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Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety is the body’s reaction to an event that is experienced as disturbing or threatening. Our primitive ancestors experienced stress when they had to fight off wild animals and other threats to their survival. Now, in the contemporary world, we are more likely to feel the anxiety that emerges from stress when we face overwhelming responsibilities at work or home, experience loneliness, rejection, or the fear of losing things that are important to us, such as our jobs or friends. When we are exposed to such events, we experience what has been called the “fight or flight” response. To prepare for fighting or fleeing, the body increases its heart rate and blood pressure. This sends more blood to our heart and muscles, and our respiratory rate increases. We become vigilant and tense. Our bodies end up on full alert and this allows us to take action. When these anxiety inducing conditions continue over a long period of time, however, and have a significant impact on how we live, we may begin to suffer from one of the anxiety disorders such as PTSD, OCD, Agoraphobia, Social Resiliency

Research indicates that anxiety disorders are the leading emotional health disorder for women and are only second to substance abuse among men. Within any given year, it has been estimated that fifteen percent of the population suffers from one of the anxiety disorders, yet only a small portion of those who suffer receive treatment. Fortunately treatment is available and generally effective.

Anxiety can be helpful when it prompts us to take action to solve a problem. We can use our anxiety as a clue, in fact, that there is a problem, and that we need to confront it. Public speakers, athletes, and entertainers have long known that anxiety can motivate them to perform much better. When we do not recognize our anxious feelings, or do not have the tools to deal with them, we may continue to expose ourselves to the causes of the anxiety and this may lead to more problems.

Prolonged anxiety is demanding on our bodies and our lives in general. The constant state of “fight or flight” may cause heart palpitations, dizziness, trembling or shaking, increased  blood pressure, sweating, choking, high stomach acidity, nausea, chest discomfort, or muscle spasms. We may feel detached or out of touch with reality or think we are dying or going crazy. There is evidence that prolonged anxiety can lead to heart disease and a compromised immune system. It depletes our energy and interferes with concentration. We may become abrupt with other people and engage in emotional outbursts or even physical violence. Our relationships and job security may be jeopardized. People who experience prolonged anxiety are more prone to self-destructive behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse.

An ability to define things positively is one of the main attributes of those who deal well with anxiety. The life process is one of loss and gain and it is as natural as night and day. When we trust that our losses will give rise to new gains and life experiences, the anxiety and worry associated with loss need not be devastating. For example, the loss of a job can open the door to more satisfying employment and the opportunity for more fulfilling life experiences. The clue is to change our negative thoughts about situations into more positive thoughts and positive feelings will usually follow a change in thinking. As an example, if a close friend moves away, rather than thinking negatively about how lonely and devastated you will feel, think about the good memories you will always have, how your friendship will leave a positive legacy that will always touch your life, how you can still keep in touch and visit, and how you can now spend your time in new and positive pursuits. There really is no need for overwhelming anxiety in this situation. We can choose to move toward the open doors of life rather than knocking on closed ones.

The clue to handling anxiety well is to acquire the skills we need to feel empowered. This requires a good, honest exploration into our lives. We need to explore the strengths that we already have for coping with stress, as well as learn new skills. We need to be able both to comfort ourselves and to let others nurture us as well. All of us can learn, with some healthy exploration, to manage anxiety successfully.

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J.M. Evosevich, Ph.D.

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