Anxiety. You know it when you feel it. From mild discomfort to immobilizing panic, anxiety is a fear-based response to a person, place, thing, or experience. Sometimes, though, anxiety seems to come out of nowhere. One minute you’re fine, the next trembling or frozen or worse yet wondering if you need to get to an ER for medical treatment. Anxiety can be based your biological makeup–some of us are more responsive than others–caused by a medical condition, or felt as a side effect of some medications. Anxiety can be the symptom of another psychological issue, or simply another word for stress or overload.
Stress, Anxiety, or Fear
When you say, “I’m anxious” do you mean “I’m stressed out about getting all of these work projects done on time,” or “I’m afraid to tell my boyfriend I don’t want to see him any more,” or “I’m anxious because I am worried I will run out of money when I’m 75”? The effects and symptoms might be similar, but for the purposes of this article, let’s differentiate the three feeling states.
Stress is a response to over-stimulation, too much work, too much traffic, too long a to-do list, or too little down time. Ignoring stress and hoping it will go away on its own can lead to burnout and physical problems such as elevated blood pressure and other cardio-vascular health threats, unhealthy eating habits, sleep disturbance, relationship conflicts, and a profound dissatisfaction with your quality of life. You can reduce stress by changing lifestyle habits. Read more about stress at NIMH.
Fear is an emotional response to real or perceived danger. Fear elicits the fight-flight-freeze response. During this state, the body releases hormones, cortisol, adrenaline, and about 30 others as it gears up to protect itself or shuts down to protect itself. When you are hiking and see a rattle snake, you might feel fear and consider avoiding the snake or running away. You might freeze and not be able to move or think. Most people won’t fight with a snake. You’ll notice a heightened sense of awareness, a focus on the dangerous stimulus, and something like an electric current running through your nervous system. That’s a natural response to fear. When the threat is gone, so is the fear. The hormone levels and body returns to homeostasis.
Anxiety is worry or fearful anticipation of a future threat or what if thinking. Ask “Is the sky going to fall, Chicken Little?” and CL will anxiously run in circles saying the sky is falling. There is nothing real to fight or run away from, no object or situation to avoid because it’s “what if.” In other words, there is nothing you can do to protect yourself from the future threat. You are in an unsolvable state of fight-flight-freeze holding the bag of hormones, fear, and worry. You may be able to reduce worry by changing your thinking. “The sky going to stay where it is, CL.”
Anxiety might follow a recent loss or change in living conditions, health, or relationships. You might read about or see a story on the news. Or you might just wander into worry territory. Scientists don’t fully understand anxiety and continue to study its possible causes. Some forms of anxiety may be biological or genetic and require psychiatric evaluation and medication.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Therapists use the term “normalize” when we frame a person’s responses and symptoms within the context of a situation. If you feel anxious, and you want to normalize your feeling, remind yourself that we live in the Age of Anxiety. The environment we’ve created for our human existence can feel like it exceeds our capacity to adapt. The result is an unpleasant set of symptoms that are called stress or anxiety. You feel worried but may not know why. Or you feel afraid and know why but cannot stop feeling scared. Without some form of awareness and intervention, everyday anxiety can grow until it interferes with your ability to function. Why wait that long?
You might not recognize symptoms of anxiety or stress, so here is a list of the most common:
- Feeling powerless
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
- Mind racing.
- Sleep disturbance
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
- Jumbled, bizarre, rapid, slow, methodical, obsessive thoughts
- Memory impairment
- Disassociated from reality
- Feeling “nervous,” jittery, or on edge
- Restlessness. Can’t sit still.
- Having an increased heart rate
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Feeling weak or tired
- Stomach discomfort, nausea, diarrhea
- Exaggerated startle response
- Muscle tension
Many people feel a sense of panic or anxiety when they wake up in the morning. According to research, cortisol levels are highest at that time. We’re not sure why, but some thoughts are: your alarm jolts you out of a deep sleep instead of gently nudging you from light sleep state; your alarm would cause fear or stress whenever it goes off; you feel anxious during other times of the day but upon waking, the feeling is more obvious; you would rather stay in bed than get up and go to work; sleep is an escape from real worries you have while you are awake.
What can you do about stress, fear, anxiety?
You don’t need this article to learn what to do to reduce stress or anxiety. The internet, family, and friends will give you plenty of well-meaning advice:
- Exercise more.
- Eat healthy foods. Eliminate caffeine and carbonated beverages.
- Add self-care to your daily routine.
- Practice gratitude.
- Spend time with the activities, pets, friends, and family members you like.
- Turn off the television, smartphone, tablet, and computer.
- Spend time in nature.
- Sleep more restfully.
Ahhhhhh!!! That list can add stress rather than take it away, especially when you think “I should…” So, instead, let’s slow the process down.
- Take an objective look at your habits. Which ones cause you the most stress, worry, or fear?
- Pick one habit that you think you can change without a lot of effort. Change can mean eliminate, modify, or add.
- Practice your new habit for a week.
- Look back on the week. What was that like?
Let’s see what that looks like with Jake, a 35-year old software engineer.
- Jake says that the habits that cause him the most stress, worry, and fear are: eating fast, eating drive-through fast-food at most meals, working too many hours every day, commuting to and from work in rush hour traffic, fighting with his girlfriend, finances, and because he’s worried about getting laid off, he doesn’t get enough restful sleep.
- Jake wants to change all of these habits at once so he has no stress, but he’s willing to practice changing one habit for now. So he chooses to slow down his eating, which he usually does driving to or from work.
- Jake made a promise to himself that he would eat breakfast at home every day for a week and even though he’s not willing to cook for himself, he is willing to bring takeout food home and eat there while listening to calm, gentle music.
What could happen?
We can imagine three outcomes. 1) Jake would not be able to continue this new habit for the entire week. 2) He would continue the new habit for a week and learn that it made no difference in his stress level. 3) He would do this for a week and notice a big enough change in his stress level to continue this experiment for another week.
If he didn’t continue for the week, he could try again the following week, or pick up mid week and continue trying until he made it through a week without a break. If he learned that changing this habit did not change his stress level, he could move on to another experiment, such as using sleep hygiene to improve his sleep. If he noticed a big enough change in his level of stress, he could continue until this practice became a solid new habit and then add another stress reduction experiment to his week.
The point is this: life is an experiment for each of us. If you approach your life and your challenges with the curiosity of a scientist doing experiments you can learn what will work for you, not what works for most people or what authors of articles, your mom, or your best friend think will work for you. When the process of change is slowed down, you give yourself an opportunity to truly experience the results of your experiments.