Political tension. Wild weather. Economic unrest. Short of an alien invasion (which may have already happened), recent events—not to mention our chaotic modern lifestyles—have caused a drastic uptick of anxiety. In fact, over 40 million Americans have been diagnosed with anxiety (though I personally believe the number to be higher), and that number continues to climb.1 But what is anxiety, and why is it sweeping the nation in such unprecedented numbers? I’m going to explain what anxiety is and how it works.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is an experience of general worry, fear or dread, along with physical changes in the body, like a racing heart, sweating, shallow breathing and more.2 We’ve been told feeling anxious (or “having” anxiety) means something is wrong with us. This is not true. You may be surprised to learn that anxiety can be a perfectly normal (and healthy) response to living in a weird, crazy world.
Here’s how I think of anxiety: Anxiety is a smoke alarm telling your body it’s not safe, or that it’s alone or unhealthy and needs your attention. So, when the alarms sound, instead of silencing them, you need to put out the fires. Your anxiety alarms might go off when you’re feeling alone and need community and connection. Or when you eat junk or mainline caffeine. Or when you’re in an abusive relationship, have unresolved trauma, or owe a bunch of money. Whatever alarms are sounding in your life, know that anxiety is not a disease—and you are not broken. An anxious body is a body that’s often working exactly as it should. Here are some examples:
Alarm: You feel on edge and can’t relax when you come home to an empty house.
Fire: You’re alone and need community.
Solution: Connect with others by reaching out to friends, inviting people over, getting a roommate, or finding community though an activity or church group.
Alarm: News headlines make your heart and thoughts race.
Fire: You’re spending tons of hours on your computer and phone, and you’re experiencing information, fear and drama overload.
Solution: Set a time limit for screens each day. Swap an hour or two of screen time for a tech-free walk outside instead. Kick a soccer ball with your kid. Go to an open mic comedy show.
Alarm: You have to give a presentation at work and are so nervous you could vomit.
Fire: As a kid, you learned that being quiet and invisible was safe—and speaking your mind leads to getting hurt.
Solution: Practice sharing your thoughts with other people. Practice giving your talk in front of friends. Yes, you’ll feel anxious but the more you practice, the easier it’ll get.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety symptoms can show up differently for everyone. For some people, anxiety is about looping or disordered thinking. This type of anxiety affects their thoughts and mindset. For other people, it can be a physical experience, like a racing heart, shaky hands or sweating under stress. And for others, anxiety is more behavioral and leads to irrational or fearful actions, like out-of-control spending, binge eating or road rage. Here’s a list of general symptoms of anxiety that can affect someone’s cognitive, physical and behavioral states:
- Intrusive thinking
- Feeling a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
- Constant comparison
- Difficulty concentrating
- Tight chest
- Shallow breathing
- Racing heart
- Difficulty sleeping
- Tense shoulders, neck and back
- Nausea, stomach aches or digestive problems
- Avoiding anxiety-inducing situations (like touch, crowds, media, food, locations, etc.)
- Isolation and withdrawal
- Restlessness and agitation
- Becoming easily startled
- Obsessive or compulsive behaviors
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Here’s what I want you to know most: Our bodies will try to get our attention in many ways. How does your body tell you something needs attention in your life? Do your shoulders tense when your boss walks in the room? Do you stop eating—or eat everything in sight—before a family vacation because you’re so worked up? Pay attention to your body’s cues and when (and why) they get your attention.
Who Is at Risk for Anxiety Disorders?
If anxiety is a normal human experience, why do some people experience it more than others? A history of trauma, lifestyle choices, unhealthy work and social environments, genetics and gene expression, low stress tolerance, and even physical circumstances (like low blood sugar or malnutrition, thyroid issues or being sedentary) all factor into someone’s likelihood of experiencing anxiety (not to mention other personality traits, like neuroticism or introversion).
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Statistically, women are more likely to report experiencing anxiety than men—but anyone can have anxiety.3 In fact, I believe that emerging data suggests men experience anxiety as often as women, but anxiety may be experienced differently between men and women.4
When men feel their anxiety alarms, they might channel that anxious energy into work, achievement, workouts, alcohol and other substances. Any feelings men notice in their body are often treated like character flaws—flaws that should be buried deep and covered up beneath a job promotion, the newest car or another drink at the bar. They might also channel feelings of sadness and anger into aggression or into the pursuit of grandiosity (like a new girlfriend, a new business, or shutting down a division at work).
