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Anxiety: Friend or Foe?

by Jenna Gidman, M.A.

People often throw the word anxiety around when life feels difficult, scary, and painful. Many people view anxiety negatively; however, despite being felt in times of hardship, anxiety is definitely not all bad. Learning to spot the difference between helpful and unhelpful anxiety will arm you with the wisdom to respond effectively in your daily life.

First, let’s get a working definition. Anxiety, also called “the stress response,” is your body’s natural response to a crisis or threat. It often shows up as a feeling of fear or apprehension, racing heart, or sweaty palms. While uncomfortable, this response is completely natural.

When Anxiety is Useful

Safety. Anxiety helps our species survive by alerting us to danger. The “fight, flight, or freeze” response triggers us to instinctively attack, run away, or stay still in times of emergency. For instance, imagine you’re crossing the street and see a car speeding towards you. The anxiety you feel in this moment launches you into motion, pushing you to rush toward safety.

Motivation. When a test is coming up, anxiety pushes us to study so that we walk in prepared. When we have an important presentation, anxiety keeps us alert and focused. When we feel anxious about something, it usually means we care about it. Anxiety motivates us to take action on the things that are important to us.

Empathy. Anxiety is associated with conscientiousness and the consideration of other people, and thus, in small doses can be meaningful within relationships. Research shows* that anxiety is linked to empathy in the brain. Often, people worry about loved ones and strangers because they feel sensitivity and empathy for what others may be going through.

When Anxiety is Not Useful

Everyone experiences some anxiety, but when it becomes all-consuming and interferes with your daily life, it may be a sign of an underlying mental health condition such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Coping with Anxiety

While you can’t permanently eliminate anxiety, you can reduce its impact. Here are some simple coping skills to help you calm yourself when you feel anxiety rising.

· Name your anxiety. Pause and recognize what exactly you are feeling. Often, simply describing our emotions verbally makes them less overwhelming.

· Practice deep breathing. Take slow, full inhales and long, evenly-paced exhales by counting, for instance, five counts to inhale and five counts to exhale.

· Challenge irrational worries. Notice whether the thoughts running through your mind make logical sense, or whether they are worries about unrealistic or impossible scenarios.

· Calm your mind. Focus your energy on a task like reading, journaling, drawing, or listening to music.

· Relax your body. Soothe yourself by taking a bath, listening to a guided meditation, or doing yoga.

· Release restless energy. Move in a way you enjoy, whether it’s taking a walk, swimming, dancing, or sports.

· Engage your senses. Anything that stimulates the senses can have a stabilizing effect on the mind. Try sipping a cup of tea and noticing the taste and temperature. Notice all of the colors and sounds surrounding you. Smell a scented candle or essential oil.

You don’t have to let anxiety run your life. Our therapists are here to help you manage anxiety effectively. We provide empathic, educated, and sensitive support. Feel free to reach out today to set up a free phone consultation or an in-person intake session e-mail

*Source: Knight, L. K., Stoica, T., Fogleman, N. D., & Depue, B. E. (2019)


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