Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety is the excessive, uncontrollable, and often irrational anticipation of future threats. It differs from fear, which is the emotional response to a real or perceived threat. While these two states do overlap, there is a difference. Where fear is associated with the activation of the autonomic nervous system and the fight-flight-freeze response in reaction to an actual threat, anxiety is associated with excessive vigilance and associated avoidant behaviors for a perceived threat. An anxiety disorder is diagnosed when the experience of fear and anxiety is considered excessive to the normal experience and is persistent beyond an expected timeframe. Individuals with an anxiety disorder typically overestimate the danger of the situations they fear or avoid.

Symptoms of anxiety

Listed below are some of the common physical signs and symptoms associated with anxiety:

• Restlessness

• Feeling on edge

• Rapid heartbeat

• Shortness of breath

• Difficulty concentrating

• Feeling lightheaded or faint

• Irritability

• Muscle tension

• Upset stomach

• Sweating

• Sleep disturbance

People who get anxious tend to get into scanning mode – where they’re constantly on the lookout for danger, hyper-alert to any of the signals, and make it more likely that the alarm system will be activated.

Thoughts that often occur relate to our overestimating or exaggerating the 
actual threat and underestimating or minimizing our ability to cope:

* I’m in danger right now

*The worst possible scenario is going to happen 

*I won’t be able to cope with it.

Behaviors might include:

*Avoiding people or places

* Not going out

*Going to certain places at certain times, e.g. shopping at smaller shops, at less busy times

*Only going with someone else

*Escape, leave early

*Go to the feared situation, but use coping behaviors to get you through: examples include: self-talk, holding a drink, smoking more, fiddling with clothes or handbag, avoiding eye contact with others, having an escape plan, medication. These are called ‘safety behaviors’.

Anxiety disorders are generally treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both. A type of psychotherapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is especially useful for treating GAD. CBT teaches a person different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to situations that help him or her feel less anxious and worried.

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