What is Anxiety?
Anxiety, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), is the anticipation of future threat. It can be considered developmentally normative, where natural levels of anxiety are often associated with muscle tension and vigilance in preparation for future danger, and cautious or avoidant behaviors. This is not to get confused with fear, however, which is the emotional response to real or perceived threat (APA, 2013). Anxiety is not an emotion, but rather a biological reaction that can be experienced through our muscles, our mood, our mind, and our sleep.
Why Does It Matter?
Anxiety, like other features of the human experience, plays a role in what we think, feel, and do in our daily lives. As referenced in many psychology blogs and supporting literature, there are “healthy levels of anxiety” that serve to move us forward in life, but not all anxiety is created equal. When anxiety inches out of the “healthy” space and begins to interfere with our social or occupational functioning, and worry, a predominant feature of anxiety and related disorders, becomes inhibitory, this could indicate there is a clinically significant impairment of anxious distress.
The clinical threshold between normal adaptive anxiety in everyday life and distressing pathological anxiety requiring treatment is subject to clinical judgment (Crocq, 2015). If you’re wondering which category your anxiety falls into, contact the New York Behavioral Health (NYBH) team to schedule a free consultation with one of our clinicians.
Anxiety Versus Anxiety Disorders
Though anxiety is a naturally occurring experience that can be monitored and controlled in our day-to-day lives, anxiety disorders have a larger and more substantial impact. In an anxiety disorder, the worry is difficult to control, and apprehensions about anticipated or perceived threats are often hard to temper. Among the anxiety disorders classified in the DSM-V are Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Selective Mutism, Agoraphobia, and Specific Phobias, which are including, but not limited to, animals, blood, and injury.
The History of Anxiety
First described by Canon in 1929, the fight-or-flight response (effectively now known with the addition of “freeze” in its name) is the immediate physiological reaction that occurs when danger or a threat to survival is perceived (Milosevic & McCabe, 2015). With this framework in mind, anxiety is activated instinctively as a protective mechanism to shield ourselves from danger.
From an evolutionary viewpoint, anxiety is adaptive as it promotes survival by inciting persons to steer clear of perilous places (Crocq, 2015). Historically speaking, anxiety has been our front-line bodily indicator to warn us of threat and prepare us for danger. However, looking through a modern lens, where these dangers no longer exist imminently, our fight-or-flight response is still triggered when individuals are exposed to feared stimuli, activating anxiety.
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How to Manage Anxiety
When thinking about how to manage anxiety, looking at your health in other capacities is the first place to start. Ask yourself how are you eating, sleeping, and moving? Proper diet, sleep, and fitness for your age range (and medical considerations) set the foundation for healthy living, where anxiety can sometimes be managed without the addition of other practices. Not only do these basic principles of a healthy lifestyle help to reduce regular anxiety from arising, but they can also help combat symptoms of anxiety after they have surfaced.
Another important addition to a healthy lifestyle for managing and reducing anxiety would be incorporating a mindfulness and/or meditation practice into your routine. According to MacDonald and Olsen (2019) mindfulness has been robustly associated with psychological health, predicting greater well-being, and lower levels of anxiety, depression, and stress across samples. The impact of mindfulness meditation on the reduction of anxiety and related features cannot be overstated.
Cultural Considerations for Anxiety
It is important to note that anxiety affects different people in different ways. It can stem from temperamental, environmental, genetic, and physiological sources. There is also variation within how it is experienced, where some experience the somatic symptoms more prominently (such as fatigue or irritability), while others more strongly experience the cognitive symptoms (such as difficulty concentrating or mind going blank). Social context should also be considered, as the intersection between culture and environment can yield unique social circumstances salient to a person’s individual experience with anxiety.
Resources for Anxiety
There are many relevant resources for anxiety, as it has been well studied and documented in psychology literature. Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) are great places to start if you are looking for general resources on anxiety that are also reputable and rooted in fact. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) is also a quality resource for relevant information. You can also go to the NYBH website which has some general information on anxiety and ways we can support you if you are experiencing it!
Anxiety, as it is experienced by individuals all over the world, is a biological mechanism meant to help us, but for some, it can end up being more hurtful in the process. As it is an inherent feature of our fight or flight response, we want to listen to what it is telling us, but respond in a way that is healthy and appropriate for what we are experiencing. It can have a different impact from person to person, but ultimately it is a physiological tool geared towards alerting us to danger, and keeping us out of harm’s way. If you are having trouble “befriending” your anxiety, and it is negatively impacting your ability to function in your day-to-day life, reach out to a New York Behavioral Health therapist to help you manage your anxiety, and meet your needs.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders
(5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Cannon, W. B. (1929). Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear, and rage. Oxford, UK: Appleton.
Crocq, M. (2015). A history of anxiety: From Hippocrates to DSM. Dialogues in Clinical
Neuroscience, 17(3), 319-325. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.3/macrocq
MacDonald, H., & Olsen, A. (2019). The role of attentional control in the relationship between
mindfulness and anxiety. Psychological Reports, 123(3), 759-780.
Milosevic, I., & McCabe, R. (2015). Phobias: The psychology of irrational fear. Santa Barbara,
CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC.