Samuel was a straight A-student all the way through high school and college, so when people hear him describe how rough those time periods were for him, they’re always surprised. The truth is, while he excelled academically, he could never master the art of being social. People tended to pass this off as just the natural result of being an “introvert,” but Samuel knew this was the understatement of this century. He never missed a chance to opt out of parties and opportunities to socialize because his nerves would get so jangled by them. Sweaty palms, a racing heart beat, and all-around nervousness produced an inability to say what he wanted to any time the social pressure was on. The more anxious he became, the more he feared everyone around him noticed (though most people seemed to be wrapped up in their own worlds) — which of course, made him more nervous! Because he was such a rockstar at work, he had managed to come out of his shell some, but it was always aided by a heavy dose of whatever booze was available. He realized that “liquid courage” was perhaps one of the least adaptive ways he could cope, but he didn’t know what else to do. Partners in the company were sincerely impressed by his work abilities, but were beginning to wonder why he didn’t come around more often.
Erin was a dedicated and attractive woman who’d majored in environmental sciences in college and pursued a career in waste management with major chemical corporations for the past several years. After recently being hired as the safety director for a large company in her city, she knew her work life would change a bit. She’d anticipated that the environment would be primarily male and blue collar, but failed to realize that the very nature of her position as safety director meant regularly confronting the plant workers for safety violations, and that they would usually be resistant to change. Each time she did, she became more and more uncertain of herself and her abilities, which lead her to dread each next encounter. She didn’t sleep much at night, so she got up early each morning to spend time thinking through that day’s interactions, read up on best practices for safety directors dealing with difficult positions, and answer what were an increasingly large amount of emails from her bosses about how things were going. But none of it seemed to quell her ongoing anxiety about the sense that she had been hired for a job she couldn’t do, in spite of the fact that both her education and track record indicated that she was fully competent.
Albert was the product of a single-parent home, living with his mother in a rural area of the state until he moved to the city for college. As an adolescent, he vacillated between understanding how difficult things were for his mother, and nonetheless feeling resentful at what was poverty-driven neglect, being alone frequently while she worked. It left him feeling anxious and despairing, so high school was filled with partying and getting in trouble to avoid the whole mess. However, since starting college, Albert successfully maintained a solid B-average and waited tables to pay for rent and food. Still, though, he wrestled under the weight of feeling like he had to do it all on his own — just like he always had. School loans were piling up and so was his anxiety about how he’d ever repay them. Near the end of his freshman year, his mother moved to the area for work. He was happy at first as they developed a mother-son relationship for what felt like the first time, but found himself growing increasingly dependent on her for emotional support. While en route to her house one night, he was in a car accident that left him emotionally shaken up, and for several months thereafter, his mother drove him around everywhere he needed to go. Now, one year later, he shuddered at the thought of getting behind the wheel and mom was still driving him everywhere he went. One night when she suggested that he might like to drive, he went into a full-blown panic attack.
Anxiety can happen to anyone.
Many people wonder precisely what anxiety is, and how many people suffer from it. Anxiety can range from feeling jittery before a test or speech to awkwardness (slight or severe) in social situations. The truth is, most people suffer from it at some point in their lives as the feelings of anxiety are normal in certain situations. For example, we might consider within normal limits if you felt scared before a major life event. But that doesn’t mean it’s any fun! You know you’re suffering from anxiety if you feel your heart pounding, have an elevated pulse, experience bowel issues, sweating, stomach difficulties, difficulty breathing, and more. Anxiety can also cause difficulty staying asleep or falling asleep, problems with concentration, or thought process.
Causes of Anxiety
From a physiological perspective, times of stress induce the body’s sympathetic nervous system, more commonly referred to as “fight or flight.” We might goes as far to say that anxiety is actually “healthy” when you’re in a life-threatening situation — you want the brain to restrict its range of options to just a few, in the hopes that you come out alive! For most people, anxiety becomes problematic when “fight/flight” engages even though there is no true “danger,” because in those situations we need a broader, more creative range of responses then just these two.
