What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural emotional and physiological response to danger. When we feel unsafe, our brains kick into high gear. Our bodies start to prepare for a fight or flight response by quickening our heart and respiratory rate. Our muscles tense and blood flow is directed away from the abdomen to the brain. In an emergency situation, we need these functions in order to react and survive.
Do I have an anxiety disorder?
In some cases, the body’s anxiety response stays in overdrive, even when no threat exists. When the brain perceives danger in harmless situations, you may experience physiological and emotional anxiety symptoms that get in the way of living your day-to-day life. Anxiety disorders are diagnosed when an individual experiences a number of symptoms that cause a clinical level of impairment.
Types of anxiety disorders
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) will look a little different for everyone. Symptoms can include:
- Persistent worry about a number of situations, and the worry is disproportionate to the actual impacts
- Frequently running through plans and scenarios, often thinking in “worst-case” terms
- Finding threats in harmless situations
- Low tolerance for uncertainty
- Indecisiveness and fear over making the wrong decision
- Inability to control worries
- Difficulty relaxing
- Trouble focusing
In addition to these symptoms, people with GAD often experience one or more physical symptoms, which may include:
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Tension and muscle aches
- Shaking or twitching
- Heightened startle response
- Gastrointestinal distress
Social Anxiety Disorder
People living with social anxiety disorder experience many of the same physical symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Social anxiety disorder is different because the excessive worries tend to center around social interactions. This may look like:
- Avoiding situations where you’ll be the center of attention
- Fearing that you’ll be judged by others
- Staying quiet for fear of offending someone
- Frequently feeling intense embarrassment during social interactions, which could include blushing, shaking or sweating
Left untreated, Social Anxiety Disorder can make it difficult to maintain social connections, leading to further feelings of shame and isolation.
Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder
Many people have experienced at least one panic attack, but far fewer meet the diagnostic criteria for panic disorder. Panic disorder is characterized by frequent, random panic attacks, and a persistent fear of having another attack.
During a panic attack, you may experience:
- Rapid heart rate
- Trouble breathing
- Feeling as though you are choking or can’t breathe
- Chest or abdominal pain
- Hot Flashes
- Pins and needles sensations
- Having an “out of body” sensation
- Fear of going crazy, losing control or dying
Anxiety in Children
Children may have a hard time expressing their experiences with anxiety. A child with anxiety may talk about feeling scared for the safety of their family members. They may worry excessively about school performance, or have difficulty being separated from parents or caregivers. Often, children with anxiety simply complain that their tummy hurts.
If you notice that your child is showing these signs, it might help to have him or her assessed by a mental health professional.
Can I get rid of my anxiety?
Anxiety is a necessary function of our brains and nervous systems. The same physiological responses that cause anxiety help us stay safe and make sense of the world around us. If you were unable to feel anxiety, chances are you’d have a difficult time doing important things like sensing danger and feeling motivated.
While we can’t get rid of anxiety, we can learn to change our relationship with it, so that it has less power over the choices we make. Counseling can help you learn techniques to cope with and reduce anxiety symptoms.
Do I need counseling for anxiety?
Deciding when to start counseling is very personal, and the process looks different for everyone. The following questions1 can help you assess whether counseling might help you manage your anxiety:
- Do you frequently experience one or more of the following:
- Feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge
- Not being able to control worrying
- Worrying about many different things
- Trouble relaxing
- Being so restless that it’s hard to sit still
- Becoming easily annoyed or irritable
- Feeling afraid, as if something awful might happen
- If you answered yes to any of the items above, have you noticed that your anxiety has kept you from engaging in things you care about, like school, work, or relationships?
If you answered yes, it might be time to seek counseling to cope with your anxiety.
1 Questions adapted from GAD7 Generalized Anxiety Disorder screener
Treatments for anxiety
If you struggle with anxiety, there are a variety of evidence-based treatments that can help. Medication and counseling, or a combination of both, are often used to treat anxiety disorders.
How does therapy help with anxiety?
Working with a licensed mental health professional can help you understand anxiety’s functions and the impact it has on your life. Cognitive-based therapies, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have strong research support for the treatment of anxiety. Cognitive therapies help by teaching coping skills and addressing unhelpful thought and belief patterns.
Mindfulness-based interventions are also effective in managing anxiety symptoms. Counselors who use mindfulness interventions focus on grounding, using breath to calm physiological stress, and practicing awareness of the present moment.
At Marriage and Family Counseling Center, therapists use a combination of evidence-based interventions to provide high-quality care for clients with anxiety.
If you’re ready to start counseling, click here to learn more about our team of clinicians.