Understanding and Conquering Anxiety

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another”

William James

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal response to stress experienced by everyone. It is really a two-headed monster. When it is mild, it can energize and motivate us but when it is extreme, it leaves us with an intense, unbearable and persistent feeling that interferes with our life. 

Evaluating my own anxiety

Below are a number of common responses to feeling anxious. See how many you can relate to? 

  • Difficulty relaxing i.e. family or friends may inquire if something is wrong
  • Excessive worrying i.e. intrusive thoughts that don’t go away 
  • Frequent procrastination i.e. avoiding performance or social situations 
  • Persistent fears of failure and being a perfectionist i.e. need to receive constant reassurance from others from those close to you
  • Overwhelming spells of panic i.e. fear about performing below potential
  • Avoiding places or situations that could be difficult i.e. missing work or classes
  • Persistent concern about having anxiety attacks 
  • Significant changes in behavior as a result of anxiety i.e. using drugs or alcohol to manage 

Different Types of Anxiety

There are several different types of anxiety that people have. Here’s a few that you may be familiar with.

A person who has social anxiety will tend to have persistent fears and worry around both social or performance situations i.e. dating or giving presentations and may try avoid these types of encounters. People with generalized anxiety worry about everyday events or activities. They have a difficult time controlling worry, relaxing, sleeping or concentrating. Some individuals who have panic attacks would describe their experience as a sudden burst of intense fear that has physical consequences like a racing heart rate, pounding sweating, shortness of breath and nausea. These attacks tend to last approximately 10 minutes and occur in situations where the person perceives real danger is inevitable but in fact, rarely is. Agoraphobia may accompany these panic attacks where the fear is not having a place to escape or get help leading the person again to avoidance such as going to a mall or driving in a car away from home. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has hallmarks of recurring, upsetting thoughts called obsessions i.e. “someone is going to break into the house.” The person attempts to deal with these obsessions through compulsions i.e. checking repeatedly to see that the door is locked, which temporarily relieves anxiety.  Specific Phobias are intense, persistent and excessive fears of things such as particular animals, seeing blood, flying, or being in enclosed places. Exposure therapy to the feared object or situation can often be helpful. 

How do I Treat Anxiety?  

We know that chronic anxiety affects about 15% of the population (Bourne, 2000). But here is the good news; anxiety is treatable and is quite possible to overcome. Solving this problem requires a good deal of effort and quick fixes don’t exist. These could involve working on several behavioural skills at once which can be learned. Practitioners like Registered Psychotherapists who work with anxiety disorders will often employ a cognitive-behavioral approach because of its proven effectiveness. CBT focuses on challenging and changing unhelpful thinking distortions and behaviors, improving ways we respond emotionally and developing personal coping strategies that target solving current problems.

Why are people anxious in the first place?

Likely, it is a combination of things that may lead to a person being anxious. In families sometimes people may experience serious illness, periods of significant loss i.e. a car accident or death or life changes. According to Leahy (2003), we tend to either compensate or avoid those patterns of behaviour that worried us in the first place which can contribute to anxiety problems. Heredity also plays a role.  If you have relatives who suffer from depression, alcoholism, or other anxiety problems, this can leave you more susceptible. Additionally, if you were born being shy, cautious or introverted, you may be more uncomfortable with unfamiliar situations which may increase your vulnerability to anxiety later in life. Some speculate that the rise in anxiety over the years may be the decline we have in face-to-face social connections. Additionally, many feel a sense of heightened uncertainty about our safety in an unpredictable world.  In many situations, anxiety is maintained through the way we perceive events and the ways we think. 

Learn strategies. Use techniques. Develop a new attitude. 

Richard, a 35-year old construction manager and Change Works client, found himself hiding his anxiety from his family. Increasingly, he found himself isolating and drinking more alcohol to cope with the pain he increasingly felt. He told me he was both ashamed and embarrassed which had a devastating impact on his self esteem. Increasingly, with help, Joseph recognized that he was far from being alone in his quest to improve his situation. He found that once he no longer had to keep his anxiety a secret, he could make better decisions about his health and relationships and was more open to receiving some additional support he needed. He realized that his anxiety was not a character flaw and that it no longer needed to be a secret. He came to the conclusion that he had only so much energy and that constantly worrying about how others perceived him was draining and unproductive. Joseph realized that he didn’t have to watch and wait for anxiety; that he was able to develop a plan, set goals and move forward with his life.

As you might know, directly confronting the physical symptoms and situations is often a successful strategy in treating anxiety. Let’s take a look at Carol’s situation. Carol was a university student who was diagnosed with social anxiety by her family doctor. She was always shy and had an extremely difficult time meeting new people, interviewing for summer jobs or making presentations in her classes. Her therapist coached her on ways to help her consider her feared situations, how she perceived them and the negative patterns of behaviour she had in the past.  She needed a new script! She began to literally invite anxiety to happen and discovered step by step, that she could cope. Carol learned that when you invite anxiety instead of running from it, the balance of control shifts to you. By consciously choosing to face fears, you increase your sense of self-confidence and build your resistance to anxiety. You do not have to hide from anxiety, you can face it, even if the result is uncertain or the results are not perfect.

Lifestyle Changes to Improve Anxiety Management 

Make a decision to take charge of better managing your anxiety by making some or all of these strategies a part of your life:

  • Eat healthily, exercise regularly, and get a good night’s sleep. 
  • Eliminate or reduce drug and alcohol use 
  • Engage in enjoyable activities on a regular basis is an essential element in your self-care toolbox. Play!
  • Seek and accept support. Everyone needs someone who will listen or offer ideas.
  • Get a medical screen and do some work to understand your symptoms.
  • Be open to taking gradual risks that you can benefit from
  • Learn anxiety-management strategies (e.g., respiratory training). 
  • Avoid expecting perfection and learn to say no. 
  • Work on being better at identifying, accept, and expressing feelings. 
  • Seek professional assistance for difficulties like problems in relationships or substance which can increase anxiety. 
  • Expect possible setbacks. Keep going!
  • Imagine your success through goal setting 
  • Give yourself credit for beginning and maintaining progress!

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Kevin Waldbillig

Kevin Waldbillig

Registered Psychotherapist, Director of Change Works Interactive