Anxiety is the number one mental health reason Canadians seek out psychotherapy.
Low levels of anxiety can persist for years – and many people just get used to it. People tend to start to wonder if they need to see a therapist when it starts to interfere with their work, romantic, family relationships and friendships.
One of the reasons anxiety can be hard to understand, or identify with at first, is because anxiety is normal! Yes, you read that right. It’s a normal human response to a stressor or stimuli. Anxiety is an adaptive response that all human beings have, telling us when we are in danger. When our primitive ancestors were faced with the saber-toothed tiger, their bodies were immediately flooded with hormones and chemical messengers released from their brains enabling them either run, or fight. That physiological response enabled us to survive - to physically fight, or to run away, from danger – the famous ‘fight or flight’ response.
This makes good sense, right?
Anxiety starts to become a problem when you react as if there is danger, when there in fact is no danger.
So what are some of the signs that you actually suffer from too much anxiety?
- Overreactions to Stress – perhaps a lot of time over preparing for an early morning, bad weather or some other negative event in the near future. People don’t consider their ability to cope and focus on what might go wrong instead.
- Difficulty Relaxing - An inability to relax, ease your mind of worry and constantly carrying around stress could be a sign of an anxiety disorder.
- Easily Startled – research cites an “exaggerated” startle response as a sign of anxiety. Frequently feeling on edge and startled by even the slightest, unexpected event could mean you have an exaggerated startle response.
- Difficulty Concentrating - A primary symptom of several mental health disorders, staying focused and concentrating on a task can be difficult for people living with anxiety disorders.
- Trouble Falling or Staying Asleep - Sleeping problems and anxiety often go hand in hand. Not only can a lack of sleep worsen anxiety symptoms, but also difficulty sleeping can be a sign of anxiety disorders.
- Physical symptoms - muscle aches and tension, throat/swallowing problems, trembling, nausea, excessive sweating, urge incontinence - People with anxiety can commonly experience chronic pain, including diseases like arthritis and fibromyalgia. These symptoms by themselves don’t indicate anxiety, but over time, they might be indicative of the consequences of the flood of hormones and other physiological signals that overtake our body when anxiety hits.
There are many tools and exercises you can learn to help manage anxiety.
Anxiety has a very physical, as well as thinking, or cognitive, component, so it’s important to address both.
Remember, when our ancestors were running from the saber-toothed tiger, they didn’t have time to stop and think about counting to ten! That is why we have this response – it’s built-in, to ensure our survival and safety. Breathing and body relaxation exercises are important to help bring your body out of ‘fight or flight’ mode and return to a more relaxed state.
There are many different physical exercises to try to find the right one for you. In addition, some of the cognitive, or thinking, skills a person can learn include,
- Getting more comfortable with uncertainty,
- Exploring your thoughts about the usefulness of worry,
- Improving problem solving and communication skills, and
- Finding new ways to gain support from loved ones.
For people with more severe forms of anxiety, with whom psychotherapy has either not worked or is not appropriate, or if you just want the extra support, your family physician can provide you with information about the medication options available to you. Finding a therapist trained and registered to delivery psychotherapy is as important in finding someone you trust and 'click' with. If it didn't work with one therapist, it might very well work with another.
Life can get complicated! Everyone encounters challenges from time to time they need help with, and that is a normal part of a well-lived life. Being able to name your struggle and connect the dots is an important part in owning it and enacting the thinking and behavioural changes you need to in order to reclaim your life.