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The other day, I was expecting something to happen and it didn't. Or rather, it happened much later than I thought it would. Plans were changed with little warning and I felt unduly upset and anxious. A less anxious person may have been mildly annoyed, but I became visibly upset. I felt warm. My hands grew clammy. My heart rate increased. I wanted to cry, but crying felt ridiculous which made me even more upset. Additionally, the person who inadvertently incited this feeling was blissfully unaware that plans were even made and/or changed.
I told my therapist about this incident and she said, just like my last therapist had said, "Sarah, it sounds like you struggle with anxiety." She told me she does, too, and we talked about ways to manage anxious thoughts. She also told me that anxious people are often highly intelligent (back pats, warm glow), and our thoughts often jump from one subject to another quickly. We feel easily bored. We might feel on edge or impatient. Yes, I thought, yes, yes, and yes.
I never thought of myself as anxious, but I'm obviously dealing with some degree of anxiety. In an effort to understand my own brain, I thought I'd break down anxiety here: the signs and symptoms, the different types of anxiety disorders, and what can be done about it.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a normal reaction to danger; the body’s automatic fight-or-flight response that is triggered when you feel threatened, under pressure, or are facing a challenging situation, such as a job interview, exam, or first date. In moderation, anxiety isn’t a bad thing. It can help you stay alert and focused, motivate you to solve problems, etc. But anxiety is negative when it becomes constant or overwhelming, or when minor, everyday occurrences spur an anxiety attack.
Anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions rather than a single disorder, so symptoms vary from person to person. One individual may suffer from intense anxiety attacks that strike without warning, while another gets panicky at the thought of mingling at a party. I struggle to remain calm when plans change or when someone cancels, while someone else might struggle to calm intrusive thoughts and therefore suffer from insomnia. Someone else might live in a constant state of tension, or attempt to exert control over their lives in any way possible. While anxiety can be a hindrance, it is manageable. It is also the single most common mental health issue, so if you suffer from anxiety, there is no need to feel alone.
Signs of an Anxiety Disorder
If you identify with any of the following signs and symptoms, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder:
1. Feeling constantly tense, worried, or on edge.
2. Anxiety interfering with work, school, or family.
3. Feeling plagued by fears that don't seem rational but won't go away.
4. A belief that something bad will happen if something isn't done a certain way.
5. Avoiding normal or everyday situations or activities because you feel anxious.
5. Experiencing sudden, unexpected attacks of heart-pounding panic.
6. Feeling like danger is imminent without any signs of danger.
What Causes Anxiety?
I asked my therapist why I have anxiety, and she shrugged and said, "Life?" In actuality, there are a combination of factors that can contribute to anxiety. As with most mental health issues, there is no one singular cause, and no clear way to know. A few factors include: genetics, trauma, life experiences, drugs (including caffeine and alcohol), or circumstances. If anxiety is situational (like before or during a job interview), you likely know what caused it. But not knowing know why you're anxious can be very frustrating and debilitating.
What Are The Different Types of Anxiety?
My therapist told me I likely suffer from "Generalized Anxiety Disorder" (GAD), which is the most common type of anxiety. The main symptom is excessive worrying about different activities or event, having out of control thoughts, or feeling "on edge" and hyper-alert. I feel anxious when I'm not physically active and I often experience ennui. Some people also get tired easily, have trouble sleeping, or experience physical symptoms such as muscle tension or sweating.
It's common to have co-occurring conditions if you have GAD. For me, it was an eating disorder and the body dysmorphia that accompanied it. Other types of anxiety disorders include:
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Skin picking/Hair pulling
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
What To Do About Anxiety
There are lots of ways to manage anxiety: therapy, mediation, support groups, breathing techniques, and medications. I personally don't love to meditate, but I have found that staying physically active helps. I've also tried breathing exercises and I see a therapist. I participate in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps me understand the link between my thoughts, feelings, and behavior. It also helps me challenge some of my negative thoughts and beliefs. I see my therapist every other week, which is less frequent than is ideal. Finally, you can talk to your doctor about medication. Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are antidepressants used to treat anxiety disorders. Medication may or may not be necessary for you, or it may be helpful for a short period of time. Don't Google it; go talk to your healthcare provider.