What is anxiety?
By: Erin Aiello, MA
Panicked breathing, racing heartbeat, worry, tight chest. There is a good chance you’ve experienced some of these anxiety symptoms while in emotional and/or physical distress. Experiencing anxiety is normal and helpful in situations. Anxiety is a biological response that prepares our bodies for danger. This response increases our heartbeat and breathing, which pumps oxygenated blood into our muscles, telling our body to prepare to fight or flee. A healthy amount of anxiety can be exactly what your body needs to get necessary tasks done such as, pushing you to prepare for a school or work project, or even discourage you from walking alone at night. Anxiety can get unhealthy when our anxiety responses get dysregulated, causing you to overreact or react to wrong situations.
Anxiety disorders are born when severity of symptoms inhibits a person’s ability to cope with everyday situations, which are difficult to control, and the anxiety or panic is out of proportion to the actual danger being presented.
Anxiety can be broken down into 3 parts: anxious thoughts, emotion of anxiety itself, and anxious behaviors. Anxious thoughts are messages and images that run through your mind when you are feeling anxious. These can look like automatic thoughts sometimes, which are passive and difficult to gain control over. The next part of anxiety would be the emotions of feeling anxious. This varies from person-to-person, but typically can include panicked breathing, worry, increased heart rate, tight chest, and shortness of breath. Anxious behaviors are the final part, which has to do with our actions. When you are feeling anxious, what do you do about it? Although it is not easy, you do have control over your anxious behavior. Common behaviors can look like, avoidance, seeking reassurance, pacing, fidgeting, and crying.
Effective Treatments for Anxiety
Psychotherapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches people to challenge and reframe anxious automatic thoughts, which influence feelings and actions. Exposure is another way to help people tolerate and calm their anxiety which is done by gradually exposing the person to their feared situation. Behavioral experiments, or exposure therapy, can teach your brain that certain situations you once perceived as dangerous are in fact not dangerous. Mind-body approaches are also effective, such as, mindfulness, meditation, and deep breathing. Mindfulness is a focused awareness of what is happening in the present moment with your own thoughts, feelings, and actions. The goal of mindfulness is to counter overthinking and ruminations of the past and worries about the future and replace with focusing on the present moment we can notice with our senses. Becoming aware and paying attention to when our mind wanders (automatic thoughts) and observing them without judgements is another important part of mindfulness. Meditation and breathing can also be an effective treatment for anxiety, which brings you to pay attention to physical sensations. Deep breathing stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating blood flow and your heartbeat. When necessary, medication can help relieve anxiety, along with lifestyle changes such as, exercise, avoiding substances and a healthy diet.
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Coltrera, F. (2018, June 1). Anxiety: What it is, what to do. Harvard Health. Retrieved December 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/anxiety-what-it-is-what-to-do-2018060113955
Stein, M. (2019, December 26). Understanding the anxious mind. Retrieved December 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-the-anxious-mind