- Anxiety is fairly common — nearly 18% of the population has an anxiety disorder. Yet, it’s often misunderstood.
- While it’s an emotion meant to keep you safe, sometimes it’s triggered by things that aren’t threatening — and can impact you cognitively and physically.
- It’s often not rational — so changing the environment that’s triggering it can make a big difference.
- When it impairs your functioning, anxiety becomes a disorder. But the good news is that it’s treatable.
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Whether anxiety causes you to feel physically ill or keeps you awake for countless hours, it can be quite uncomfortable — and its effects are often far reaching. It can take a toll on almost every area of your life.
Developing a better understanding of what anxiety is — and how to manage it — can be key to living a better life. But anxiety is one of the most misunderstood emotions of all time. Here are seven things mental health experts wish everyone knew about anxiety.
1. Anxiety is meant to keep you safe, but your anxiety alarm is faulty
Anxiety is a normal, healthy emotion meant to warn you of danger. If you didn’t experience any anxiety, you wouldn’t run out of a burning building, and you wouldn’t look both ways before you cross the street.
But no one’s anxiety alarm bell is 100% foolproof. There will be times when your mind and your body respond as if you’re in a life or death situation — even though you’re not in any real danger.
Giving a talk in public or asking someone on a date might trigger an anxiety alarm bell, even though neither situation will kill you. Learning how to separate real alarms from false alarms is key to managing your anxiety.
Simply recognizing that your brain and body are overreacting to a seemingly harmless event can empower you to take positive action. Acknowledge that you’re not in any real danger and you’ll quiet your alarm bell enough to move forward in a productive manner.
2. Anxiety affects you emotionally, cognitively, and physically
Most people talk about anxiety as an emotion. But anxiety also affects your brain and your body.
When you feel anxious, you’re more likely to think about things that fuel your anxiety. You might ruminate on bad things that happened in the past, or you may dwell on catastrophic predictions about the future.
Your body will respond accordingly. Your heart rate and your blood pressure might increase. You might begin to breathe faster, and you may break into a sweat. These reactions are meant to prepare you for action (it’s known as the fight-or-flight response).
Knowing how to calm both your mind and your body when you feel anxious makes it much easier to face anxiety-provoking situations.
3. Anxiety isn’t rational
It’s easy to believe that your anxiety means you’re in danger. But anxiety isn’t always rational.
You might feel anxious when you’re safe and sound in your home. Or you might experience a random spike in anxiety when you’re sitting at your desk. How you respond to increased anxiety makes a big difference in how long it lasts and how intense it feels.
If you panic and convince yourself that you can’t stand feeling uncomfortable, or that your anxiety is a sure sign of impending doom, you’ll stay in an uncomfortable heightened state.
But if you embrace it — rather than fight it — you might feel better faster. Accept that anxiety feels uncomfortable, but remind yourself that you can tolerate distress.
4. You can reduce anxiety by changing the environment
One way to deal with anxiety is to address the environment. Changing the situation can change how you feel.
But it’s important to consider how you address the situation, because it can be healthy or unhealthy.
Avoidance, for example, is a common coping strategy. Avoiding your bills might temporarily reduce your anxiety. But not paying your debts creates bigger problems in the long term — and can compound your anxiety in the long haul.
Avoiding a person who constantly criticizes you, or giving yourself permission to skip out on a stressful networking event, might be healthy ways to cope with your anxiety.
Look at environmental changes you can make that will reduce your stress — while also improving your life in the long term.
5. You can reduce anxiety by addressing your emotional state
Instead of changing the environment, you can manage your anxiety by changing how you respond to the environment.
Healthy coping skills include things like going for a walk, practicing meditation, or engaging in deep breathing exercises that calm your mind and your body.
Unhealthy coping skills involve doing things that temporarily mask your emotions but cause new problems (or exacerbate existing ones) — like turning to food or alcohol for comfort or binge-watching shows while ignoring your responsibilities.
It’s important to assess the current coping skills you use. Keep in mind that everyone has room for improvement when it comes to practicing healthier ways to deal with anxiety-provoking situations.
6. Anxiety becomes a disorder when it impairs functioning
Anxiety disorders include conditions such as panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and substance/medication-induced anxiety disorders.
Anxiety becomes a diagnosable mental health condition when it has a negative impact on your social, occupational, or educational functioning.
Avoiding social engagements, arguing with someone due to your anxiety, missing days at work, or being unable to sleep are just a few signs that you may have an anxiety disorder.
7. Anxiety is treatable
Anxiety is the most common — yet most undertreated — mental illness in America.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates 18% of the population has an anxiety disorder. Yet only 36% of individuals with an anxiety disorder receive treatment for their anxiety.
An Australian study found that the average person with anxiety waits eight years to get treatment.
It’s unfortunate that people with anxiety wait to get help because anxiety is treatable. Treatment may consist of medication, therapy, or a combination of the two.