What is Anxiety?

What is Anxiety?

Stomach in knots. Increased heart rate. A feeling of tiredness. Rapid breathing. These and many others are considered symptoms caused by anxiety. So, what is it?  Why do we have it?  Moreover, what can I do about it?   

What does Anxiety Feel Like?

We know that anxiety is, of course, a feeling that is universal and no one’s immune to it. It’s something that we all will experience many times throughout our lives, and it’s felt in the body.

As previously mentioned, there are a whole host of physical symptoms that go along with the experience of anxiety. Things like tightness in the chest, and other muscles, having a racing heart, nausea, tingling, cold sweats, and many others.

Where does Anxiety Come From?

One thing to make clear is that anxiety is not our fault. It is just something that happens.

Here are a couple of examples from clients:

I had a client that said to me once that he was anxious because he thought he was going to die alone.  That was not his anxiety, it wasn’t the experience of anxiety, it very well may have contributed to the experience of his anxiety, but it was not the anxiety.  It is also not our behaviour; it’s not what we do.

Also another client left his own birthday party because he felt quite panicky.  However, anxiety is not what we do, so not our actual behaviour.

Why Do We Get Anxiety?

So why do we have anxiety in the first place? Especially as it feels unpleasant, why do we need it?  

Fundamentally, it’s designed to keep us safe, to keep us out of harm’s way.  It’s our body’s way of alerting us to any kind of threat or danger in the environment.

How Can We Get Rid of Anxiety?

All those symptoms you experience in your body, this is just your body’s way of gearing up to either defend through fighting off or running away from any kind of a threat to life or safety.  To that end, it’s not something really that we would want to get rid of nor something that we could get rid of.  

A really important distinction to make is that between anxiety that’s universal and felt by everyone, versus what we might call an anxiety disorder or clinical levels of anxiety and that’s where anxiety starts to interfere quite significantly in someone’s functioning, be it their day-to-day life, their work, their relationship with other people or just their sense of wellbeing within themselves.  We know that about one in three people will experience what we might call, an anxiety disorder at some points throughout their life.

One way to look at this is when that internal alarm system in your body becomes a little bit oversensitive in much the same way as a smoke alarm might go off if you’ve burnt the toast, it can’t really tell the difference between the burnt toast and a house that’s burning to the ground.  Sometimes our body’s internal alarm system becomes overly sensitive and it will send messages to our brain that we’re in danger, when really there isn’t a significant threat to life or safety.

How Do We Manage Anxiety?

Thinking about how to manage anxiety, we know that there are a whole range of self-management strategies that are effective for more mild forms of anxiety.  So, things like;

  • getting adequate rest
  • having proper nutrition
  • physical exercise
  • relaxation
  • mindfulness strategies
  • managing your diary well and saying no to over-committing yourself
  • setting boundaries

All of these things are really fantastic ways to keep anxiety levels in check.  But if it reaches a point where you’ve done all of the self-management strategies and that hasn’t helped in any significant way, then I’d suggest that you might need to go and have a chat to your GP about putting in some other sort of plan together to address your anxiety.

Talking therapies can be of help for anxiety disorders and certainly psychological difficulties as well.  The psychological therapies are our best practice and first line treatment as opposed to medications, which in a lot of cases should only be offered once therapies have been trialled and haven’t worked out. 

If you’re suffering, have a chat to your GP, they can help you along the way with what course to take and how best to approach your anxiety.

A big topic and probably one that I might do a few other pieces on in the days ahead, so keep a lookout for that.  I hope it’s been helpful, and let me know if you have questions or comments.

Dr Jamie Barnier

About Dr Jamie

I’m a Clinical Psychologist based in Melbourne who helps adolescents and adults cope with overwhelming emotions and remove the need to numb negative feelings through food, alcohol, sex or drugs. I focus on addressing the root cause of the problem with the goal of creating happiness, peace and lasting change.

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