxiety become a problem?
Some people are wired to be more anxious from birth, while others seem to become increasingly anxious over time or in response to things going on in their lives.
For some people, anxiety is frequent and intense. At its worst, it's characterized by racing, uncontrollable, and overwhelming thoughts. If it gets bad enough, some peoples' anxiety may even start interfering with their lives in significant ways. It's a terrible place to be and comes at a huge cost to mental and physical health, and quality of life.
Anxiety can become crippling if it starts to chew up all a person's mental resources, and can cause mood to plunge. It crowds out all positive emotions and thoughts, and gets in the way of living a good life.
Imagine being in a state of persistent fear and feeling that you have no control? That's what it's like to be really anxious.
What are the components of unmanageable anxiety?
Anxiety is a response to real or perceived threat when there is uncertainty or ambiguity. It is future focused (i.e., what if ______?), but often drags us back to our past failures and times when we've been hurt physically or psychologically. It may cause us to ruminate about our prior experiences and obsess about our futures.
There are three main components to anxiety that when all present, make it particularly bad:
- The belief that something catastrophic is going to happen. Not just a little catastrophic, but the absolute worst possible outcome.
- Over prediction of the likelihood that catastrophe is going to happen (i.e., it's going to happen for sure).
- Under prediction of one's ability to cope should something catastrophic happen.
So, in the face of uncertainty, if you believe that something really terrible is going to happen and you won't be able to cope, then you're likely to experience significant anxiety.
Here are some examples:
- Michael has anxiety about flying (phobia). Even though he's flown before and knows that accidents are extremely rare, he's sure that the next plane he flies in will crash. When that happens, there's nothing he will be able to do - he will die.
- Angela has anxiety around people (social anxiety). Even though she's been able to have friends and relationships in the past, she's certain that if she socializes with people, she'll say something stupid and people will judge her. It will be humiliating and will confirm her belief that she's a loser. Nobody will want to spend time with her, so she won't have any friends.
- Sam has anxiety about his sexual performance. He is sure that he will not be able to get an erection when he has sex and his partners will be disappointed. He'll see himself as a failure and nobody will want to be with him. Sam will never have the sex life that he wants.
- Sharon is anxious about her body. She feels like she's sexually unattractive. She's afraid that her sex partners will find her repulsive and will reject her. Nobody will want to have sex with her or date her, and she'll be alone forever.
The good news is that anxiety is the most treatable of all psychological difficulties.
Stay tuned for more on anxiety and ways of addressing it.