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Stress and worry are normal aspects of life which can help us function but can sometimes lead to anxiety. When anxiety persists and starts to affect people's enjoyment of everyday life, it may be diagnosed as a disorder and require professional help.

What is Anxiety

Stress is a natural part of life and something we all experience at some point or another.

It is a normal emotion that is there to help us cope with difficult, challenging or dangerous situations. Stress is common and there will often be times when we all feel worried, anxious, uptight or anxious. But it becomes a problem when it takes the form of anxiety and stops you from enjoying normal life by impacting upon work, family relationships, friendships or social life.

Stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably but this is problematic as they are actually different things. Stress is typically from a known source – such as being under pressure or feeling frustrated by something. However, anxiety is more accurately described as a feeling of fear or dread and may not have an obvious cause; in fact those with anxiety disorders can often wake feeling anxious for no clear reason, although its root cause may be chronic stress. Indeed, people who have persistently high levels of stress hormones are more likely to go on to develop a problem with anxiety.

Sensations Associated with Anxiety

Emotions such as fear and anger are regulated by our limbic system which includes several structures in our brain such as the amygdala which is like a guard, continually looking out for possible danger. When a potential threat is detected we go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Our bodies release stress hormones (primarily adrenaline and cortisol) into the bloodstream which kick-start biological processes and responses to enable us avoid danger. These enable us to be ready for action and respond quickly by making us feel more alert and making our hearts beat faster so they can send blood around the body to where it is needed.

There are a number of physical sensations which arise as a consequence of our body's natural 'flight or fight' response to a challenge. The body produces them to prepare us for physical action in response to danger and we may notice the following changes:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Tightness in the chest

  • Feeling dizzy or light-headed

  • Palpitations (thumping in the chest)

  • Muscle pain, such as head and neck pain

  • Needing to urinate/defecate

  • Shaking

  • Perspiring

  • Dryness in the mouth

  • Feeling unable to swallow

  • Visual disturbances such as blurred vision

  • 'Butterflies' in the stomach or feeling nauseous.

Once the event has passed, our bodies produce hormones to enable us to relax which can initially cause shaking to enable our muscles to return to normal. However once the event has passed, so do the sensations and we return to normal.

However on occasion, how we think about the event or behave afterwards can lead it to become more problematic. Sometimes there may not be an obvious trigger (such as an event like an interview or test) for these sensations but they may arise more as a result of how we think about ourself and the world. For example, we may worry about things not going right/something bad happening (such as fear of illness), not achieving our goals or that we won't be able to cope with a situation and this can lead to an anxiety disorder.

When does normal anxiety become a disorder?

As stated, anxiety in response to events that we need to react to is normal. However, this natural response can become a problem if it impairs your ability to live your life fully.

For example, anxiety may be problematic for you if:

  • The anxiety feelings or sensation are very powerful or last a long time

  • Fears or worries you are having seem disproportionate to the situation

  • You change your behavior to avoid scenarios that might cause anxiety

  • Worries that you experience are very distressing or difficult to manage

  • Anxiety symptoms happen frequently or include overwhelming anxiety such as panic attacks

  • Enjoyment of everyday life is affected.

Sometimes symptoms fit a group of medical criteria, leading people to be diagnosed with a particular anxiety disorder: such as panic attacks, social anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder, for example. However people can also experience problems with anxiety without being given a specific diagnosis.

Some argue there is a distinction between anxiety and fear: anxiety is a generalized reaction to uncertain or unfamiliar threat or an internal conflict; fear, however, is more about being focused on known or anticipated external danger. This distinction is important because it is the very nature of anxiety – the uncertainty – that can lead to problems. The sense of uncertainty in situations leads to a feeling of lack of control that feeds feelings of anxiety and makes it harder to cope. Some people may feel as though they are “losing their mind”, that they might die, or that there is something wrong with them that needs “fixing”.

Because each person has a unique constitution, the type, number, intensity, and frequency of anxiety symptoms will vary from person to person - some people respond to uncertainty in one way and others in another. For example, one person may have just one mild anxiety symptom, whereas another may have all anxiety symptoms and severely. In fact, research suggests that different anxiety disorders even affect the brain in different ways. People have different vulnerabilities and personality styles which affect their ability to cope and adapt to this normal part of life that is stress and worry.

Therefore recommended treatment will differ according to the determined etiology or cause, although there are a number of recommended self-help approaches that people might utilize before seeking formal help.  

Final thoughts to take away

In summary, it is important to remember that anxiety is normal and is something that exists from our days of living a more wild and natural life, designed to protect us. It may be unpleasant part of life but one that is functional. However it can become dysfunctional and impact negatively upon our everyday life and this is the point at which we need to seek help. Anxiety disorders are thought to be experienced by as many as 40 million people in the United States; however, less than 40 percent of those afflicted receive treatment. Early recognition and intervention is key. 

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