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  • Writer's pictureJosh Killam, LPC

Understanding Anxiety


Anxiety, a familiar yet often misunderstood experience, affects many worldwide. It is more than just a feeling of stress or worry; anxiety can be debilitating and impact various aspects of our lives. In this, we will delve into the depths of anxiety, drawing from expert insights and personal experiences to better understand this complex experience. By the end, you'll have valuable tools to navigate the turbulent waters of anxiety and find a path to inner peace and well-being.

Defining Anxiety

Anxiety is a natural response to stress, danger, or perceived threats. The keyword here is natural. At the proper levels, anxiety is necessary and helpful for navigating day-to-day experiences. It prepares our bodies to respond to potential challenges, often referred to as the "fight-or-flight" response. While this response can be helpful in certain situations, chronic or excessive anxiety can be overwhelming and detrimental to our mental and physical health.

When trying to understand anxiety as a helpful signal, looking at it in terms of where you are putting your attention is helpful. In my book Pieces to Becoming You, I discuss in detail the value of attention and its role in anxiety. Anxiety, when in its appropriate place, acts as somewhat of a guide to the world by accentuating potential dangers or formidable challenges. It helps us call attention to dangers so we know they are there and can do something about them. Anxiety also helps to highlight opportunities for growth and reward.

You might be asking how does anxiety help us grow? Most often, but not always, growth or change requires some form of challenge or discomfort. This manifests in various forms, but at its core, growth involves adversity. In a way, anxiety is designed to point out hard or dangerous things. Adversity can be harmful and even traumatic if not approached correctly. If you identify something hard and your anxiety is over-extended or out of control, you will most likely interpret what you see as too big and scary to overcome and must be avoided. Thus, your anxiety reinforces that, in this context, you are weak and incapable of overcoming challenges.

Alternatively, suppose your anxiety is operating appropriately (meaning not debilitating). What you identify as scary or dangerous can provide an opportunity for growth. Imagine that there is a new opportunity presented to you at work. This opportunity requires skills that are just outside of your area of competence. As a result, this opportunity involves risk, which can elicit anxiety. In this scenario, anxiety is appropriate. It helps you identify the severity of the opportunity. The stress from the anxiety signals you to rise to the occasion and meet the demands of the opportunity. In short, anxiety can help you realize what a big deal an opportunity is and help you take it seriously.

However, if you adopt the belief that anything you feel anxious about is dangerous and something to be avoided. The opposite of growth can occur. It can wound you. Your anxiety becomes a runaway train. You may learn to believe that you are weaker and afraid of everything. Understanding that anxiety can be a call to action rather than a problem is vital to finding ways to heal or improve. Whatever area of life you want to grow in, ask yourself what are you afraid of or feel anxious about?

Understanding the Different Types of Anxiety and Their Impacts

Anxiety is a broad term encompassing various anxiety disorders, each with unique characteristics and triggers. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) involves excessive worry and fear about everyday situations. At the same time, Panic Disorder leads to sudden and intense panic attacks. Social Anxiety Disorder is characterized by a fear of social interactions. Specific Phobias center around irrational fears of particular objects or situations.

Anxiety labels can be helpful in understanding and communicating about the specifics of your anxiety when it has become pathological (problematic). What does it mean when your anxiety becomes a problem? It is generally a problem when it prevents you from engaging in some aspect of daily life. When your activities are limited as a result of anxiety symptoms. For example, going to work or spending time with friends and family. When you desire to spend time with friends, but your anxiety limits your willingness/ability to act on that desire.

An important note here: Just because your anxiety is targeted towards something particular might not mean that "work" or "social events" are the problem. I often hear, "I have social anxiety, so my problem must be being around others." No, not necessarily.

Anxiety and its impacts wield a profound influence on our lives, extending its reach far beyond the boundaries of our thoughts. Its presence often fuels avoidance behaviors, curbing our willingness to engage with life's opportunities. This emotional weight transcends the realm of the mind, triggering a host of physical responses—racing heartbeats, clammy palms, and unsettling sensations in the gut. All of which can result in psychosomatic ailments such as stomach problems and high blood pressure.

Also, it is essential to understand that if you develop an anxiety disorder, you are capable of healing. An anxiety diagnosis is not something you must live with, which means that you can learn again to use your anxiety effectively. The truth of anxiety is that with or without an anxiety disorder, there is no ridding yourself of anxiety. So, we might as well learn how to use it for its intended purpose.

Exploring the Root Causes of Anxiety

While anxiety can sometimes arise from specific situations or traumas, it can also stem from deep-seated beliefs and unresolved emotions. Past experiences, negative thought patterns, and unrealistic expectations of ourselves can all contribute to anxiety. Hypervigilance (anxiety) is a commonly learned tactic to stay safe in unsafe experiences. Exploring these root causes can provide valuable insights into our triggers and pave the way for healing and personal growth.

One way to understand the root cause of anxiety is to identify it as a solution to some problem experienced in life. This problem can be chronic, like growing up in a broken home, or acute, like an unexpected physical assault. In both instances, the mind can make meaning from these experiences that require anxiety to be ever-present and necessary even when inappropriate to the situation.

Practicing Self-Care as an Antidote to Anxiety

As my book and previous blogs discussed, self-care is a powerful tool for managing anxiety. By prioritizing our physical, emotional, and mental well-being, we can build resilience and coping mechanisms to better navigate anxiety's challenges. Engaging in regular exercise, maintaining a balanced diet, practicing mindfulness, and seeking support from loved ones are all essential aspects of self-care that can make a significant difference in managing anxiety.

Taking this a step further, self-care can allow you to understand and repair the emotional necessity of your anxiety. I want to avoid being too technical, so I will use a software metaphor. It's as if your operating system has a bug in it that automatically shuts down your web browser as soon as you open it. A software engineer opens the code, identifies the bug, and recodes it to operate as intended. You and a therapist can identify why behind your anxiety working ineffectively, disconfirm this why, and then rewire with effective learning.

Learning to Accept and Identify Our Emotions

One of the most critical steps in understanding anxiety is learning to accept and identify our emotions. Rather than suppressing or avoiding them, we must acknowledge and explore what we are feeling. Journaling, talking to a therapist, or joining support groups can offer safe spaces to express our emotions and gain valuable insights into our anxiety. First, identifying feelings and then exploring them allows us to work towards understanding the emotional necessity of anxiety. Insiticntually anxiety tells us to run and hide from our emotions and the things that scare us. It might feel counterintuitive, but my message is run towards the anxiety.

Seeking Professional Help

While self-help strategies can be beneficial, seeking professional help is essential if anxiety becomes overwhelming or interferes significantly with daily life. Trained therapists and mental health professionals can provide personalized guidance and support tailored to individual needs. They can also help you identify the all-important emotional learning that necessitates your anxiety. Thinking on our own is challenging, but having that other person listen and reflect back (among other things) what they are hearing can often be the catalyst for that next step in healing.

Understanding anxiety is a journey that requires self-compassion, patience, and a willingness to explore the depths of our emotions. By recognizing anxiety as a natural response and proactively managing it, we can find empowerment and healing. Incorporating self-care practices, exploring the root causes of our anxiety, and seeking professional help when needed are all valuable steps in navigating the turbulent waters of anxiety. Remember, you are not alone, and with the right tools and support, you can find inner peace and well-being.

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