When most people say that they have anxiety, they are usually using a shorthand to describe a condition that they have been diagnosed with.
The truth is that anxiety isn’t a condition, it is a feeling. It can be symptomatic of a number of different conditions including but not limited to a group of disorders called anxiety disorders. On the other hand, it’s a natural emotion that is normal and healthy to feel from time to time.
So what is anxiety? What are anxiety disorders? How do you know when your anxiety is abnormal or unhealthy and what do you do from there?
What is an Anxiety Attack?
Understanding anxiety requires understanding something called the “stress response” or the “fight or flight system.” This is a natural body process that prepares you, mentally and physically, to deal with challenges. It starts with a stressor, usually some kind of perceived threat. This triggers the release of hormones, one class of the “messenger molecules” that help different parts of your mind and body communicate with each other.
These chemicals lead to a number of changes in the way in which your body works including changes that you probably don’t notice, like slowing down your digestion, and changes that you probably do notice – a faster heartbeat and faster breaths. Faster breath helps more oxygen get into your blood and a faster heartbeat helps to circulate that oxygenated blood through your body, especially to your muscles.
Usually, these symptoms come on somewhat gradually due to something that you have good reason to worry about. It usually isn’t scary, and it may even help you to do what you need to do to resolve or leave the situation.
Sometimes, however, it comes on quickly. It may be brought on by fears of things that aren’t likely to happen. Those changes to your heartbeat and breathing may be so severe that they cause chest pain and lightheadedness. You may even feel like you are going to die. This is called an “anxiety attack” or a “panic attack,” and it’s a major sign that you might have an anxiety disorder or a related condition.
Does Having an Anxiety Attack Mean that a Person Has Anxiety?
Having one panic attack doesn’t mean that you have an anxiety disorder, and having an anxiety disorder doesn’t mean that you are always having a panic attack – or even that you have them often. Above we discussed the physical aspect of anxiety but those physical aspects are brought on by emotional feelings of anxiety.
These feelings are usually worrying about or being afraid of things. Like the physical aspects of anxiety, the emotional aspects of anxiety is normal and healthy if it only happens from time to time when there is actually something to worry about. (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition suffered by people who experience high levels of stress or anxiety over a legitimately frightening event like combat, violent crime or abuse, or even bad traffic collisions).
People with anxiety disorders, however, experience these feelings of stress, fear, and anxiety most of the time, even when nothing stressful or scary is happening. These feelings may be so severe and so constant that they interfere with the way that people live their daily lives. The physical symptoms of prolonged stress can also lead to health problems.
One of the main differences between the anxiety disorders have to do with what kinds of events or fears trigger the feelings of anxiety. General feelings of anxiety that don’t seem to be caused by anything characterize “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” while fears of very specific things are called phobias. These are some of the most common anxiety disorders but there are others as well.
What to Do if You Think You Have Anxiety.
There are a number of quizzes and symptom checkers online that you can use to try to determine whether you have anxiety. None of them are substitutions for the diagnosis of a medical expert, however.
There are no real tests for anxiety, so diagnosis of anxiety disorders and related conditions is usually based on the symptoms that a patient describes to a general healthcare provider or mental health expert. Treatments may range from prescription medications, to talk-therapy, to diet and lifestyle changes. These will depend on the nature and severity of the disorder and on the preferences of the individual.
At Citizen Counselling and Coaching a number of our counsellors and coaches can provide support around anxiety. This can include identifying the obstacles to being less anxious, creating practical plans and advice through sharing techniques and models that have worked for others.
Our ‘My Anxiety Coach’ online programme and Coaching was designed for time poor busy people looking to increase their confidence and make a positive change in their lives.
Our Overcoming Anxiety page can explain more