Anxiety is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences at times. Many people feel anxious, or nervous, when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision. Anxiety disorders, however, are different. They can cause such distress that it interferes with a person’s ability to lead a normal life.
The Common Types of Anxiety Disorders
- Generalized Anxiety Disorders (GAD)
The central defining feature of GAD is excessive and uncontrollable worry. People with GAD worry about a wide range of things, including personal safety, finances, relationships, and their health. Whatever the focus of their worries, the form of the thoughts remains the same: “What if…(fill in imagined negative outcome here).” The worry is persistent, and tends to wear the person out, resulting in difficulty sleeping, fatigue, muscle pain, and a variety of other problems.
Research suggests that people with GAD have a low tolerance for uncertainty, and that worry may be an attempt to reduce uncertainty about the future by anticipating and rehearsing the future in their thoughts. Rather than focusing on one worry topic for an extended period of time, people with GAD often move from one topic to another. It seems that when anxiety about topic A becomes intolerable, the person with GAD will escape from that anxiety by switching to topic B, and worrying about that. People with GAD may also engage in “meta-worry”, which is worry about worrying.
People with this condition have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. Other symptoms of a panic attack include sweating, chest pain, palpitations (unusually strong or irregular heartbeats), and a feeling of choking, which may make the person feel like he or she is having a heart attack or “going crazy.”
Also called social phobia, social anxiety disorder involves overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. The worry often centers on a fear of being judged by others, or behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or lead to ridicule.
The Fight-or-Flight Response
Anxiety is actually an automatic, “built-in” response to perceived threats that allows us to do what is necessary to protect ourselves whenever we encounter danger. Often called “fight-or-flight arousal”, this response involves a series of changes in our bodies that prepare us to take immediate action to deal with a threat or crisis. The origins of the fight-or-flight response go back to a time when people lived closer to natural predators in densely forested settings. Today, our bodies still respond in the same way to perceived threats. However, when was the last time you had to physically fend off an attacker or run for your life?
Since so many of the perceived threats that we encounter in modern life do not call for either fight-or-flight, we are often left in a state of persistent arousal with limited opportunities to release the built-up tension. A crucial thing to understand about the fight-or-flight response is that it is there to help us to “take control” of a situation. When we are responding to an immediate physical threat, taking control is helpful. At other times, however, particularly when the problem is anxiety itself, the increased fight-or-flight arousal that comes with trying to “take control” is more of a problem than a solution. This is the control paradox.
The Relaxation Response
In some ways, the fight-or-flight response is an all-or-nothing deal. All of the changes associated with fight-or-flight arousal are controlled by a special part of your nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. Once a threat has passed, and your body begins to relax, another response, opposite to the fight-or-flight response kicks in. This is called the relaxation response, and it is governed by a completely separate system called the parasympathetic nervous system. The important thing to understand about these two systems is that they can not operate simultaneously. They are like two elevator operators, one that only knows how to go up, and one that only knows how to go down. Your body is the elevator, and only one operator is working at any given time.
There are two physical processes involved in fight-or-flight arousal, however, that you do have varying degrees of access to: breathing and muscle tension. Of the two, you are most easily able to manipulate your breathing. You can change the rate at which you breathe, whether you breathe shallowly or deeply, and whether you breathe through your mouth or through your nose. By manipulating how you breathe, it is possible to slow down and even reverse the fight-or-flight response.
General symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder
- Feelings of panic, fear, and uneasiness
- Problems sleeping
- Cold or sweaty hands and/or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- An inability to be still and calm
- Dry mouth
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Muscle tension
* Seek counseling and support if you start to regularly feel anxious
with no apparent cause.
How Are Anxiety Disorders Treated?
- Medication: Drugs used to reduce the symptoms of anxiety disorders include anti-depressants and anxiety-reducing drugs.
- Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy (a type of counseling) addresses the emotional response to mental illness. It is a process in which trained mental health professionals help people by talking through strategies for understanding and dealing with their disorder.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy: This is a particular type of psychotherapy in which the person learns to recognize and change thought patterns and behaviors that lead to troublesome feelings.
In mindfulness-based therapy, the person focuses on the bodily sensations that arise when he or she is anxious. Instead of avoiding or withdrawing from these feelings, he or she remains present and fully experiences the symptoms of anxiety. Instead of avoiding distressing thoughts, he or she opens up to them in an effort to realize and acknowledge that they are not literally true.
- Relaxation therapy
Book: The Worry Trap: How to Free Yourself from Worry & Anxiety Using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy
The LLAMP Approach to worry and anxiety
The Worry Trap presents a five-step model that can help you to interrupt the “control instinct” that is part of the fight-or-flight response and become more accepting of your thoughts and feelings while also becoming more focused on the present-moment and taking actions that are guided by your values rather than by the avoidance of anxiety.
The five steps are contained in the acronym LLAMP:
- Label “anxious thoughts”
- Let go of control
- Accept and observe thoughts and feelings
- Mindfulness of the present moment
- Proceed in the right direction