What is anxiety?
Almost everyone gets nervous, fearful, or worried in certain situations. It’s normal to feel anxious before taking a test or speaking in front of a group. It’s also normal to worry sometimes about money, grades, health, or relationship troubles. These “worried feelings” usually go away soon after the stimulus has passed (i.e., the test or speech is over.) This is how of our “fight or flight” response normally works.
However, when these worried feelings don’t go away, become intense, or start to interfere with our quality of life, it may be time to seek professional help. Anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized Anxiety – a strong tendency to worry and be anxious about everything, or even nothing in particular. People struggling with generalized anxiety are anxious even when there isn’t a good reason to worry, and their worry is usually out of proportion with the actual situation.
- Panic Attacks – sometimes people may feel intense surges of fear that can overwhelm them within just a few minutes. They might begin trembling, shaking, sweating, breathing rapidly, feel like they’re suffocating, experience a pounding heart, increased heart rate, chest pain, nausea, dizziness, or tingling sensations. Some people who are having a panic attack may even feel like they “going crazy” or that they’re going to die. It is very frightening and distressing.
- Social Anxiety – almost everyone gets a bit nervous when they become the focus of attention in social settings. One of the most common of these is public speaking. It is normal to feel some anxiety when all eyes and ears are turned towards you when you stand up to give a report! But people with social anxiety experience overwhelming self-perceptions that they will be humiliated, embarrassed, or that others will judge them harshly or negatively. Their fear is intense, and they may even try to avoid situations that evoke these feelings.
- Phobias – phobias are intense fears or anxieties about certain specific situations, places, or things. For example, many people may be startled by suddenly encountering a snake while walking on a trail, but people with a specific phobia of snakes will have an immediate and intense reaction that would be considered irrational by people without the phobia. People with a specific phobia of snakes may not even be able to look at an image of a snake, or think about them, without having an intense reaction.
With specific phobias, there is also a very strong behavior of avoiding the feared object, situation, or place. For example, people with agoraphobia will go out of their way to avoid situations or places where they might feel out of control, might feel embarrassed or humiliated, and cannot quickly escape if necessary.
Most anxiety is connected to our body’s normal “fight or flight” response. Anxiety hormones, introduced at the right time (immediate danger) are your friends because they help you take necessary action to protect yourself or someone else. However, in some people, the fight or flight response can get triggered even when real danger is not present. Here’s a great 5-minute video explaining the process.
Self-Help, Apps, and Links for Anxiety
One of easiest and most effective ways to calm anxiety is with diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing.” Once learned, this technique can be used anywhere at any time to help you calm down and relax.
- Here is a free app that can teach you how to belly breathe
- Here’s an app with awesome nature sounds to help you relax. Plug in your headphones, and calm yourself. For iPhone or Android.
Psychological Self-Help (PSH) is pretty much what it sounds like – self-treatment for emotional and mental distress without the assistance of a trained professional. There are benefits to using self-help resources, but there also can be some downsides.
Self-help can be fast, inexpensive, and convenient. On the other hand, more serious conditions might not get timely and effective treatment. So, we offer this section with a bit of caution: don’t rely solely on self-help for intense or persistent conditions that really require professional services.
How do you know when you should see a counselor?
- Your distress is intense – some emotional or mental discomfort can be a normal part of life’s ebb and flow, but when it interferes with your ability to function and enjoy life, it may be time to seek help
- Your distress has been going on for a long time - we all have bad days, but distress that lasts for weeks or months is not ordinary
- Your distress is damaging – if your relationships, your academics, or your job is being negatively affected, it may be time to seek help
- Your sleep - is significantly affected (too much or too little)
- Unusual thoughts – especially about harming yourself or others