Women often have a vastly different experience. From a young age, women are given permission to recognize their body feelings, feel them, and express them—but they’re also told these feelings are overly dramatic, obnoxious or just plain wrong. So, while women may be more likely to acknowledge their anxiety and look for support, they can also find themselves trapped in an inner prison of negative self-talk and failed attempts to shut down any type of feeling at all.
Please hear me: No matter who you are . . .
Anxiety is not a permanent medical condition.
Anxiety is not an identity.
Anxiety shouldn’t be an excuse, a way of being, or a reason for giving up on a whole life filled with love, connection and joy.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Mental health professionals, medical practitioners and even our culture are quick to label our body’s natural danger responses as disorders. Professionals refer to a clinical diagnostic manual to formally define and diagnose someone with an anxiety disorder. In the United States, the most common manual is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In the DSM, you’ll find definitions for many types of anxiety, including:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): a continued feeling of worry or dread without a specific cause or stressor
- Agoraphobia: anxiety that happens in public or crowded spaces
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): a combination of persistent, unwanted ideas or thoughts and repetitive behaviors that lower anxiety
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): recurrent flashbacks and reactions to a traumatic event or repeated exposure to stress or violence
- Panic attacks: sudden and intense periods of fear or worry that trigger multiple anxiety reactions, like a racing heart, shortness of breath and dizziness
- Social anxiety: consistent fear of social situations and unfamiliar people, or anxiety about being humiliated or embarrassed
- Separation anxiety: distress (for children) during separation from home or their attachment figures (like parents), or fear of being alone or going to sleep without familiar adults or caretakers
I know I’m going to step on some toes when I say this, but I’m saying it: For most people, a Band-Aid diagnosis from the DSM is incomplete and not helpful. The DSM simply describes the different ways (and for how long) anxiety shows up for someone and uses that as a diagnosis. Now, I do believe it can be important to “name the dragon.” So learning what type of anxiety I might have can help me locate the source of the fires in my life. But remember, these are usually not permanent conditions or personal failures.
What Causes Anxiety?
Although people might experience similar symptoms of anxiety, the cause of anxiety will be different for everyone. Here are some things that can set off someone’s alarms and cause anxiety:
- Life circumstances and your environment: Do you work in a high-stress job? Does city living make your skin crawl? Maybe you have a special needs child or a newborn disrupting your sleep. Moving homes, getting married, and other big life events can spark anxiety.
- Genetics: One person’s nervous system can naturally lean toward anxiety more than someone else’s, but the environment sets off the alarms—especially for highly sensitive people.
- Trauma: Experiencing trauma, like a divorce, illness, natural disaster or any other emotionally painful experience from the past, primes your body to constantly scan for similar threats in the present and project the possibility of threats in the future.
- Lifestyle choices: How you eat, move and sleep, as well as how much time you spend outside and with other people, all play a role in your anxiety.
For more clarity around what might be contributing to your feelings of stress and anxiety, check out my free anxiety test.
How to Prevent Anxiety
When you’re figuring out how to deal with anxiety, here’s the bottom line: You need to learn new skills for relating, feeling, thinking and communicating. You’ll have to practice these new ways of living every day. Calming your anxiety might be as simple as cutting way back on coffee, or it could take as much as building a new, non-anxious life. Maybe that means getting a different job, leaving the toxic relationship, moving states, or adding healthy habits to your day. If you want to learn how to prevent anxiety, here are a few first steps you can take:
- Stop being alone. You need community and supportive relationships in your life. We can’t do life alone, period. Yeah, it’s hard to make new friends, but people are your emergency fund for life.
- Talk to someone. The same way you’d call a plumber to fix a broken pipe, call someone to help fix your emotional health. Find a therapist, pastor or trusted mentor. A good therapist can help you notice and understand your feelings and what they’re telling you.
- Explore natural remedies for anxiety. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to start healing anxiety. Exercising, meditating, praying, cleaning your environment, paying off your debts, clearing your calendar, and taking other simple (yet very challenging) steps can make a big difference.
- See your doctor. I don’t like to recommend meds as an end-all, be-all solution for healing anxiety. But finding a good doctor, getting a baseline health exam, and exploring options for anxiety medication can be helpful tools to turn down the alarms for a season while you heal your relationships and physical health and reprioritize your time.
- Build a non-anxious life. Find a job that lines up with your purpose. Take care of your body. Set boundaries. Make whatever changes you need to make to find peace.
You Can Heal From Anxiety
I’m serious about helping people learn what it means to heal from anxiety and live a healthy life—mentally, emotionally, financially, spiritually and physically. And sometimes that means making new daily choices to build a non-anxious life. Check out my new book, Building a Non-Anxious Life, to better respond to whatever life throws at you and build a more peaceful, joyful, non-anxious life.