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Differentiating Adaptive from Overwhelming Anxiety by Jasmine Lucas, MA, LPC

You ever get a sudden feeling of fear and/or uneasiness and wonder, “why do I feel like this?” Do you ever experience a sudden pounding or rapid heartbeat, or feel like you have certain thoughts that become more and more challenging to ignore? Have you ever experienced interruptions in your sleeping pattern and laid in bed for an extended period and wondered why you couldn’t fall asleep? If you’ve answered yes to any or all these questions, you could be experiencing and or might be struggling with anxiety.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety can be described as a normal, and even healthy emotion that helps to protect us. Everyone experiences anxiety and it can be necessary for survival as it works as our bodies alarm system. Anxiety alerts us when we are faced with potential harmful or dangerous triggers.

The presentation of the potential danger causes a rush of Adrenaline, which is a hormone and chemical messenger in the brain. The Adrenaline triggers an anxious reaction through a process called the “flight or fight” response. The “flight or fight” response prepares humans to either run from or confront any potential dangers. Have you ever been walking down the street and felt like someone was walking behind you and you felt the urge to either run or turn around? If so, that was your anxiety alerting you that something might be wrong and your “flight or fight” response kicking in.

Anxiety can cause increased fear, alertness, and even physical responses such as: increased heart rate, unexplained aches/pains, dizziness, and shortness of breath. While anxiety is a normal and common emotion, there are people who have actual diagnosis of anxiety disorder and struggle with anxiety on a more intense level.

What is the difference between natural/normal anxiety and anxiety disorder?

Feeling nervous before an important life event (i.e., getting married, taking your driver’s test, etc.), or before taking a final exam, is a normal feeling of anxiety. The anxious feeling might give you a boost of energy or help you with focusing. However, when it’s a normal feeling of anxiety the feeling is temporary and not overwhelming.

When an individual experiences an anxious feeling for an extended period and the feeling is severe, this could be a sign that they are struggling with an actual anxiety disorder. According to the APA, a person with anxiety disorder will experience “recurring intrusive thoughts and concerns.” Once the anxiety reaches the point of a disorder, the symptoms begin to interfere with daily activities which can include work, school and/or relationships.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders: Fifth Edition (DSM-V) lists the following diagnoses under anxiety disorders:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Selective Mutism
Specific Phobia
Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)
Panic Disorder
Substance/Medication-Induced Anxiety Disorder

As a therapist, many times I’m asked, “is it bad to have anxiety?” or “how do I get rid of anxiety?”

Because anxiety is normal and is necessary for survival it can be viewed as helpful. However, if the anxiety reaches the point where it is classified as a diagnosis, it can become a struggle to deal with. The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate or get rid of your anxiety, as that would be impossible. Instead, the objective should be to learn healthy ways to manage your symptoms effectively. Anxiety disorders can be managed effectively through psychotherapy, behavioral therapy, and medications.

Remember, having anxious feelings are natural, and experiencing them doesn’t necessarily mean that an anxiety disorder is present. If you struggle with anxiety, just know that you are not alone. And while anxiety is inevitable, the symptoms can be managed effectively, and you can still live a meaningful and healthy life. If you are unsure whether your anxiety symptoms fit in the natural emotion category or the anxiety disorder category, you should consult your medical provider for further evaluation.

Journal Prompts:

1) What are some of the sensations you feel in your body when you’re feeling anxious?
2) How can being aware of these sensations help you engage in healthy coping skills?
3) What are two healthy ways you can cope with anxiety?

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The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders: Fifth Edition (DSM-V)

Felman, Adam (2020). What to know about anxiety.