Do you want a dictionary definition? Here you go: Anxiety is… “The biggest bitch you will ever meet. Only thing is, it’s inside your head.” Okay, so while that came from the Urban Dictionary website, it’s not wrong. It certainly feels more honest and relatable than, “an emotion characterized by apprehension and somatic symptoms of tension in which an individual anticipates impending danger, catastrophe, or misfortune,” which is a partial definition found on the American Psychological Association dictionary website. But the thing is, anxiety isn’t always a bitch. In fact, it is a very normal human emotion that can be quite helpful. But the part about it’s all in your head? That holds true. That doesn’t mean the anxiety isn’t real. It absolutely is. It is incredibly, painfully, overwhelmingly real.
So, how can it be helpful? Think about when you have a test to take that you want to do well on. Or a project at work that is important for your future. Or an interview for a new job. Or an upcoming first date. These things create anxiety, and when we are able to keep that anxiety to a supportive whisper, it can motivate us to study harder, put more effort into the project, or be on our best behavior. When it is only a supportive whisper, it can guide us to make healthy, responsible choices that are in our best interest. But, when that anxiety ramps up to something that resembles a screaming coach, shouting all of our biggest fears at us, it becomes paralyzing and prevents us from doing our best. We forget what we already know when taking the test or we sound like a bumbling idiot in the interview. Or we worry so much about a project, that we can’t even get started.
Often, we can recognize that our anxiety isn’t rational. Once the anxiety has diminished, it is usually easy to see that it didn’t make sense and it was out of proportion. Rarely does the situation end up as bad as we anticipate it will be. Anxiety can overtake us quickly, giving us little time to do anything to change it. This can be incredibly frustrating. Anxiety is not only uncomfortable emotionally, it also is physically uncomfortable. We want so desperately to avoid it that we end up feeling anxious about feeling anxious – now if that isn’t a bitch. I don’t know what is.
What does anxiety look like?
Even though most of our anxiety is in our head, there are some very real, uncomfortable, and overwhelming symptoms that come with it. Here are some of the most common symptoms:
Vague complaints of “not feeling well”
Fatigue or feeling worn out
Fidgety and restless
Easily upset over small triggers
Reactions out of proportion to the size of the trigger
Feeling easily overwhelmed
Feeling “on edge”
Avoiding things you used to enjoy
Increased use of alcohol or other drugs
Getting startled easily
How is anxiety different in kids?
Just like for adults, anxiety is a normal emotion for kids. It is common for children to have fears and worries, like being afraid of the dark or worrying about making friends. But there is a difference when anxiety and worry get too big and start to get in the way of normal functioning. It can interfere with functioning at home, school, and with friends.
Anxiety often isn’t as easy to recognize in children as it is in adults. They often keep their worries to themselves so they don’t upset others. Signs of anxiety in children can be subtler and easily overlooked. In addition, anxiety symptoms can be misunderstood as attention problems like ADHD. That inability to stay focused might just be because they are stuck in their head with worries. Anxious energy might look like trouble sitting still.
Anxious children might also get clingy and be afraid to leave your side or have a parent out of sight. They might not want to go anywhere alone or be without a family member. They might ask questions over and over even though you always give them the same answer. Anxious kids often have a constant need for reassurance. They need to know whether they are doing something right, or if things are going to be okay. They are fearful and might have new fears that they never had before. They might struggle to be soothed when scared. Children with anxiety often cry more easily, even without an identifiable trigger.
What causes anxiety?
Great question! There is not just one answer to this as anxiety can be caused by many things. Anxiety can be caused by genetics. If one of your parents had anxiety, you are more likely to have it. If you have anxiety, your child(ren) are more likely to have it. But remember – that doesn’t mean it’s your fault! There can be physical causes, such as an underlying health condition or a side effect of a medication. There also can be situational factors that can increase anxiety, such as a traumatic event, life stressors (even the good ones!), or environmental factors like disease outbreaks or national emergencies. Your personality type can also make you more prone to anxiety. And, substance use can lead to anxiety. In fact, research shows that smoking actually increases anxiety despite the perceived immediate benefit of stress relief. And sometimes anxiety is learned. If we are living, or have lived, with someone who has anxiety, we can start to take on some of those behaviors and feelings. If you had a parent with anxiety, then you not only have a genetic predisposition, but you also had a model of anxious behavior that you likely learned from.
How do I get rid of it?
This is a very common question, and the answer might surprise you. The answer is, you don’t get rid of it. And truthfully, you don’t want to get rid of anxiety completely. Anxiety is a helpful emotion, in the right intensity. So, rather than get rid of it, we will work to change your relationship with your anxiety. I will help you learn how to keep it at a level that is helpful and manageable. Plus, you will have the skills you need to reduce it when it starts to creep up. You will learn how to more accurately assess the situation to determine if the anxiety and worry really make sense. In addition, if you decide the anxiety makes sense, you’ll be able to develop a plan for how to handle it so you won’t be overwhelmed by it. See? There is no need to get rid of it completely. You just need to keep it to a level that can be used effectively.
- Therapy: There are various types of therapy that can be useful for anxiety. In addition, there are also lots of strategies within these types of therapy that are effective. I will use a combination of these approaches and strategies that I believe will be most helpful to you or your child. I will listen to you when you think something isn’t helpful or doesn’t fit with who you are. We’ll talk about why and how these strategies can be helpful and if they need to be modified to work for you… or just scrapped all together.
- Medication: There are several medications that can be beneficial as a support to therapy. Medications often can be helpful in decreasing the impact of anxiety, thus making it easier for you to really do the work in (and out) of therapy. If you don’t already have a psychiatrist and are interested in considering medications, I am happy to provide you with some referrals. You can then meet with a psychiatric practitioner who can discuss this further with you.
- Other: There are a lot of other interventions and techniques outside of traditional therapy and medications that can be helpful. Eating well, exercising, getting enough good sleep, yoga, meditating, and getting outside (to name just a few) are all great ways to help manage anxiety.
- Take a breath. A nice slow and steady breath (even though it sounds simple, it works).
- Relax your body. Especially the areas where you hold anxious tension (common areas are the shoulders, hands, or jaw). This works great when combined with breathing – when you exhale, relax your body.
- Acknowledge and accept your anxiety (we’ll talk more about this in sessions).
- Remind yourself that it will pass (all emotions are temporary).
- Don’t avoid situations because of anxiety (it gives anxiety too much power).