Anxiety: Nature and Function

Anxiety is a normal and natural response to perceived threats and dangers that occur in the course of our lives. It is a primitive biophysiological process meant to protect the person during times of danger. Anxiety then is adaptive and helps insure our survival.

Anxiety can also be physically and emotionally uncomfortable or disturbing when it occurs in an intense matter. If perceived threats or dangers become too repetitive people may become anxious or fearful about experiencing anxiety.

How uncomfortable a person may feel when experiencing anxiety is related to the proximity and immediacy of the perceived threat in terms of meaning, time and space.

Threat or danger may be real, imagined or misunderstood, all of which may be manifested in physiological symptoms and responses to mobilize the mind and body for survival. This mobilization of the person may be characterized as mobilization for “Fight or Flight.”

It makes sense to most people that when there is a perceived danger or threat that anxiety is adaptive and is meant to protect and insure our survival (Threat or danger >Anxiety).

What is more perplexing is when people feel anxious and worried about something that causes them to emotionally reason there must me some imminent danger or threat when in fact there is not (Anxiety > Perceived threat or danger).

In other words for some people, “If there is danger or threat, I feel anxious” implies “If I feel anxious, there must be a danger or threat.”

People who tend to worry a lot are perpetually seeding and feeding anxious thoughts and feelings that can generate other physiological symptoms. The more this happens the more habitual and self-reinforcing it becomes to the point of dreading or fearing more anxiety. Fear of the “what if” becomes fear “as if.”

Anxiety then can become more problematic than adaptive, thereby interfering with people’s ability to concentrate on tasks at hand, problem solve and can contribute to people avoiding problems and situations they should be addressing.

If anxiety becomes too intense and repetitive; it can feel like our life is out of our control and that we are helpless in dealing with it. Panic episodes epitomize this sense of feeling out of control and fear about what further may happen.

The important thing to do when feeling anxious is to figure out what is going on. What is real and what is being constructed in terms of our beliefs, thoughts and emotions in a particular context.

When people don’t do this either with themselves or with others they may experience anxiety as spiraling out of control, sometimes to the point of having a panic episode.

Often intense anxiety causes people to withdraw or avoid whatever they feel may be related to the anxiety.

Withdrawing or avoiding may make sense as a beginning response and to see if we can re-group emotionally so we are in a better position to reason and problem solve.

Withdrawing or avoiding as a long term strategy may make things worse contributing to people not attending to matters that ultimately are related to their anxiety and would help reduce their anxiety.

Changing the context (space or time) may be enough for us to come to see things more accurately.

For people who have a tendency to worry excessively; it will be useful to begin a program of prevention by beginning to be more physically active or exercise on a regular basis.

Expending the extra negative energy that has accumulated as the result of increased anxiety helps slow us down, relax and begin to put our situation in perspective. Some forms of meditation can also serve to reduce the autonomic nervous system response reactivity and help us gain better clarity in our focus.

In addition, we need to consider other factors that may be contributing to the anxiety spiral such as; stressors at work and home, difficulties in your relationships, financial worries, if we are getting adequate sleep, reducing or eliminating caffeine and avoiding binging or chronic use of alcohol, marijuana or other problematic substances.

Problem solving where needed; can help reduce your load of worries and concerns so that you are better able to develop coping strategies to deal with the stressors in your life and thereby reduce your anxiety.

If you are having difficulty managing increased anxiety on your own; it may be helpful to seek out psychotherapy. The therapist will help you assess how it started, identify contributing factors and related patterns that may be problematic.

As part of this process; it may be useful to consider the positive function of the anxiety or panic episodes. In other words; how does the anxiety or panic seem to function in a way that is helpful or is trying to get you to focus on pressing or stressful matters in your life that are being neglected.

The right therapist will help you reduce the frequency and intensity of your anxiety through a combination of therapeutic models that may include: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Exposure therapy, Mindfulness, Meditation, Behavioral Rehearsal, Self-Instruction and other Self-Regulation practices.

Finally, for some people medication for anxiety or panic episodes may be indicated in conjunction with ongoing assessment, interventions and monitoring discussed.

The important thing is to be positive, patient and willing to challenge and change the way you see things and do things.

Adapted by M. Douglas Evans LMSW from Exposure Treatments for Anxiety Disorders: A Practitioner’s Guide to Concepts, Methods, and Evidence-Based Practice by Johan Rosqvist Psy.D.

Copyright 2012, Anxiety: Nature and Function by M. Douglas Evans, All Rights Reserved.

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