In first grade, my teacher called me a worry wart. First. Grade. I got stomach aches and bloody noses and worried about stuff an eight year old couldn't control. I dreaded field trips. I called my mom to pick me up in the middle of the night if I tried to spend the night away from home. And I couldn't sleep the night before something big was supposed to happen. Like say, a visit from Santa Claus. I've chilled out a lot as an adult, but I still get anxiety once in a while. For instance, when I decided to go to grad school in a city I'd never been to and take out a bunch of student loans for a social work degree. I'm not ashamed to admit that I lost some sleep before that move. But what is anxiety and why do we get it?
As it turns out, anxiety isn't all bad. It's what some folks might call a biological imperative. In other words, we need a little anxiety to survive in this world. Anxiety helps us get out of harm’s way and prepare for important events, and it warns us when we need to take action. For example, if I wasn't at all concerned about paying rent, I might end up homeless.
You might be surprised by the number of definitions that come up when you search for the term anxiety in Google. The gist of it is that anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. Sometimes it is described as the desire to do something, typically accompanied by a feeling of unease. That definition sounds like it fits with my anxiety about going to grad school. I really wanted to do it, but I was nervous about whether I would do well and if I'd like my new city.
So what happens when anxiety goes into overdrive? Or persists even after we are physically or emotionally safe? Or keeps your eight year old from spending the night with her best friend? When anxiety interferes with your daily activities, you may have an anxiety disorder.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America (ADAA), the term "anxiety disorder" includes generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder and panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, selective mutism, separation anxiety, and specific phobias. Each anxiety disorder has different symptoms, but all the symptoms cluster around excessive, irrational fear and dread.
So how can you tell the difference between healthy, everyday anxiety (the kind that keeps you sheltered and alive) and an anxiety disorder?
The ADAA has a chart to help:
If you identify strongly with items in the right column under anxiety disorder, there is help and hope. Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses affecting children and adults and they are highly treatable.
You may have guessed that I did get that social work degree and it turned out pretty great. I'm less anxious now because of actions I take to care for myself. I find a home yoga practice is excellent at relieving stress and anxiety. If you're interested in yoga and have no clue where to start, check out Yoga with Adriene. She's a local Austinite with some amazing and free online yoga videos for all levels.
I also try to remember to slow down and pay attention to my breath. If I notice I'm feeling a bit anxious, I stop and take a few long, deep breaths in and out. Here's a link to six breathing exercises that you might find helpful.
In my next post, I'll talk about some more tips for managing and overcoming anxiety. If you need help now, please call me or another professional in your area. I offer potential new clients a free 20 minute consultation. And if you're in crisis or it's an emergency, call 911.
I'm curious about the ways you cope with anxiety. Feel free to email me or comment below with your own suggestions.