Coping with Anxiety: What It Is, How It Affects Your Life, and Best Ways to Cope
If you’re reading this, I'm sure you know at least a little something about anxiety, as it's one of the most common mental health conditions. Despite how common it is, there are lots of misconceptions about what it really is and how it affects people.
As someone who has experienced anxiety firsthand, both as a kid with generalized anxiety disorder and as a teenager with OCD, I've developed a deep understanding of this condition. That's why I'm passionate about helping people dealing with anxiety, and I'm excited to share my perspective on it with you today.
Anxiety is often misunderstood, as it exists on a spectrum. While everyone experiences anxiety at some point as a natural part of being alive, not everyone experiences it to the degree of clinical-level, diagnosable anxiety. Similarly, while everyone feels sad or hopeless from time to time, not everyone experiences it with the severity of a full-fledged Major Depressive Episode.
Let's explore the difference together.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural response to stressful situations. You’ve probably heard of fight-or-flight, which is your nervous system's way of reacting to threatening, stressful, or frightening situations. For example, when you're about to cross the street and suddenly a car comes out of nowhere, you feel a surge of fear and worry that prompts you to jump back on the curb. This is your body's stress response in action, keeping you safe. This type of anxiety is temporary and acute. In many situations, it is a protective mechanism designed to mobilize you to (as the name implies) fight off danger, or flee a dangerous situation.
Another example is feeling anxious while preparing for a big presentation at work. This is a normal response that everyone experiences from time to time.
What is an anxiety disorder?
So, what sets this regular garden-variety anxiety apart from a clinically diagnosable anxiety disorder?
A few things. Frequency, severity, overall symptoms, and the effect on someone’s life and functioning. While everyone experiences that typical fight or flight mode, and occasionally worries about things, for someone with clinical-level anxiety those worries and responses happen more frequently and intensely. The worries and physical symptoms that accompany them can become obsessive, persistent, and all-consuming.
For individuals with an anxiety disorder, the stress responses go beyond brief moments of worry. Clinical anxiety can manifest in symptoms such as panic attacks, persistent physiological arousal (such as a racing heart, sweaty palms, or feeling tense), sleep disturbances, appetite changes, and repetitive thoughts fixated on worries and fears.
How can anxiety be managed?
The good news is that anxiety can be managed. It doesn’t have to remain at an intensely high level or severity forever. There are powerful techniques that can help individuals cope with and reduce anxiety. While for some people, it may never fully go away, there are many science-backed techniques and treatments that can help people live a life that isn’t controlled by their anxiety.
One category of tools is grounding techniques. These are activities that help bring your attention to the present moment and away from anxious thoughts (which are usually about the future, or rumination on the past). For instance, using your five senses to focus on things around you and describing them in detail in your mind can help you feel more connected to the present and less focused on anxious thoughts. Try picking your favorite color and then visually scanning your surroundings and identifying everything that contains that color.
Another category of tools is cognitive techniques, which involve challenging and changing anxious thoughts that may contribute to your anxiety. One common cognitive technique is cognitive restructuring, where you identify and challenge negative or irrational thoughts, and replace them with more balanced and realistic thoughts.
For example, if you're anxious about a social event and have thoughts like "Everyone is going to judge me," you can challenge this thought by seeking evidence to support it. Are there actual facts that prove this thought to be true? Are there alternative perspectives or more realistic thoughts that you can replace it with?
Cognitive techniques also involve identifying and changing thinking patterns that contribute to anxiety, such as catastrophizing (assuming the worst-case scenario will happen), overgeneralizing (applying negative outcomes to all situations), and personalizing (assuming responsibility for things that are not within your control). By challenging and changing these thinking patterns, you can reduce anxiety and gain a more balanced perspective on situations.
Finally, another category of tools for managing anxiety is behavioral techniques, which involve changing behaviors that may be maintaining or exacerbating anxiety. One common behavioral technique used in therapy is exposure therapy, which involves gradually facing and confronting feared situations or triggers in a safe and controlled manner to reduce anxiety over time. This can be done with the support of a therapist and can help you build confidence in facing situations that may have previously caused anxiety.
Other behavioral techniques for managing anxiety include self-care strategies such as regular exercise, getting enough sleep, eating enough variety and eating nutritious foods on a regular basis, and practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga. Engaging in activities you enjoy and spending time with supportive friends and family members can also help reduce anxiety and improve overall mental well-being.
In conclusion, anxiety disorders can have a significant impact on a person's life, affecting their mental, emotional, and physical health, as well as their relationships and daily functioning. However, effective treatments are available, including therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. Learning and implementing tools and strategies for managing anxiety, such as grounding techniques, cognitive techniques, and behavioral techniques, can help individuals gain control over their anxiety and lead fulfilling lives.
If you're struggling with anxiety, don't hesitate to seek support from a qualified mental health professional who can help you develop coping skills and strategies tailored to your unique needs. Please, feel free to contact us at HumanKind Psych!
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Remember, you don't have to let anxiety define your life, and there is hope for managing and overcoming anxiety with the right support and resources.
With the right tools, support, and mindset, you can thrive and lead a fulfilling life, even in the presence of anxiety. So take that first step towards managing your anxiety today, and start your journey towards greater well-being and mental health.