Anxiety…the word alone can make you feel uneasy. It can come out of nowhere or be easily anticipated. Why is it that anxiety affects so many of us and how can we harness it to be helpful, rather than stressful? Let’s look at anxiety and in plain English, answer some of the most common questions asked.
1. What is the difference between stress and anxiety?
Stress is a state of mental and bodily tension you experience when faced with a demand. We feel stress when we have a long to do list and very little time to accomplish it. Anxiety is the fear we may experience when we think about what may happen if we don’t complete our to do list. — Stress and Anxiety both involve tension. Both involve some of the same physiological responses such as the release of adrenalin, but anxiety involves fear. Stress does not.
2. How can anxiety be helpful to you?
Everyone experiences anxiety. It is our body’s reaction to what we perceive as threatening. Anxiety can be a healthy, normal, and adaptive response to stress. It can be motivating and helpful to us. A little anxiety can help us move faster in the morning so that we get to work on time. It can help us to be careful when we drive or when walk to our cars alone in the dark. Too much anxiety can be a problem. It can overwhelm us with worry, fear, or even panic. If we become aware of our body’s reactions and ensure that our thoughts and reactions match the realistic nature of the situation, we can use it to be more organized, more effective, safer, and in control.
3. What happens in the body when you’re anxious?
When we are faced with a stressor, our brain assesses the situation. If it interprets the stressor as threatening, it activates our sympathetic nervous system. For instance, if we are taking a walk through our neighborhood and a dog unexpectedly barks loudly, our hypothalamus, a small area at the base of our brain, sets off an alarm in our body. This alarm prompts our adrenal glands, located just above our kidneys, to release a set of hormones such as adrenaline (also known as epinephrine), noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine), and cortisol. These hormones cause effects throughout our body, including our brains. This is called the fight-or-flight response. It essentially prepares our minds and bodies to fight or flee this danger.
When what is perceived as dangerous passes, our body returns to its normal functioning. Our fight-or-flight response will continue to do its job to protect us, even if it is not a real threat to our safety, but is perceived to be. For example, our bodies will react this way whether we are crossing the street and a car unexpectedly charges down the road in front of us, or, we are asked to speak in a public forum, if we interpret the situation as threatening. It doesn’t know the difference between a real threat and one that is not really a threat to us, but is intimidating. It will respond the same way. If we do not need the body’s activation, the body’s responses can be quite distressing, and, in severe anxiety or panic, can in itself be misinterpreted as dangerous.
4. How might I experience anxiety?
RAPID HEART BEAT, PALPITATIONS – caused by surges of adrenaline, feeling of your heart beating heavily and rapidly in your chest, feeling as though your heart skips a beat, can lead to feeling dizzy or lightheaded
FAST, SHALLOW BREATHING – this is rapid, unsatisfying breathing that can be experienced as shortness of breath, heaviness of the chest, or not being able to take a good, deep breath
DRY MOUTH – As body fluids are diverted to other parts of the body, the mouth can become dry
SHAKING OR SHIVERING – as a result of our muscles contracting, creating friction between our muscles and other body tissue
STOMACH PROBLEMS – such as stomach upset, nausea, constipation, or diarrhea, indigestion, heartburn – caused by elevated cortisol levels, as the body focuses on energizing and preparing our muscles, rather than helping our organs such as with digestion (it constricts the blood vessels to these areas of the body)
TINGLING IN THE HANDS AND FEET – can be caused by lack of oxygen to these areas and a pooling of blood carbon dioxide during periods of intense anxiety due to persistent shallow breathing
PROBLEMS WITH ATTENTION, CONCENTRATION, AND MEMORY – we become so focused on the perceived threat and our response to it that we may be forgetful and have difficulties with memory
5. What are some of the effects of chronic stress and anxiety?
DECREASED IMMUNE FUNCTIONING – leaving us more susceptible to illness such as colds, viruses, and infections
INCREASED RISK OF PHYSICAL HEALTH PROBLEMS – such as heart disease, hypertension, obesity, stomach problems such as ulcers and acid reflux
INCREASED RISK OF MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS – such as anxiety disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts
HEADACHES OR MIGRAINES – due to chronic muscle tension in the neck, back, face, and shoulders
PAIN AND NUMBNESS – caused by chronic muscular tension and constricted blood vessels. Common areas of pain include the face, jaw, neck, and shoulders
Have you experienced anxiety? Tell us about it?
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From Psych Central's World of Psychology:
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Last reviewed: 3 Mar 2013