Anxiety can happen almost anywhere.
Taking a test, giving a speech, performing in public, confronting your parent, boss, professor or roommate, getting married, receiving an award … almost any situation where “public demands” are put on you can make you anxious. By the way, the situations don’t have to be “negative.” Anxiety also can occur in “positive” situations – for example – a wedding, receiving an award, etc.
You may be more prone to anxiety than other people.
While disposition and genetic make-up isn’t everything, some people do seem to suffer from anxiety more or less than others. Generally, people with genuine self-confidence and positive thinking experience anxiety less than others. People who have a high tolerance for not being in control also seem to suffer from anxiety less. But genetics and heredity can also play a part — family members with a history of anxiety may have siblings or offspring with the same struggles.
Can you see anxiety?
It isn’t uncommon for anxiety to be somewhat “invisible because those who suffer from it tend to wait until it is absolutely overpowering before stepping out of denial and letting someone else in on just how bad it really is. The tragedy is that the more we deny anxiety, the more it grows.
The relationship between anxiety and other struggles.
Anxiety may also be hidden because those suffering from it may have other troubles as well, and may not align those troubles as falling under the greater anxiety umbrella. Yet, some sources suggest that a large percentage of all visits to doctors are stress or anxiety-related. If you have insomnia, TMJ, muscle tension, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, heart issues — all of these may be related to anxiety.
Anxiety may also be related to other mental health problems. Anxiety and depression often go together like a hand-in-glove, and in fact, many cases of depression never seem to get better because the underlying problems with anxiety are never addressed. If anxiety runs particularly rampant in your life for a long period of time, you body may respond by “retreating” into depression, almost as if in a cave. Unfortunately, when this happens, you now have two problems, with depression actually acting as the answer to your anxiety problem.
Finally, many people find their anxiety so problematic that they “medicate” it with mood-altering drugs. This is no doubt the reason why, for example, alcohol is referred to as a “social lubricant” — it helps us feel more at ease with ourselves and those around us and has a natural way of reducing our anxiety when we have a few glasses of wine at social functions or a few cocktails before a business meeting. The difficulty is that this approach is usually short-lived, and can cause as many problems as it fixes. The same is true with other so-called “solutions” like excessive masturbation, video games, social media use, etc.
Is there anything you can do now, on your own?
Short answer: yes! Long answer: Yes! But don’t forget that if you’re like most people in Nashville suffering from anxiety, you may have already waited too long to be able to manage this on your own. But here are some methods you can try to manage your anxiety right away:
- One: Acceptance. From a cognitive therapy standpoint, the chief problem with most people isn’t that they have anxiety, but that they refuse to accept the fact that they do. When anxiety crops up or they feel it might, these persons say, “No! I must not have anxiety!” The harder you fight, the more it grows. So, ironically, the goal isn’t to make anxiety go away, but to understand it and accept it, then work on managing it so that it doesn’t dictate how you live your life.
- Two: Lifestyle. A great number of people struggling anxiety find that an honest evaluation of their lifestyles reveals quite a lot. For example, they may find that they sleep too little, eat too much or too little, drink too much coffee, exercise infrequently, and meditate even less. Often, a change in just one of these areas goes a long way.
- Three: Prepare. Because people suffering from anxiety often avoid anxiety provoking events, by the time they’re required to face up to them, they’re totally unprepared. When you have a major life event coming, prepare for it, and then let it go.
- Four: Physical Relaxation. If you think about it, it just makes sense — it is impossible to be both physically relaxed and mentally anxious at the same time. The body is too interconnected for that. So, if you can’t iron out all of your thoughts, do some reading on effective breathing. More often than not, when we’re anxious, we’re either holding our breath or breathing very shallow. Instead of starting with the mind, start with the body, and let the relaxation flow from the body to the mind.
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(Portions of this page have been reprinted with permission from our St. Louis Anxiety Counseling site).