Anxiety is an automatic body and mind reaction to threatening or unpleasant situations.
Everybody experiences anxiety; it is normal and an adaptive reaction for survival.
When we feel anxious, our body sends more blood to muscles throughout our body. This results in:
- Heart pumping fast;
- High blood pressure;
- Rapid breathing;
- Muscle tension;
- Face going red;
- Mouth trembling;
- Shaking voice.
When we feel anxious, our body also sends less blood flow to the left frontal cortex of the brain, causing:
- logical and rational thinking to be disabled;
- mind going “blank”;
- negative thinking.
When anxiety becomes overwhelming, we generally engage in one of or a combination of the following coping strategies which can be functional or dysfunctional:
- Avoidance—escaping from or avoiding the situations or objects causing anxiety;
- Dissociation—subconsciously separating thoughts, memories and emotions;
- Sensitisation—learning about, rehearsing and/or anticipating fear-stimulating events, situations or objects to help avoid feelings of anxiety;
- Safety behaviours—relying on something, or someone to cope with anxiety.
It is important for us to feel anxiety, because it prepares our body and mind to survive a potential threat. For example, if we encounter a snake or dangerous predator, we normally feel anxious and that results in either running away or fighting the threat.
When Anxiety becomes a Problem
Anxiety is not helpful when it becomes overwhelming and we engage in dysfunctional coping strategies that can prevent us from performing important tasks in our lives, such as working, studying, doing housework, socialising and making friends, etc.
In some circumstances, people naturally re-learn more helpful coping strategies so the anxiety does not continue to cause problems in their lives. However, for others, anxiety reactions can become stronger as they repeatedly engage in dysfunctional coping strategies.
For example, a person with social anxiety avoiding social interactions will only make the anxiety worse; a fear of dogs is strengthened by repeatedly avoiding situations where a dog is likely to be encountered.
When the anxiety reaction and coping strategies significantly interfere with everyday life, the person may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.
There are a number of different types of anxiety disorders, however, the underlying mechanisms that lead to the development of an anxiety disorder are similar.
Social Anxiety Disorder / Social Phobia: Anxiety that causes difficulties in interacting with other people, because of the fear of experiencing negative outcomes, such as being embarrassed, negatively judged and evaluated.
Separation Anxiety: Separation from significant others, such as parents and partners, causes anxiety, and the sufferer is reluctant to perform tasks independently.
Post Traumatic Stress Sisorder (PTSD): Extreme anxiety interferes with a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks, due to fear of reminders of traumatic events.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): The individual has repetitive obsessions (distressing thoughts or images) and compulsions (urges to perform specific actions to reduce anxiety level), preventing them from performing important tasks.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Anxiety about numerous situations and circumstances, such as work, study, health issues, money, death, family and friend problems, etc, preventing the individual from leading the life they want.
Agoraphobia: Anxiety about being in a place or situation where there seems to be no escape (eg open and/or crowded space in public).
Panic Disorder: Repetitive experience of panic attacks.
Treating Anxiety Problems
As soon as you find that anxiety is overwhelming and affecting your daily life, it is a good idea to consult a health professional such as a GP, psychologist, counsellor or social worker, experienced in treating people with anxiety disorders.
It can be also useful to build up some knowledge through books and online websites, and utilising some self-help strategies. However, treatment is more effective when health professionals thoroughly assess individual circumstances and implement interventions that are tailored to your unique circumstances.
Author: Yu Takizawa, B Sc (Hons), M Couns, M App Psych.
Yu Takizawa is a Brisbane psychologist, fluent in both English and Japanese. He is particularly interested in offering counselling and psychotherapy services to people who are facing cultural challenges, or problems with anxiety.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.