What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural emotion, one that we all experience occasionally along with happiness sadness, anger and all the others. Under normal circumstances anxiety comes and goes without incident, a fleeting messenger that passes by just as our thoughts come and go. This is how emotions work, they are messengers attempting to draw our attention to something. In much the same way as we feel pain if we touch something hot, we feel emotional pain if we experience something emotionally disturbing or stimulating.
Anxiety is uncomfortable, and can can range in intensity from a mild feeling of unease to a more intense fear which is often accompanied by a number of physiological symptoms. These symptoms are not dangerous in any way and anxiety cannot harm you, no matter how unpleasant or intense it may become. The symptoms are generally caused by the release of stress hormones (primarily adrenaline and cortisol) into the organs and bloodstream. This is part of the fight-or-flight response controlled by the part of the brain called the amygdala, a state that is invoked to enable us to respond to threats, and stems from our ancestral need to flee from predators or other dangers.
Some people experience more anxiety than others, just as some worry more than others and some people are of a more happy disposition than others, but we do all experience anxiety to some extent.
As an example, the kind of anxiety you might feel when you’re about to give a presentation or perform in front of an audience is quite normal and experienced by most people to some degree. Many people would call this nervousness, and essentially it is the same thing in these situations – you know what you are nervous or anxious about, and therefore it can be explained. If you were to be told that you no longer had to give the presentation, the symptoms would most likely subside very quickly. Therefore, cause and effect can be linked.
What is Anxiety Disorder?
An indication of anxiety disorder is when you start to experience these same feelings for no apparent reason, so anxiety without an attributable cause. You may be doing some gardening or driving the car and all of sudden feel a sense of unease, a feeling that something is wrong or something bad is about to happen, with no knowledge of what is causing it or where this sudden fear has come from.
Another indicator would be a disproportionate level of anxiety in response to a situation that is not at all threatening. For example, in the case of the presentation if you were to be so anxious that you are shaking uncontrollably and having breathing difficulties then, given there is no immediate threat to your life, this would be considered a disproportionate response and an indicator that you may have (or be developing) an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorder is generally diagnosed when anxiety becomes overwhelming, when it starts to have a detrimental impact on our general wellbeing or ability to complete day-to-day tasks. Anxiety disorder is characterised either by an elevated baseline level of anxiety or by frequent, intense and disproportionate episodes. These episodes can be either with or without an attributable cause, but in cases where a cause can be identified the anxiety experienced is usually disproportionate to the actual severity of any threat.
An anxiety disorder can make everyday tasks such as working, parenting and generally enjoying life such a challenge that sufferers often start to avoid these things. It is at this point that the disorder is fully established and we become afraid of the anxiety to such an extent that we start to sustain the condition and perpetuate the cycle of fear.
You’re Not Alone
Figures vary but the general opinion is that around 1 in 5 adults (20%) in the western world have some degree of anxiety disorder. So, if you are one of these people, you are by no means alone, despite how alone you may feel. A growing number of children and teenagers are now also developing anxiety disorders, partly due to the increased exposure to technology and the stresses of social media.
Perhaps more surprising is that many famous people have the condition, people who outwardly appear as supremely confident and self-assured. For example, Ryan Reynolds uses meditation to control his anxiety before shooting a scene and struggles despite his enormous on-screen success. Lady Gaga often cries before going on stage because she has such low self-esteem.