Understanding Anxiety. Part I: When anxiety can be helpful.

Anxiety is a universal human experience, even though for each person that experience will differ. In the post-modern world, “anxiety” has become a buzzword, just like words such as “stress” and “depression.” In the science of psychology, these words have specific, although often debated, definitions. But when evoked in your typical conversation, the word “anxiety” is so broad, it means so many things, that it almost means nothing. For someone to say, “I have anxiety” simply confirms a fact of being human, such as saying “I feel hunger.” It simply goes along with the human condition. It’s a different matter to say, for example, “I struggle with anxiety.” This statement tells us that something about the person’s anxiety experience has become painful or an obstacle. But it still does not really tell us – what is the problem.

“Anxiety” is such a broad term because it includes so many different types of reactions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences. So, in a way, anxiety is like an ink blot: we may use the same arrangement of letters to talk about it, but it will mean very different things to each person. No wonder it can be confusing to understand it within ourselves, never mind trying to understand anxiety experiences of other people!

But fear not (pun somewhat intended) – there are some things that help us to understand anxiety better and to narrow things down.  One of these things is to ask, what’s being feared?  What is the person worried most about? What pain, loss, or misfortune are they wanting to avoid? Another set of questions has to do more with anxiety itself. It will be different for each person. So, we must ask, how does anxiety work – for this person specifically? What functions does it have, both positive and negative? Is it helpful in any way? What kind of things is it unhelpful with?

The value of knowledge cannot be underestimated. If we better understand what is going on with our own emotions and thoughts, we are in a much better position to cope effectively and meet our own needs in an authentic and fulfilling way. I will begin with a discussion of different anxiety types and in the next article I will talk about how each type can be addressed.

However, before we talk about different types of anxiety, let’s at least define this big umbrella term. First of all, there is a big difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is an emotion we experience when faced with an immediate threat to our life, health, values, or goals. So fear is what would happen when you step onto the road and suddenly see a car accelerating towards you at an alarming speed. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a fear-type emotion we experience when we anticipate danger in the future, but this danger isn’t right in front of us. So when we study for a big exam and feel terrified of failing it, this is anxiety. Anxiety depends of being able to imagine undesirable or painful futures. Simply put, fear is about danger in the now and anxiety is about danger in the future. The experience of anxiety is different for everyone, but some common trends that it comes with are: worrying a lot; thinking that you are not safe; and expectation of some kind of threat or pain. Some people experience physiological symptoms of anxiety, such as their chest tightening, breathing becoming more shallow, feeling clammy and hot, headaches, stomach discomfort, even dizziness.

Functional anxiety.

Let’s start with anxiety that helps us. This statement might be surprising. One of the unfortunate popular trends is to try to “get rid” of anxiety, to manage it, or medicate it into non-existence. Such an approach implies that anxiety has no value, that it must be exorcised. This would be like trying to get rid of hunger or thirst (you can imagine the disastrous consequences of accomplishing such a goal). While anxiety is neither inherently bad or good, it is something that nearly all humans have. Anxiety, like hunger and pain, may not be comfortable, but it can often serve a purpose. If we did not experience hunger, we may forget to eat, and therefore become malnourished or even die. If we do not experience any anxiety at all, we may act very impulsively, take lots of risks, act thoughtlessly towards others, fail to anticipate consequences of our actions or future problems.

One great example of functional, healthy anxiety, is that little voice that kicks in when an exam is coming up a week from now and says, “hey, there’s that exam coming up. You haven’t started studying yet. If we don’t start studying know, we might be overwhelmed by trying to cram it all in at the last second. Or we might even fail the exam because we didn’t have enough time to study.” This kind of worry thought may prompt you to crack open that textbook, leading to the outcome you ultimately want – studying for the exam with enough time to spare, feeling confident about the test, and being knowledgeable enough to do well. There are many examples like this in daily life.

