Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once wrote, “if you are depressed, you are living in the past; if you are anxious you are living in the future; if you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
These words of wisdom capture the essence of the human condition. While we might love to be like pigeons, dogs, or earthworms, just focusing on what’s in front of us, our powerful brains prevent us from doing so. No matter what we do, we have this constant stream of negative thoughts trickling through our minds, telling us what might go wrong in our lives. It’s enough to make anyone feel wretched.
When it comes to anxiety, the key insight is to understand that your brain isn’t trying to make you happy. Instead, it evolved to keep you alive by constantly scanning the environment for threats.
Humans aren’t the only species affected by the anxiety-provoking activities of the brain. You can see the same phenomenon in deer as they watch for predators on hilltops or in birds as they nervously nibble food in your garden. Animal brains developed to keep the species alive, not to make individuals feel blissed out and happy to be alive.
For humans, though, the problem is more severe. While animals react solely to threats in their environments, we’re so intelligent we can cook up our own. Pigeons aren’t thinking about tomorrow’s dental appointment, but we are. Rats don’t care about what the boss is going to say at their annual review, but we do. Worms can’t fret about global nuclear war, but we can.
The odd bout of anxiety here and there is perfectly normal. If you are attached to life, then genuine physical threats will make you feel scared.
However, if anxiety dogs you most of the time and it’s being driven by abstract stuff, like relationships, then it might be a cause for concern. Constant anxious thoughts can prevent you from living the life you want, lead to prolonged rumination, and even affect your ability to think clearly.
What Type Of Anxiety Do You Have?
Professional psychologists have several official anxiety diagnoses they use to categorize patients. That’s because the way our brains respond to threats is different.
General anxiety disorder (GAD)
General anxiety disorder (GAD) is the most common diagnosis, affecting some 6.8 million U.S. adults, or about 3.1 percent of the population. If you have this condition, you may experience persistent and excessive worry as a part of your daily life. You may also have bouts of restlessness or feelings of unease, muscle tension, sweating, or problems sleeping. Feelings of dread may appear to come out of nowhere.
Panic disorder is another common anxiety-related condition. You may have this if you regularly feel an overwhelming combination of physical and psychological distress that leads to palpitations, trembling, feeling dizzy, chest pain, nausea, tingling in your extremities, or the feeling of choking. Symptoms of panic disorder can be so severe that it feels like you are having a heart attack.
Anxiety can also take the form of various phobias. These occur when fearful feelings about a specific event or situation are disproportionate to the actual threat.
Many people, for instance, have agoraphobia, or the fear of being in situations that could be embarrassing or difficult to escape from. If you have this condition, you may feel anxious when in open spaces, like parks, on public transportation, in closed spaces, such as beer gardens, or being away from home by yourself.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Others have social anxiety disorder. Here, you may experience extreme discomfort in the company of others, particularly people you don’t know. You may not want to speak publicly, meet new people, or eat or drink around others. We find that helping people with social anxiety can expand their personal lives and make them more fulfilled.
Separation anxiety disorder
Separation anxiety disorder is another common issue. This occurs when you feel fearful when separated from a caregiver or someone you love beyond what is appropriate for the situation. People with this condition regularly ruminate about losing the person closest to them and may refuse to go anywhere or do anything without said person.
Mental health professionals define these categories precisely for diagnostic convenience. However, your anxiety symptoms may overlap. For example, you might have a combination of both generalized anxiety and social anxiety in specific social situations, such as public speaking.
How To Treat Anxiety
There are two main avenues for anxiety treatment: medications and talk therapy. Not all approaches work for everyone, so some trial and error is always involved.
If you speak to your doctor about your anxiety symptoms, they may recommend medications. Some antidepressants, for instance, can treat anxiety disorders by adjusting chemical balance in the brain.
