Caitlin Gallagher
September 12, 2018 9:00 am

Anxiety is a great unseen beast, an invisible enemy that can stop you from doing the things you love or cause you panic attacks. Everyone experiences anxious feelings at some point, but what is anxiety, the mental health disorder? And how do you manage when your anxiety feels like it’s getting out of hand?

HelloGiggles spoke to licensed psychologist Marla W. Deibler, who is the founder and executive director of the Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia. She answered all the questions we have about anxiety and how it impacts our mental health.

As the National Institute of Mental Health notes, anxiety disorders aren’t just about temporary worry. They can seriously impact your day-to-day life when it comes to school, work, and personal relationships. These mental health conditions can feel completely overwhelming, but Dr. Deibler said that it’s possible to manage them with proper care and get back to your regular life.

If you’re experiencing anxiety, the following Q&A with Dr. Deibler will certainly help you understand what you’re going through. And while life will always be full of things that cause anxious feelings, she provides helpful tips on how you can learn to manage anxiety on your own or with the help of a mental health professional.

What is anxiety?

“Anxiety is our nervous system’s natural response to what we perceive as threatening. Everyone experiences anxiety. It is the body’s way of preparing us to face or escape a challenge. Anxiety can be a healthy, adaptive response to stress. However, in excess, anxiety can cause significant distress and impair daily functioning.”

What’s the difference between stress and an anxiety disorder?

“Stress is a state of mental and bodily tension experienced when faced with demands (stressors). Anxiety disorders involve the mind and body’s maladaptive response to stress that impair one’s ability to function.”

What are the different types of anxiety disorders?

“Anxiety disorders can develop when our…coping resources are taxed beyond that which we are able to manage. There are a range of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (i.e. difficulty managing an array of worries), specific phobias (i.e. most commonly fear of a specific objects, animals/bugs, or situations), social anxiety disorder (i.e. intense fear or anxiety about social situations), separation anxiety disorder (i.e. fear of being separated from someone, most often a caregiver), and related disorders, including selective mutism (i.e. an anxiety-based disorder in which a child is unable to speak in certain situations, despite being able to speak comfortably in other situations), post-traumatic stress disorder (i.e. a maladaptive fear response to a traumatic event), panic disorder (i.e. recurrent, unexpected panic attacks), and obsessive compulsive disorder (i.e. an anxiety-based disorder involving unwanted, intrusive thoughts and behaviors or mental acts that are carried out in attempts to reduce the distress).”

What are the different ways that anxiety manifests?

“Anxiety can manifest itself in a number of ways. The anxiety response, often referred to as the ‘fight-or-flight response,’ involves a physiological reaction to real or perceived danger in which the body releases hormones such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol to help prepare our bodies to meet the demands of the situation. When this happens, we may notice that our thoughts narrow to thinking about how to manage that stressor and our ability to do so, emotional reactivity (such as fear or anger), and physiological changes (such as rapid heart rate, and shallow, rapid breathing).”

Can anxiety disorders run in the family?

“Anxiety disorders are among the most common psychiatric disorders. In fact, 40 million American adults are affected by anxiety disorders (18% of the U.S. population). For a number of anxiety disorders, genetics are a factor in creating a vulnerability to developing an anxiety disorder. Many anxiety disorders are more likely to occur in the first-degree relatives of those who have a diagnosed anxiety disorder.”

What are panic attacks and how can I tell if I’m having one?

“Panic attacks are discrete periods of anxiety (typically peaking within 10 minutes), which are characterized by a number of physiological symptoms, such as heart palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling; sensations of shortness of breath or smothering; a feeling of choking; chest pain or discomfort; nausea or abdominal distress; feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint; chills or hot flashes; numbness or tingling; derealization (feelings of unreality); or depersonalization (being detached from oneself).”

What are some common treatments for anxiety?

“The evidence-based treatment of anxiety includes cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT), medication, and the combination of the two.”

What are some signs that I should speak to a medical professional about my anxious feelings?

“If anxiety or worry begin to negatively impact one’s daily functioning, it is recommended that the individual see a mental health professional.”

How do I find a therapist who’s right for me?

“Finding the right therapist is very personalized. A good fit is someone with whom the individual feels comfortable, open, and trusting and who is knowledgeable [about] the evidence-based treatment of anxiety disorders. To find a knowledgeable therapist, some good resources are [the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies] abct.org and [the Anxiety and Depression Association of America] adaa.org.”

How can medication help anxiety?

“Medication, such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs), can be helpful to some who suffer from anxiety disorders. If an individual thinks they may benefit from medication, it is recommended that they consult with their physician.”

What can I do to manage anxiety on my own?

“Change your relationship to anxiety. Everyone experiences anxiety. It is a normal response to stress. Let it in when it shows up.

Practice acceptance. Rather than trying to push it away (which tends to be futile, resulting in feeling more overwhelmed and less in control), make room for anxiety. It is showing up to try to bring your attention to something.

Practice mindfulness. Examine anxiety with curiosity when it shows up, rather than rejecting it. What do you notice when it shows up? What are you thinking and feeling?

Intentionally invite anxiety along for the ride. Presentations at work make you anxious? Taking the lead on a project causes you to worry? Push yourself to enter situations that lead to anxiety in order to demonstrate to yourself that you can persevere and succeed despite anxiety. Exposing yourself to anxiety-provoking situations, rather than avoiding them, helps to change your relationship to anxiety and increase your confidence in these situations.

Paradoxically, if you fully allow space for anxiety to be there, even when at work, and carry on with your day despite it being there, you will likely find that it is less bothersome.

Remind yourself that your mind is not always the best advisor. Our minds like to constantly tell stories, analyze, judge, give advice, and criticize. Sometimes these thoughts are supremely unhelpful to us. Observe what your mind does. Notice the thoughts. Note that they are not objective truths. You get to decide whether the thoughts are worthy of your attention.

Practice self-care. Attend to your own feelings and healthy lifestyle practices: good nutrition, sleep, and exercise are important to well-being, resilience, and healthy stress management.

Stay connected. Social support is vital to managing stress. Maintain connections to family and friends. Talking with others can do a world of good.

Take a break. A simple change of pace or scenery, switching ‘to-do’ tasks, or breaking from a concerted effort can be refreshing.

Practice relaxation. Diaphragmatic breathing or other relaxation-inducing practices (e.g. mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery exercises, tai chi, yoga) can reduce stress by helping to encourage the relaxation response.”

Are there triggers to avoid if I have anxiety?

“Keep caffeine consumption and other stimulants to a minimum, as they can increase heart rate and other physiological symptoms of anxiety.”

How can anxiety impact other areas of life besides mental health?

“Anxiety, when severe, can impair one’s ability to function in any or all areas of one’s life.”

Can I ever completely overcome my anxiety?

“With effective treatment, individuals can overcome anxiety disorders and regain full functioning in their lives.”

What should I do if I think I have an anxiety disorder?

“Seek professional help. Sometimes anxiety can be difficult to manage without professional help. A clinical psychologist who provides cognitive behavioral therapy can assist individuals in learning to better understand anxiety and change their relationship to their anxious thoughts and feelings.”

What should I do if a loved one has an anxiety disorder?

“Concerned loved ones might choose to express their concern for their friend or family member and help to normalize the experience and encourage the individual to seek help. A few resources for treatment providers by geographical location include abct.org and adaa.org.”

As Dr. Deibler notes, the ADAA reports that more than 40 million Americans have anxiety disorders, so if you have one you are far from alone. And with the proper treatment, you don’t have to let your anxiety control you.

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