Understanding Anxiety

Apr 18, 2022 | Anxiety

Anxiety is a helpful, normal human emotion.

Anxiety is a helpful emotional signal that tells us when we need to be aware of and responsive to an immediate threat or danger in our environment. Anxiety is like a smoke alarm. Smoke alarms are designed to let us know when there is the threat of something dangerous happening (i.e. a fire). When a smoke alarm detects threat, it sends off loud warning signals to get your attention. Anxiety can be seen as a similar mechanism used by the brain to keep us safe. When your brain identifies a threat, it sends off loud warning signals to get your attention. Both are designed to keep you safe and make sure you do not ignore threats that could be harmful to your well-being.

When does anxiety become disordered?

Sometimes our smoke alarm malfunctions and tells us there is an immediate threat to our well-being when none exists. Compared to “everyday anxiety,” anxiety disorders are more difficult to control, significantly affect our ability to complete day to day tasks and responsibilities, cause personal distress more days than not, and do not reflect the uncertainty or danger of the circumstances.

Anxiety is a physiological experience.

When the brain perceives a threat to our well-being, it communicates to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones then have a cascading effect throughout our body and the result is the physical sensations common to anxiety (i.e. rapid breathing, heart palpitations, trembling, etc.).

To use our previous metaphor, when the brain sets off the smoke alarm, it employs the “fire extinguishers” of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare our bodies to fight the “fire” or threat before us.

Physical symptoms of anxiety:

  • Heart racing / heart palpitations

  • Rapid breathing / hard to catch breath

  • Shaking / trembling

  • Muscles tensing

  • Sweating / hot flashes

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea / diarrhea / vomiting

  • Choking feeling

  • Stomach knots

  • Restlessness

How anxiety can affect emotions:

  • Fear / worry / apprehension / uneasiness / unsettledness

  • Shame

  • Irritability

  • Powerlessness

  • Sadness

  • Dread

  • Frustration

How anxiety can affect thoughts:

  • Repetitive or fixated thinking

  • Intrusive thoughts

  • Scenario-building bad outcomes

  • Catastrophizing

  • Fortune-telling

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Frustration

How anxiety can affect behaviours:

  • Excessive reassurance seeking

  • Perfectionism

  • Avoidance

  • Procrastination

  • Frequent checking

  • Over- scheduling

  • Changes in eating and/or sleep habits

  • Increased substance use

Free help is available and accessible through Anxiety Canada.

My Anxiety Plan (MAP) is an anxiety management program based on cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is an evidence-based psychological treatment that was developed through decades of scientific research and has been shown to be one of the most effective treatments for anxiety problems. MAP is designed to provide adults struggling with anxiety with practical strategies and tools to manage anxiety. MAP includes 6 easy to navigate units with 45 lessons.”