Doctors may also prescribe specific anti-anxiety medications, such as buspirone. For severe attacks, you may receive a prescription for a short course of benzodiazepines, a type of sedative. However, these drugs can be highly addictive and you should not take them long-term.
Alternatively, doctors may recommend that you undergo talk therapy of one kind or another. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy that seeks to rewire your brain so that you react differently to specific anxiety-provoking stimuli. This way, you can slowly return to activities or situations you avoided in the past because of your anxiety symptoms. Treatment is usually short-term, with most courses requiring ten hours over ten weeks.
Psychotherapy goes deeper and tries to uncover the root causes of your anxiety. Therapists try to unearth and then reprogram unconscious blockages to living a regular life. Treatment can take years and may require working with a therapist for several hours a day, three to five days per week.
Can Stress Make You Anxious?
Stress and anxiety are two closely related systems with anxiety being the cognitive reaction to stress.
For instance, suppose your boss dumps a pile of work on your desk and tells you that you need to complete it by tomorrow. Stress occurs when your brain automatically goes into fight-or-flight mode. Anxiety enters the picture when the mind generates new thoughts in response to the stress, such as “I’ll lose my job if I don’t get all this work done,” or “My colleagues will judge me negatively if I stuff this up.”
Why Is Anxiety Becoming More Common?
Anxiety disorders affect around one in five people in the U.S and, according to an oft-cited study, are more common in high-income countries. However, the reasons for this are challenging to tease out.
Research, for instance, shows that people with low socioeconomic status in the U.S. are more likely to develop anxiety than those with high status. However, if absolute material deprivation was the problem, anxiety rates should be much higher in the developing world, and they are not. In fact, figures show that generalized anxiety prevalence in middle- and low-income countries are 2.8 and 1.6 percent respectively, compared to 5 percent in high-income countries.
While there are surveys that suggest that anxiety rates are increasing in the West, researchers are divided on whether this is true. Many believe that anxiety went chronically underreported in the past and that today’s spike is merely a reflection of superior diagnosis. Others, however, contend that the nature of consciousness in the West has changed significantly post-war, and that anxiety is indeed getting worse because of how we now think.
Money can make you Anxious!
Researchers have several theories for why anxiety might be more prevalent in the West compared to other parts of the world. Studies, for instance, have found that people who place more emphasis on financial gain tend to be more anxious than those who don’t. Focusing purely on money appears to “crowd out” the more meaningful and sustainable life philosophies that people lived by in the past.
Other studies have found that paying increasing attention to extrinsic goals, such as materialism and status, takes away from intrinsic goals, such as meaning, community, and affiliation. People who pursue money, power, and looks are more likely to be anxious and depressed than those who don’t.
Because of this, increasing anxiety appears to sprout from a greater focus on ego-driven desires, at least across the general population. Therefore, letting go of attachment to the transient material world may be a more fundamental way to relieve anxiety symptoms than either drugs or psychotherapy.
Is Anxiety Ever Good For You? – YES
You can think of anxiety as the psychological analogy of physical pain. It’s a protective mechanism that helps you avoid danger. Therefore, it can be a good thing.
For instance, imagine if you are standing at the edge of a cliff 100 feet above the water below, ready to jump off. In this situation, feelings of anxiety could save your life. For instance, they could prompt you to climb down and test the waters to see whether there are any jagged rocks lurking beneath the waves before you take the plunge.
Anxiety only becomes problematic when you begin concocting your own threats and dangers. When that happens, the only limit is your imagination.
Help in the Denver Area
We hope that you better understand what anxiety is, the forms it comes in, and what you can do to treat it. We’re here to help. We invite you to call us at 720-551-4553 for a free 20-minute phone consultation with an anxiety specialist. You can schedule your appointment via phone, and read more on the Anxiety Page on our website.
Self Care Impact Counseling envisions a new age of counseling for adolescents, adults, couples & groups that makes a REAL difference with core values of GROWTH | BALANCE | COMPASSION | INNER HARMONY.