What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural emotion, one that we all experience occasionally along with happiness, sadness, anger and all the others. Under normal circumstances anxiety comes and goes without incident, a fleeting messenger that passes by just as our thoughts come and go. This is how emotions work, they are messengers attempting to draw our attention to something. In much the same way as we feel pain if we touch something hot, we feel emotional pain if we experience something emotionally disturbing or stimulating.
Anxiety is uncomfortable, and can range in intensity from a mild feeling of unease to a more intense fear which is often accompanied by a number of physiological symptoms. These symptoms are not dangerous in any way and anxiety cannot harm you, no matter how unpleasant or intense it may become. The symptoms are generally caused by the release of stress hormones (primarily adrenaline and cortisol) into the organs and bloodstream. This is part of the fight-or-flight response controlled by the part of the brain called the amygdala, a state that is invoked to enable us to respond to threats, and stems from our ancestral need to flee from predators or other dangers.
Some people experience more anxiety than others, just as some worry more than others and some people are of a more happy disposition than others, but we do all experience anxiety to some extent.
As an example, the kind of anxiety you might feel when you’re about to give a presentation or perform in front of an audience is quite normal and experienced by most people to some degree. Many people would call this nervousness, and essentially it is the same thing in these situations – you know what you are nervous or anxious about, and therefore it can be explained. If you were to be told that you no longer had to give the presentation, the symptoms would most likely subside very quickly. Therefore, cause and effect can be linked.
Anxiety has the job of alerting us to threats, the problems arise when the source of the threat is either not obvious or not real.
Anxiety stems from our limbic system, part of what is commonly referred to as our lizard brain because it is the oldest, most primitive part of our brain. Since anxiety’s job is to keep us safe, the brain errs on the side of caution and adopts a better-safe-than-sorry approach, which means that any kind of perceived threat can set it off. And the key here is the word ‘perceived’ – quite often the perceived threat may not actually exist at all, and this is where it becomes a problem.
How Does the Amygdala Work?
The amygdala stores data during stressful or threatening situations, so that it can recognise future threats. For example, if you’re mugged in an alleyway at night in the rain, each of these aspects of the scenario will be stored as part of an event that was potentially life-threatening, and any one of these aspects could trigger anxiety for you in the future because of this association with just one event. So you could find yourself anxious when you go out sometimes but not others, it may take you months or even years to realise that it’s only when it’s raining and dark that you feel anxious. If there was a dog barking at the time of the attack, you may find that dogs barking put you on edge.
Also worth noting is that you may have no recollection of the traumatic or stressful event, or any of the aspects associated with it, which forms the basis for your current issues with anxiety. Your brain remembers everything, and processes it in a way that is prioritised with the single task of protecting you.
In this way we come to see that anxiety is our friend, albeit a sometimes overprotective friend.
Do I have Anxiety Disorder?
An indication of anxiety disorder is when you start to experience these same feelings for no apparent reason, so anxiety without an attributable cause. You may be doing some gardening or driving the car and all of sudden feel a sense of unease, a feeling that something is wrong or something bad is about to happen, with no knowledge of what is causing it or where this sudden fear has come from. A very common characteristic among sufferers is to wake in the morning already feeling anxious for no apparent reason, or to awaken during the night with palpitations and a sense of dread.
Another indicator would be a disproportionate level of anxiety in response to a situation that is not at all threatening. For example, in the case of the presentation if you were to be so anxious that you are shaking uncontrollably and having breathing difficulties then, given there is no immediate threat to your life, this would be considered a disproportionate response and an indicator that you may have (or be developing) an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorder is generally diagnosed when anxiety becomes overwhelming, when it starts to have a detrimental impact on our general wellbeing or ability to complete day-to-day tasks. Anxiety disorder is characterised either by an elevated baseline level of anxiety or by frequent, intense and disproportionate episodes. These episodes can be either with or without an attributable cause, but in cases where a cause can be identified the anxiety experienced is usually disproportionate to the actual severity of any threat.
An anxiety disorder can make everyday tasks such as working, parenting and generally enjoying life such a challenge that sufferers often start to avoid these things. It is at this point that the disorder is fully established and we become afraid of the anxiety to such an extent that we start to sustain the condition and perpetuate the cycle of fear.
What is a Normal Level of Anxiety?
It’s a common misconception that people without anxiety disorder glide effortlessly through life with no anxiety at all, but this is not the case. According to the experts I’ve spoken to (including doctors, neurologists and psychologists) the normal baseline anxiety level is considered to be around 0-2 out of 10 (10 being the highest.) So, if you’re experiencing a baseline level of around 3-5 then you are possibly developing anxiety disorder. If your baseline level is 6 or more then it’s likely you do have anxiety disorder.
Baseline in this context would be taken across several days or more, and not during a time of unusual stress, since this would elevate the numbers in most cases anyway.
Don’t be Alarmed by Labels
It’s important not to let the diagnosis of anxiety disorder add to your stress. It’s just a label, it exists solely to allow doctors and other professionals to allocate the appropriate medications or other course of treatment.
The Prognosis is Irrelevant
I would also advise against paying too much attention to any prognosis (i.e. what you’re told will happen next, after diagnosis) since these are based on data and experience, but not on you as an individual. Most doctors, for example, and even some therapists, do not believe you can overcome anxiety disorder and that you must learn to cope with it.
In most cases doctors will prescribe medications (benzodiazepines or SSRIs being the most common.) Don’t forget, if you go to a doctor of medicine, they will most likely prescribe medicine – that’s they’re job. If you go to a nutritionist with the same issue, they will look at resolving it via nutrition.
You’re Not Alone
Figures vary but the general opinion is that around 1 in 5 adults (20%) in the western world have some degree of anxiety disorder. So, if you are one of these people, you are by no means alone, despite how alone you may feel. A growing number of children and teenagers are now also developing anxiety disorders, partly due to the increased exposure to technology and the stresses of social media.
Perhaps more surprising is that many famous people have the condition, people who outwardly appear as supremely confident and self-assured. For example, Ryan Reynolds uses a meditation app to control his anxiety before shooting a scene and struggles despite his enormous on-screen success. Lady Gaga often cries before going on stage because she has such low self-esteem and thinks she will fail and disappoint her fans.
So, to summarise – the between anxiety and anxiety disorder:
- Anxiety is an emotion.
- Anxiety disorder is when anxiety becomes a problem, interfering with everyday life.
- Anxiety comes and goes, like any other emotion.
- Anxiety disorder is sustained, persistent and requires intervention.