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What is Anxiety? 

Fishtown Wellness Center / Mental Health  / What is Anxiety? 

What is Anxiety? 

By: Nathan Houck, M.S., M.A.

What is anxiety? How does a person know they are experiencing anxiety? Anxiety can typically be identified by the way it makes us feel in our body and in our mind. Anxiety symptoms can include excessive worry, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, racing thoughts, and overall difficulty sleeping. Symptoms in the body might appear as shaking/trembling, tense muscles, sweating, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, and breathing more quickly.

Why Does Anxiety Operate That Way?

As humans, anxiety serves a purpose for us. Anxiety lets us know, albeit uncomfortably, to pay attention to something. Do you have a big test coming up and feel like you aren’t prepared? Is money tight this month and you’re not sure how you are going to pay certain bills? Are you worried a close friend or family member is upset with you?
These are situations where anxiety might come into the picture. It will make you uncomfortable, physically and mentally, so that you pay attention to these topics and try to find solutions. If you are wondering how this is different from fear, look at the timing of the situation. According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety looks to the future, isn’t always clear on information, and we typically feel it for a longer period of time. Fear, on the other hand, is focused on a clear threat, in the moment, and brings about a shorter response experience in us.
Now, does it always serve its purpose perfectly? Absolutely not. Sometimes anxiety misses the mark and makes you feel uncomfortable about situations that don’t need that kind of response. You can be anxious about something even though a part of you knows that there is nothing to worry about. What’s up with that? Or sometimes you can feel a general sense of anxiety and have no idea what it is related to. What’s up with that!?

“The Lookout”

Let’s use some imagery to explore these concepts further. Imagine a ship – think old-school with lots of

SourceL David Dibert via Unsplash

sails, people running around grabbing ropes, and some person way up top scanning the horizon. That lookout person scanning the horizon has the job of spotting and anticipating danger. They need to watch out for things like icebergs, rocks, and storms. If the lookout sees the enormous tentacles of a kraken emerge around the ship, they are going to raise the alarm immediately because the danger is clear and present – this is a fear response. On the other hand, if they see a vague shadow on the horizon (maybe land, maybe pirates, maybe an optical illusion), they are going to start thinking about raising the alarm because something not entirely clear might be a danger in the future – this is an anxiety response.

We all have our own version of an internal lookout that is involved in our experiences of anxiety. Generally, this lookout can help us anticipate and prepare for situations. That being said, the lookout can also become a real nuisance if it starts seeing phantom threats or misjudges potential threats.

How Therapy Can Help Anxiety

Is your lookout having a hard time accurately identifying threats on the horizon? Do you feel like your anxiety is taking up more of your mental space than is productive? Therapy can help. Maybe you think your anxiety does a decent enough job of directing your attention to the right things, but you would like the overall intensity turned down a couple notches. Or maybe it is really impacting your ability to function and making you miserable. To that end, therapy has multiple approaches that can help.
Here are some examples of how therapy might help you manage it:
  • learning how to assess a situation and respond in a manner proportionate to the concern
  • learning mindfulness skills to increase awareness of anxiety and its nuances
  • cultivating a collaborative relationship with your anxiety
  • learning how to utilize grounding, breathing, self-soothing, or distraction techniques to reduce the intensity of anxiety experiences

Please feel free to contact us to set up a consultation.

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