March 22, 2023
Anxiety is NORMAL
Anxiety is USEFUL
Anxiety is GOOD
Those words probably seem out of place on the blog written by a counselor who specializes in treating anxiety, but they are true nonetheless. There are two caveats I would add on the end of each one: sometimes and in moderation.
Anxiety is normal, useful, and good when ecologically appropriate. When I say something is “ecologically appropriate” what I mean is that the presence and amount of anxiety fits the present circumstances in which you are feeling that anxiety. For instance, if you are hiking in the woods and you come across a bear, you should feel a strong dose of anxiety. That anxiety is there as a survival response to keep you safe and stop you from doing something dangerous like walking up to the bear to try to pet it while offering it a snack of trail mix and beef jerky. On the other hand, if you are walking down a city street and see a squirrel in your path and you feel that same amount of anxiety that you did with the bear, that is not ecologically appropriate.
A normal and healthy reaction to stress, anxiety can help keep us safe, but it can also enhance our performance. An appropriate amount of anxiety before a test, public speech, or competition can increase our self-awareness, help us prepare, and give us a boost of energy to do well.
My husband is a distance runner and triathlete. He has competed in numerous long distance races including the Dublin, Chicago, and Boston marathons. He has also completed a variety of triathlon distances ranging from sprint to olympic to half (70.3 miles) and even a full Ironman. After decades of racing, many times placing in the top three in his age group, he still gets nervous before racing a 5k or 10k. While his vast experience tells him that his body knows what to do, the stress of competition heightens his level of anxiety just enough to provide him with the alertness he needs to perform well. His anxiety is useful and because it is, he is grateful for it.
As good as anxiety can be, it can also become harmful or disordered when it becomes too much to handle or the anxiety is not necessary in the situation. Anxiety that stops us from doing the things we would like to do, or keeps us from the things we need, is no longer helpful or good. This happens when our body’s nervous system and parts of our brains are not regulating our emotions properly and become trained for fear instead.
Symptoms of this sort of anxiety include intense and excessive worry and looping or uncontrollable thoughts that are not helpful or are focused on worst-case scenarios. Physical symptoms may include sweating, change in heartbeat (racing or intense palpitations), difficulty or rapid breathing, abdominal pain or discomfort, nausea, digestive issues, headaches, dizziness, feeling as if you are floating or disconnected from your body, fidgeting, restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, change in appetite, and muscle tension.
Those who suffer from this sort of anxiety often qualify for clinical diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. Additionally, long term anxiety and stress are often connected with things like chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and functional movement disorders also known as conversion disorders.
This is the first post in a two part series. Read on for part two here.