We hear about anxiety a lot, but not everybody knows exactly what it is or what it feels like. Though anxiety is a normal human emotion, chronic anxiety can come with health issues.
Anxiety is the body’s response to stress. It often gets confused with fear, because both anxiety and fear can cause similar physical symptoms in the body. Fear is a stress response to a specific and targeted threat: For example, you’re out on a walk and see an unleashed dog barking and running toward you. You feel afraid for your safety, so your body starts preparing itself to defend against this immediate threat.
Anxiety is the same experience in response to an uncertain or abstract future threat. What if something bad happens in the future? What if there’s a dog outside? What do I do? Anxiety is an overwhelming experience in the mind. The stress that this uncertainty creates is out of proportion to the actual impact a threat would have on your life.
Common Symptoms of Anxiety
Common symptoms of anxiety include:
- Increased heart rate – your brain’s way of preparing the body to fight, flee, or freeze by increasing energy
- Short/rapid breathing – your body quickly sending oxygen to the brain so you’re more alert and prepared to face a threat
- Tense muscles – your body preparing to fight or flee
- Restlessness – your brain’s way to keep you from becoming relaxed in what feels like a threatening situation
- Hyper-focus on imagined threat – you keep noticing the “what if” so that you don’t forget you’re in danger
- Racing thoughts about threat – your brain determining all strategies and options that can keep you safe
These symptoms, though quite unpleasant, are useful if you’re under attack. They are the brain’s natural way of preparing and protecting you, but anxiety can often misfire and go into overdrive.
A lot of people with anxiety feel like they’re stuck in a loop. Anxiety goes hand-in-hand with reinforcement: your brain either encourages you to repeat actions or inhibits you from repeating them.
Anxiety starts with an unwanted experience (a thought, feeling, or sensation) that you have a natural, fearful response to. In order to prepare or get away from that feeling, you seek out a behavior to avoid or suppress this distressing experience (such as literal avoidance or seeking reassurance). The moment you feel relief from a behavior, the reinforcement occurs. Relief causes reinforcement by removing an unwanted experience. You’ve learned that this unwanted experience was intolerable and threatening, and to make it go away, you must participate in a given behavior. This is what the brain remembers the next time you encounter this threat, creating a loop.
There are many relief behaviors that just end up reinforcing your anxiety:
- Excessive avoidance – staying away from a perceived threat until it goes away
- Repeated checking – telling your brain that you aren’t safe or secure and you need to keep checking to make sure that you are
- Reassurance seeking (including online) – asking others to tell you that your fear won’t come true, which ends up backfiring when it becomes repetitive and tells your brain that you are not confident or secure
- Rumination and worry – going over the same scenario in your head, trying to solve a past or future problem in your mind like it would somehow affect the outcome
- Ritualistic behaviors (counting, repeating, superstitious acts) – engaging in acts that reduce anxiety but aren’t directly related to the anxiety itself
These relief behaviors confirm in your mind that uncertain or unwanted experiences are dangerous threats that need to be relieved.
Navigating Anxiety the Right Way
While it’s a natural part of the human experience, anxiety can start to get in the way of life. Exposure with Response Prevention (ERP) is a type of therapy that retrains the mind not to jump to action in response to an uncertain threat. Under guidance of a therapist, ERP works by putting you in situations where anxiety is likely to be present, and then helping you resist the response and resist escaping from the anxiety. It teaches your brain that it’s okay to have these experiences.
Practicing mindfulness is another way to help quell feelings of anxiety and become comfortable with uncertainty. Try to view and identify anxiety as a temporary emotion in the body. When anxiety arises, ask yourself how it feels to be uncertain in this experience? Learn more about mindfulness here and here.
Anxiety is a common, confusing emotion. Whether you experience anxious thoughts from time to time, have an anxiety disorder, or have a child with anxiety, learning more about it is the first step to managing it. Read the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s facts and statistics about anxiety here, and check out helpful coping strategies and tips here.
Jon Hershfield, MFT, Director of The OCD & Anxiety Center, was consulted for this article.