Anxiety is a state of being where your nervous system is consistently activated at a higher level than is warranted or helpful for the demands of the situation.
In your body you may experience racing heart, shortness of breath, tense muscles, tight chest or jaw, sweating, nausea, butterflies in your tummy, ringing in your ears. You may find that your thoughts race, jumping from one worrying scenario to the next, often exaggerating the degree of difficulty or negativity associated with the scenarios that play out. When you feel worried, stressed, nervous, shy, embarrassed or angry in a way that makes it difficult to cope with the situation you are in, you may be feeling anxiety.
Some level of anxiety is natural and helpful in life. It means you care about things and can help you maintain a degree of alertness and focus necessary to perform well in your work or study or other life activities.
Anxiety becomes a problem when it stops you achieving the things you want to in life in order to avoid having the feeling of anxiety. People with anxiety disorders find that they can’t manage the physiological symptoms, can’t think clearly and become overwhelmed by their emotions.
Some common ways people experience anxiety are:
Social phobia – a fear of being negatively evaluated by others in a social setting to the point where you may avoid these setting or tolerate extreme distress in their presence.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – excessive worry about a range of different life situations, present for at least 6 months, where you feel restless or edgy, easily tired, have trouble concentrating, are irritable, may have tense muscles and trouble falling or staying asleep.
Specific phobias – a persistent or excessive fear about a specific situation that sees you avoiding the situation to the point where that avoidance impacts the quality of your life. Some common specific phobias include fear of snakes, spiders, injections or plane travel.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – involves obsessive or recurrent thoughts that you know are irrational but they keep coming into your head anyway, causing you distress. Often these thoughts are followed by a compulsion or desire to perform a certain action in order to neutralise the thought. Attempts to avoid the compulsive act may increase your anxiety. Some common themes for these thoughts and ritual behaviours include order and cleanliness, checking and safety and religious and sexual themes.
Panic Disorder – if you have ever had a panic attack in your life, you will know how distressing they can be. Physical symptoms include being short of breath, sweating, heart palpitations or racing heart, chest pain, sense of choking or difficulty drawing breath, nausea, dizziness, feeling detached and separate from reality, numbness and hot chills or flushes. In the extreme, it may feel like you are having a heart attack or going mad or dying. Panic disorder evolves when you become afraid of having another panic attack, when you worry that the panic attack is an indicator of a more serious health issue and begin to change your behaviour to minimise or accommodate the panic attacks.
Agoraphobia – fear of being in a situation from which escape might be difficult or help not available should you become panicky, to the point where these situations are avoided or endured with serious distress. Common situations include being in crowds or outside the house alone.
Of course, whilst these are the categories that psychology recognises as reaching the point where too much stress and perhaps genetic pre-disposition have compounded and become a serious problem.
Most of us, living busy modern lifestyle are dealing with more stress than our bodies were designed for. So developing your personal mastery around accessing calm states is an important task for all of us. It is from here that we can enjoy our lives and offer up our best self.