So what is anxiety? The word “anxiety” frequently has negative connotations. It may be associated with the feeling you get leading up to a dentist appointment, or feeling a pit in the bottom of your stomach. Many times anxiety is viewed as negative and unnecessary, and the desire for anxiety to “go away” is no stranger to us.
For some, it may come as a surprise that anxiety is not all bad. As a species, humans have evolved to adapt to our environment, meaning that traits that evolution deemed were ineffective or unnecessary (e.g., tails) were lost along the way. That anxiety is still present today signals that it is an adaptive and useful feature of survival. Lee Dugatkin, an evolutionary biologist, carried out an experiment with guppies, where he divided them into three groups: timid, ordinary, and bold, based on their willingness to confront a smallmouth bass. After sixty hours, 40 percent of the timid guppies and 15 percent of the ordinary guppies were still there. However, none of the bold guppies survived. What this suggests is that anxiety is crucial in maintaining our survival – a lack of anxiety equals to increased risk for survival. Think about it this way: if you were to go for a job interview in a week, would you do better if you were really relaxed, slightly nervous, or completely anxious? Chances are, if you were really relaxed, you would not have invested much time preparing for the interview. Conversely, if you were completely anxious, it would have been very difficult to keep your head in the game while preparing yourself. Either way, your performance when you were really relaxed or completely anxious would not have been as optimal as when you were slightly nervous. Why? Your nerves would have told you that this interview was important and that you needed to prepare for it. What it would not have done though, is take over and impact on your ability to prepare for the interview.
So why do we experience anxiety disorders?
Anxiety is the feeling of discomfort we experience in the face of danger or threat. This can be in response to a real life-threatening situation, for example being chased by a tiger while trekking the jungles of the Amazon, or in response to a perceived danger, like when we are standing in front of a crowd while giving a speech on world peace. Regardless of the situation in which we feel anxious, we are only going to feel anxious when we think that something bad is going to happen to us.
When the brain sees that we are in a potentially dangerous situation, it activates the anxiety system. This process is immediate and automatic, falling outside our conscious control. When the anxiety system is activated, we almost always experience certain physical sensations, like butterflies in our stomachs, hot or cold flushes, urgency to toilet, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and feeling clammy. For the most part, many of us are able to ride the discomfort and anxiety out, until the task at hand is complete or our levels of anxiety naturally subside.
Anxiety Disorders occur when our anxiety system becomes too sensitive and becomes activated, more readily activated, or even over-activated in the face of situations that are not objectively dangerous or a threat to our survival (for example when we are near the neighbour’s dog, when we are going to a party, or when we have to give a speech). Those who experience anxiety disorders typically attempt to escape or avoid situations because of the intense discomfort experienced in the situation. This can then lead to anxiety dominating and limiting their lives, interfering with work, socialising, and at times, even home life.
When you experience anxiety, it is not uncommon to feel like you are alone and that no one else understands what’s going on for you. However, anxiety disorders are one of the most common classes of mental disorders in Australia. A survey conducted in 2007 indicated that one in seven (14.4%) people experience anxiety disorders at any one time. Anxiety disorders have also been noted to be highly interfering across different life domains (e.g., home, work/school, relationships).
So what can we do when about anxiety disorders?
There are a variety of options when it comes to dealing with anxiety disorders. Medications and lifestyle changes, such as increasing exercise and relaxation, reducing caffeine, and other dietary changes can be helpful in managing anxiety. Psychological treatment, particularly Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has also been shown to be highly effective in treating and managing symptoms of anxiety. If you are experiencing anxiety which is impacting on your daily life, your doctor might suggest individual psychotherapy. A psychologist can help you understand your experience of anxiety, and provide you with a tailored and individualised treatment plan to manage your anxiety.
Anxiety impacts on our performance, as illustrated in the Graph
If you have been experiencing symptoms of anxiety or difficulties managing your anxiety, why not give us a call today or send us an enquiry via our Online Enquiry Form. Our team of highly skilled and well-experienced psychologists are here to help! Call us today and take that step towards living the life that you deserve!