We, as humans, need anxiety. Why? Anxiety is information.
It tells us when we must freeze, flee, or fight and mobilizes our body to respond quickly, without thinking. Without anxiety, we would not be able to avoid real threats to our well-being.
However, we also feel anxiety about imagined threats that may or may not be meaningful or real. In a sense, our minds have evolved to be extra careful about threat detection. They are more likely to evaluate things as threats than not. This way we do not miss anything that might harm us.
Also, our minds do not have an “off button.” This means that sometimes anxiety becomes a problem because it doesn’t give us useful information and contributes to our distress and avoidance.
All humans experience anxiety when they experience stressful events, such as receiving an upsetting medical diagnosis. Public speaking, social events, relationship problems, stress on the job, and financial worries are also common triggers that make people feel anxious. However, sometimes life events can trigger anxiety disorders or panic disorder. So, what’s the difference?
Your social media feed is full of divisive political talk, there are risks of layoffs due to the decimated economy, and there seems to be no clear end in sight.
In the meantime, you have a project deadline tomorrow.
You feel stressed, squeezed, and overwhelmed. You feel tired and worried, unsure about what the future holds, whether you will get done what you need to do, whether you will help your child cope with it all.
It is the middle of the night, and you can’t go to sleep. Your thoughts are racing.
What if …? Your mind can’t stay away from the stream of catastrophic worries that keep circling. Your heart pounds. You’re exhausted. You look at the clock—it’s 3:15am.
You’re out with your friends at a restaurant, laughing at a joke one has just told.
All of a sudden, there’s a sensation of your blood rushing to your ears, and your heart rate accelerates. Your hands are clammy, and you wonder whether you’re having a heart attack.
Intense fear grips you, and you feel the urge to leave, to escape the situation. You get up without excusing yourself and run for the door.
Understanding the differences between naturally occurring anxiety, worry, and panic can help people take steps to address their feelings. Knowledge of these conditions can also help individuals recognize if their condition is serious enough to require treatment.
Example 1: A Normal Level of Anxiety
This describes an individual experiencing very natural, understandable anxiety around a challenging situation. Fear of an uncertain future, memories of a difficult past, threats (both real and perceived), and confusion about the world around us are all triggers for anxiety.
Example 2: A Concerning Level of Anxiety
The second example describes an individual experiencing worry and depending on the level of distress and functional impairment caused, may indicate that treatment for anxiety might be helpful.
Worry is a mental activity that, somewhat counterintuitively, functions as an anxiety avoidance strategy, though it’s one that doesn’t work very well. It’s hard to simply stop worrying.
Typically, when individuals find themselves stuck in a worry cycle, learning acceptance and mindfulness skills from acceptance-based behavior therapy can be useful.
Example 3: Panic
This is an individual experiencing a panic attack. Panic attacks are rarer and more severe than anxiety. They can come out of the blue, without warning or provocation.
People having panic attacks can experience shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, and numbness. Some shake and sweat. Individuals struggling with panic often are very watchful for the physical sensations that might be harbingers of panic and avoid places where panic attacks may have occurred in the past. Sometimes those struggling with panic avoid leaving their homes at all.
The good news is that panic disorder is highly treatable with exposure therapy.
Sources: McLean Hospital