26613271_10155858423770390_172571062_o

Functional anxiety is essentially anxiety that helps us move towards our goals, anticipate and plan for setbacks, envision realistic (that’s the key word) obstacles to our goals, and find ways to cope with or overcome those obstacles. Functional anxiety is still uncomfortable, but it is not going to keep us up all night or become a racing frenzy of obsessive thoughts. Functional anxiety calms when a realistic problem in the near future is solved or a plan for solving it is in place in your mind. It is like a good friend who knows that you have goals and needs, but sometimes stray from your path towards these goals. Healthy anxiety is like the friend that reminds you gently, helps you plan how to get back on track, and backs off once you’ve course-corrected. Imagine it as a littler helper pet – it lives inside your mind and it’s your natural smartphone: keeping track of important things you have going on, bringing things to your attention when you forgot, and then calmly snoozing in a corner when there is nothing urgent happening.

To sum up, functional anxiety:

  • Is proportional to the situation or event
  • Helps us plan, prepare, and act
  • Responds to reassurance
  • Calms down when the problem is resolved or the goal is accomplished

Situational anxiety that appears disordered but may have a function.

From here, things get more complicated. We are complicated creatures, after all. Our psychology follows suit. Here is a pickle of a situation to ponder. This scenario is fictional, but based on patterns that happen in real clinical cases: A woman comes in to see a psychologist for psychotherapy. She tearfully describes having several panic attacks in the past few weeks. This has never happened before and it was terrifying. She was suddenly short of breath and dizzy, her heart pounding through her chest. She thought she was having a heart attack. As she talks about her experience, it becomes apparent that the panic attacks happened only on the evenings when her and her husband had a big argument about priorities of work and family life. She goes on to describe that for the last few years the family has struggled financially and her husband took on a second job to pay the bills. He has spent much less time at home as a result. She talks about the two of them growing apart and “never having any quality time together.” The first panic attack happened after he told her that his work needs him to do overtime for the next 3 months, possibly longer, to cover duties of a sick co-worker. Are the panic attacks the problem in this situation?

situational_anxiety

At first glance, it seems that way. The panic was a sudden and frightening. As the story unfolds, however, it seems more and more like the panic attacks, while painful, are a reaction to another problem. In a way, the panic attacks in this situation are like a warning signal of some other threat – in this hypothetical case, the threat of the marital relationship falling apart. To most people, such a threat is very destabilizing. In other words, sometimes panic can be the mind’s way of alerting the person to take a look at what is happening in their life, family, work, or relationships because something has gone off course: maybe the person’s goals are being blocked; or important needs are not being met; or there is an impending loss of status, relationship, health, or some other important aspect of their life. In this case, if it were not for the panic attacks, our hypothetical client may not have had the opportunity to reflect on the state of her relationship with her husband, thus also missing the opportunity to try to address stressors and problems in that relationship.

Panic is essentially anxiety at its most intense level. Sometimes, panic is kind of like a fire alarm going off in the middle of the night – of course you don’t like having to get out of bed and march yourself outside, but you are sure are glad that the alarm was there when the fire is real. Situational anxiety is like the internal pet that is suddenly meowing very, very loud, but only because the stove is on fire. The meowing is not the problem – something else is. But the meowing brings it to our attention.

anxiety cats

To sum up, situational anxiety is essentially healthy, functional anxiety that has become displaced – it’s being expressed through a different channel than the channel it came in from and it may not be immediately obvious what it’s about:

  • May or may not be proportional to the situation, context, or event – for example it could happen when you are sleeping, which is generally a pretty safe situation.
  • Can help us plan, prepare, and act, but also may be confusing if we are not sure what problem it is pointing towards.
  • When you figure out what issue the anxiety is pointing towards, it can help you to address the problem.
  • Calms down when the problem is resolved or the goal is accomplished.

In Part II, we will talk about existential anxiety and disordered anxiety and in Part III we will address how psychotherapy, arts, and dance can be helpful so stay tuned!

Artwork by Armin Mortazavi – check out more of his work illustrating concepts related to science and health on his website: https://arminmortazavi.com.

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