Picture this: You’ve been asked to give a presentation at work. Even though you know your stuff, you’re worried because you hate public speaking. As the day of the presentation approaches, you have more and more trouble sleeping. Every morning when you wake up, your heart is already racing and your palms are sweaty. You feel like you’re going to faint, have a heart attack or go crazy. Having already botched the presentation in your mind, your anticipate losing your job, your status, and as a result, your home’ Now you’re having a full-blown panic attack. Sound familiar? Though a little worry is normal in a stressful situation, if your anxiety is ruling your life, it may be out of hand.
Anxiety: What is it?
‘Anxiety is what we feel when we perceive a threat,’ says Margo Watt, a clinical psychologist, associate professor of psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. and co-author of Overcoming the Fear of Fear’How to Reduce Anxiety Sensitivity. ‘It’s our body’s way of telling us to prepare for a fight-or-flight response.’
Although Watt says people use the terms interchangeably, anxiety is different from fear. ‘Fear is a response to a direct threat, like running into a bear in the woods,’ she says, explaining that by contrast, anxiety is more future-oriented. ‘It’s an anticipation of that fear. If you’re anxious, you don’t go into the woods because you’re afraid you might meet that bear.’
Anxiety attacks and anxiety disorders
Whether we’re worrying about our kids or how we’re going to pay our bills, we’re all managing stress on a daily basis’even if it’s positive stress, like an upcoming wedding or a new baby. Watt says that anxiety is just a normal response to that stress, which we experience ‘when the pressures and demands on our lives exceed our abilities to cope.’
Anxiety, which often affects women more than men, becomes a problem when we start to lose perspective on our own situations (what Watt calls ‘catastrophizing,’ or imagining the worst). When it gets the best of us, we imagine our children flunking out of school or losing our homes, or we anticipate the new baby getting an incurable disease. The anxiety attack’with its shallow breathing, heart palpitations and paralyzing distress’isn’t far behind, and the next step is an anxiety disorder, when anxiety causes significant distress and interferes with our ability to function, such as our ability to work or maintain relationships. Examples of anxiety disorders include obsessive-compulsive behaviour, panic disorders, generalized anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders and specific phobias’which are even more debilitating.
Treating and preventing anxiety
Watt says that some people are simply more predisposed to stress and anxiety than others. If your anxiety is causing you distress, interfering in your personal relationships and keeping you from doing the things you love, then it’s time to get help. Mental health professionals, in particular psychologists who are trained in cognitive-behavioural therapy, can be very helpful. Start by consulting your family physician, who can assist in making a referral or by helping you to access resources in your area.
Ultimately though, the secret to controlling anxiety is managing stress, so that when times get tough, it doesn’t get the better of you. It’s vitally important to make time for relaxation every day, no matter how hectic your daily routine. Watt also recommends regular exercise as a means of distilling anxious energy: ‘The great thing about physical activity,” she says, “is that it actually conditions us, both mentally and physically, to better manage stress.’
If you’re prone to anxiety, Watt also suggests deep (or ‘diaphragmatic’) breathing four to six times a day, especially for women, who are often guilty of taking shallow breaths from the chest because they’re busy holding in their stomachs. Not breathing puts the body into panic mode, exacerbating stress’but a few deep breaths will bring your heart rate down in an instant. Meditation can also help to bring you back to the present moment, keeping things in perspective.
And if you do make a mess of that important presentation, don’t forget to laugh! Not only will laughter help dissipate your anxiety, you’ll release natural chemicals that’ll leave you feeling great. Remember, it’s only life!