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  • Writer's pictureDr. E Farrell

Anxiety: What it is and how to get it under control

Updated: Jul 10, 2021

It's estimated that around 40 million adults and a third of teens suffer from anxiety disorders. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health complaints in the U.S., second only to depression.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association is considered to be the authoritative guide for determining the diagnosis of a mental disorder. According to the DSM-5, an anxiety disorder is a persistent state of worry about future negative events. Social anxiety is the fear of being negatively evaluated or embarrassed in social situations, phobias involve the fear of specific situations or objects. Panic attacks can be associated with a particular stimulus or be seemingly random.

The most common anxiety disorder is generalized, and it occurs when anxiety is persistent, difficult to control and impairs the ability to function in important areas of life, such as school, work and relationships. Symptoms can include restlessness, fatigue, loss of concentration, irritability, sleep problems, muscle tension and other bodily complaints.

Sufferers can experience a sudden increase in heart rate, sweating, trembling, nausea, vomiting, tingling, dizziness, and pressure or pain in the chest. Anyone experiencing these types of symptoms should first check with their doctor to rule out any underlying medical condition.

Anxiety usually has a cognitive origin. It is part of a normal process designed to protect us by activating an internal alarm system in the presence of a threat. Some anxiety helps us to pay attention to our surroundings and to perform well. College students that have some anxiety about grades tend to do better than students that reported no anxiety at all before tests. But students that reported high anxiety tended to do poorly on tests even though they knew the material. The reason is that high levels of anxiety can interfere the ability to retrieve information from long term memory and with problem-solving skills.

Living with anxiety day after day can be mentally draining, many people suffering from anxiety also show signs of depression. Some individuals with anxiety may self-medicate by turning to alcohol or drugs to cope but this can only provides short term relief. Medication prescribed by your physician can help manage physical symptoms, but a long term solution for anxiety involves identifying and changing the cognitive processes that are triggering it in the first place.

Why is this happening?

Knowledge is power especially when it comes to our health, so a bit of background on anxiety is an important part of learning how to control it.

In addition to the Central Nervous System (the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves) we have an Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which regulates certain bodily functions and consists of two parts: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), which primes your body for action, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which calms you back down.

When you feel threatened, whether the threat is real or imagined a part of your brain called the Amygdala, which is your emotional center, sends a message to your Sympathetic Nervous System to “power up” your “Fight or Flight” system, triggering the release of stress hormones including adrenaline, which is responsible for the uncomfortable, often frightening physiological symptoms associated with anxiety.

If you’ve ever been on a thrill ride at an amusement park or been to a scary movie you’ve probably experienced an adrenaline rush. You might experience a fast heart rate, become short of breath, dizzy, have tingling fingers, or even feel pressure or pain in your chest area.

In situations like that described above, you'd likely experience this adrenaline surge which would subside when you get off of the ride. Why? Because once off of the ride you tell yourself that you are again safe.

If we were to monitor your vitals during an anxiety attack, you'd see a similar reaction to what you'd see if we monitored you during a thrill ride or a scary movie. The difference, really, is that the way you interpret the situation determines how quickly that response dissipates. People experiencing anxiety often become frightened by the symptoms. The body then releases more stress hormones. An individual can experience this cycle several times a day, leaving them feeling mentally and physically drained. At this point, it's common for an individual to feel as if they are losing control or "going crazy".

How to control it!

The key to managing anxiety is to recognize that it is linked to thoughts. The truth is that our thoughts control our life, and we learn from past negative experiences to avoid things that cause us fear and pain. Reminders become triggers, and often occur outside our awareness.

While medication can help by managing brain chemistry, anxiety will continue to be a problem if the underlying cause isn’t addressed, and the underlying cause often has to do with what you are telling yourself that is triggering your threat system again and again and again.

Psychotherapy is an effective way to learn how to cope with excess anxiety in your life.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches individuals to identify and change the dysfunctional patterns of thinking that can feed anxiety.

  • Relaxation techniques help reduce stress, calm the mind, and reduce the physical symptoms that occur with anxiety and panic

  • Individuals can learn how to effectively cope with difficult emotions

  • Mindfulness training improves the ability to be present focused rather than dwelling on the past or living in a state of continual anxiety about the future.

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