Why are so many people struggling with anxiety? This was the question posed to me by a good friend over coffee this week, who was concerned about the levels of anxiety she was seeing in her workplace colleagues.
With all that is happening in the world around us – natural disasters, immigration crises, worldwide political unrest, political shenanigans, housing affordability issues, ethical and moral failures-a more appropriate question might be – Why wouldn’t we be anxious?
According to the Statistics Canada (2012)*, anxiety costs the Canadian government $17.3 billion dollars a year, affecting almost one quarter of the Canadian workforce. Improving accessibility to viable treatment for working Canadians would most definitely be part of the solution. On a personal level. Canadians need to commit to engaging in constructive action to manage anxiety before it becomes debilitating.
Anxiety begins as a normal and adaptive response that can alert us to threat. It is an unpleasant state where we have “a vague sense of apprehension, often accompanied by such autonomic symptoms such as headache, perspiration, palpitations, tightness in the chest, mild stomach discomfort and restlessness”.**It results from anticipation of a future threat, and should be differentiated from fear, which is an emotional & physical response to an imminent threat (either real or perceived). Fear can trigger a full scale “fight or flight” response, but anxiety symptoms are more pervasive, such as muscle tension, hypervigilance, worry and ongoing sleep disturbances, just to name a few. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety, Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia and specific phobias are a few of the diagnoses given under the “Anxiety Disorders” umbrella when the symptoms become debilitating.
Anxiety symptoms are commonly experienced in normal everyday situations, often if these are outside of an individual’s typical comfort zone. Their initial function is helpful, in that the body and mind are alerted to pay attention to matters at hand. Trouble begins, however, when individuals misperceive what their symptoms mean. thoughts such as “these symptoms are dangers”, and “I won’t be able to function if I become too anxious” elevate and become self-fulfilling prophecies if not curtailed and replaced with truthful cognitions.
Without understanding the function of our symptoms, we may seek to alleviate discomfort by avoiding situations that make us anxious. But in the long term, when the situations are avoided, the greater our anxiety response becomes. Avoidance reinforces anxiety. To overcome it, we must be willing to endure uncomfortable sensations and tell ourselves the truth about them. We must allow ourselves to become comfortable with our discomfort.
What about those people who seem impervious to anxiety? In reality, it’s not that they don’t have anxious symptoms when faced with new or challenging or threatening situations. Rather they may actually use their anxious symptoms as cues to increase their alertness, prepare for the challenges ahead and ultimately “up their game”.
Taking into account learned behaviours and genetic predispositions that may increase one’s proclivity to anxiety, there is much that can be done to step out of the patterns of being anxious. People who are resilient in the face of anxiety tend to:
- Recognize their physiological symptoms are just that: Symptoms of increased adrenaline and physiological arousal. they know these will pass.
- Maintain awareness of their incorrect misperceptions, challenge them constructively and replace them with more constructive beliefs. They may also limit negative information and media influences, instead looking to sources of information that inspire, encourage and support potential, in themselves and for others.
- Offer themselves no excuses. They do not allow their mood of the moment to constrict them. Instead, their motto is similar to that of my 94 – year- old father: “get up, Dress up and Show up!” Despite how they feel, they make commitments and follow through on goals and plans which have been set. Their habits and life choices reflects values of honouring and respecting themselves and others.
- Engage in intentional self car. They find ways to take themselves out of stressful life circumstances with activities and people they truly enjoy on a daily and weekly basis.
- Not shy away from challenging life circumstances. Rather than procrastinating and letting minor stresses grow into major ones, they deal with problems when still small and manageable . They look for ways to make constructive and meaningful differences in their work, family and community life.
Our normal physiological responses to challenge can limit us, or we can choose to use them to help us take on life’s challenges. The choice is ours.