Q: What is Anxiety?
A: The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Anxiety is a normal emotion that most people experience at some point in their life. It is common before significant events—like an important exam or a job interview. But some people experience anxiety with enough intensity and frequency that it interferes with their normal life. In that case, they are experiencing what is called an anxiety disorder.
Q: What does anxiety feel like?
A: Someone who is anxious is nervous and restless. Anxiety focuses the mind on a subject—an exam, or a job interview, for example—and causes a person to think about the potential dangers. They will likely also experience physical symptoms, such as increased heart rate, more rapid breathing, sweating, and trembling. Sometimes physical manifestations can be more serious—insomnia, gastro-intestinal irritation, or fatigue.
People experience extreme anxiety in different ways. General anxiety disorder is often characterized by excessive and persistent worrying about normal activities. Panic disorders involve episodic, rapidly onsetting anxiety that peaks in a state of mental and emotional overload and cause physical symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath. People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder have intrusive thoughts that disturb them and motivate them to engage in repetitive acts. Phobias will cause a person to be anxious about a very specific thing or situation. These are just a few examples of serious anxiety disorders.
Q: How do I know whether my anxiety is normal or serious?
A: When a person finds it difficult or impossible to control anxiety and calm themselves, when anxiety begins to interfere with their everyday activities, or when anxiety causes them to avoid places and activities that they might not otherwise, then their experience of anxiety is problematic. Some critical warning signs are depression, self-medication through alcohol or drug use, and the serious physical manifestations mentioned above—insomnia, gastrointestinal irritation, and fatigue. If any of these warning signs are present, it is important to see a doctor about potential treatment, which may or may not include medication.
Q: What if I’m thinking of harming myself.
A: Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right away: 1-800-273-8255; or use the online crisis chat: http://chat.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/GetHelp/LifelineChat.aspx. You’ll be connected to a grief counselor and your conversation will be confidential. Anxiety is not a permanent problem, and there are real and effective solutions.
Q: What can I do to reduce my anxiety?
A: It is most important to know yourself and your symptoms, recognize when you need help, and be willing to seek help when you need it. A mental health professional can provide you with the tools to learn about and keep track of your disorder and can direct you to relevant resources and support groups.
There are also a number ways to self-manage anxiety symptoms that are safe and effective in conjunction with medical advice. Staying physically active is a proven way to reduce stress and overall health and well-being. Developing good sleeping and eating habits can also improve mental acuity. On the other hand, it is best to avoid substances that can increase anxiety, including caffeine and nicotine as well as drugs and alcohol.
Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation are often helpful for reducing anxiety. If you are unfamiliar with mindfulness meditation or other relaxation techniques, a mental health professional can recommend local resources to help you learn about them.