The spectrum of anxiety
Fear and anxiety are a natural part of human existence. The amygdala – part of the brain’s limbic system, which represents the most primordial parts of the brain – instantaneously sets forth a series of processes when it interprets something as threatening. Our brains are hardwired to react to dangerous situations in order to protect us from potential harm. This well-known fight or flight response is inherently adaptive, but sometimes our brains can misinterpret threats or become particularly sensitive to being switched on. When this happens, a person might feel at war with their mind and unable to control these reactions. Thus, it’s important to explore the difference between healthy and unhealthy anxiety.
“It’s important to first draw a distinction between fear and anxiety, although they go hand in hand. Fear is a reaction to a real or perceived danger while anxiety is anticipatory of future threat. Fear is immediate and intense. Anxiety is less intense but prolonged” states Christine Menna, LMSW and associate therapist at Gateway to Solutions.
Healthy anxiety occurs intermittently and in response to particular life events or circumstances. It takes on a helpful role – encouraging focus, motivating toward goals, and realistically considering threats. For instance, when an important exam looms on the horizon, anxiety motivates us to focus and study, helping us to perform at our best. Or if you are taking a hike in the woods, you might be on the lookout for a snake or a dangerous animal.
But what happens when anxiety takes on a different role, overwhelming our lives? When we move to this extreme end of the spectrum, there are notable markers that signify that anxiety has become an issue. These include disruption in general daily functioning and ability to carry out responsibilities; difficulty focusing and decreased performance; out-of-proportion reactions to possible stressors; excessive worry; fear of losing control; physiological manifestations such as muscle tension, heart palpitations, dizziness and nausea (among others); and panic attacks, a specific fear response that is associated with many diagnoses. Importantly, anxiety disorders are not a one size fits all category but represent a range of conditions, including generalized anxiety, social anxiety, specific phobias, panic disorder, and separation anxiety.
“Whether or not anxiety is a client’s primary diagnosis, it’s a factor in the majority of people I see. Anxiety is known to be either comorbid with many other disorders, or a feature of other disorders as well” states Christine Menna. Anxiety is highly treatable but only 36.9% of the 40 million adults dealing with anxiety pursue treatment.1 “It’s important to know that there are options out there and ways to cope differently, reassessing the validity of statements prompted by an anxious mind,” comments Menna. If you find that anxiety is negatively impacting your life in these ways, it is crucial to seek treatment. Contact your doctor or trusted professional to explore helpful options.