Everyone feels nervous or worried at times, but when feelings of fear or dread are unfocused, overwhelming, recurring, or not directly linked to stressful events, anxiety can have a serious impact on daily life, affecting how we think, feel, and act.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety on its own is a brief, normal, human response to stressful or uncertain situations. Anxiety disorders come into play when these feelings extend beyond short timeframes linked to specific events, and excessive uneasiness and apprehension begin to negatively affect our quality of life and daily functioning.
Anxiety is often characterized by significant distress (in severity or duration), inner turmoil, feelings of tension, thoughts of perceived danger, or negative predictions. There are often a lot of "what if" ruminations, typically with negative conclusions. There's a lot of worry, and a lot of stress. People with anxiety will often attempt to mitigate their symptoms by avoiding situations or places that provoke anxiety - unfortunately, this doesn't fix the root of the problem.
Anxiety Signs & Symptoms
Anxiety disorders can affect anyone, at any age, and they are one of the most common mental health problems in North America. There are a number of different types (see below), each with its own distinct symptoms, but all types of anxiety share the following primary hallmarks:
- Irrational and excessive fear
- Apprehensive and tense feelings
- Difficulty managing and/or distress related to daily tasks
- Anxious thoughts, beliefs, or negative predictions
- Avoidance of feared situations
- Avoidance of activities that elicit sensations similar to those when anxious (e.g., exercise)
- Subtle avoidances (behaviour to distract the person, e.g., talking more when anxious)
- Safety behaviours (habits to minimize anxiety and feel safer)
- Excessive physical reactions relative to the context (e.g., heart racing and feeling short of breath)
People with anxiety might feel anxious most of the time, or for brief intense episodes which can seem to occur for no reason. Your feelings of anxiety may be so uncomfortable that you avoid daily routines and activities in an effort to protect yourself. If you have an anxiety disorder, you are very likely already aware of the irrational and excessive nature of your fears - it's not just a matter of talking yourself out of them.
Types of Anxiety
Knowing the specific type of anxiety disorder you're experiencing will help to determine the best possible route for treatment. The following are a few of the main categories.
Phobias: an intense fear around a specific thing, like an object, animal, or situation. More than simply being scared of something, phobias disrupt your daily life, in that people change the way they live in order to avoid the target of their phobia.
Panic Disorder: repeated and unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden and intense feeling of fear that lasts for a short period of time, causing physical symptoms like a racing heart, shortness of breath, or nausea. With panic disorder, these attacks seem to happen, repeatedly, for no reason.
Social Anxiety: an intense fear of being embarrassed, judged or evaluated negatively by others. More than shyness, these people tend to avoid social situations because of this fear, which can have devastating impact on relationships, school and career prospects/performance.
Generalized Anxiety: an excessive, vague worry around a number of everyday problems for more than 6 months. The anxiety in this case is typically far more severe than expected, where people experience intense anxiety over what they know to be minor concerns. This type of anxiety has the added possible symptoms of fatigue, restlessness or feeling on edge, irritability, difficulty focusing, sleep problems, and/or muscle tension.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): no longer officially classed as an anxiety disorder, however anxiety and fear form a major part of this condition. With OCD, the person suffers unwanted thoughts, images, or urges that cause anxiety (obsessions), or feel compelled to perform specific repeated actions in order to avoid anxiety over something bad happening (compulsions).
Therapy for Anxiety
The right counselling can help you achieve significant, lasting change in dealing with your anxiety. Your first session will be an opportunity for your counsellor to get to know you, to learn about the challenges you're facing, and to discuss your goals and any major obstacles. You'll be informing a treatment plan that's right for you, because each person is different.
Many people with anxiety do best with some iteration of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is a broad term that includes any number of potential approaches integrating (a) how you think, (b) how you feel, and (c) how you act, making therapeutic use of the significant ways in which each affects the other.
Your counsellor will work with you to determine the most helpful approach for your specific situation. For some that may look more like general everyday support, for others, a more concrete solution-focused plan, or a combination of the two. If you can't identify the source of your anxiety right away, that's okay. Therapy can help you develop coping skills to manage your symptoms, resume some of your regular daily tasks, and regain a sense of control while working towards finding that source with your counsellor.
In all cases, your counsellor will help you to explore the root cause of your anxiety, and will work with you to develop the appropriate tools, resources and skills to empower you to handle your anxiety successfully - and eventually, automatically - on your own.