We’ve all experienced anxiety at some time in our lives. Be it that feeling before walking into a job interview or the worries surrounding an upcoming medical procedure, anxiety is a normal part of human life. In fact, it’s necessary for our survival, that little voice inside our heads that lets us know we need to be ready for action. Because anxiety is accompanied by very real physical reactions such as elevated heart rate, sweating and rapid breathing, regardless of how irrational the underlying fear may seem to others, to a person experiencing anxiety the fears are indeed very real.
Fear or anxiety?
While fear and anxiety are related states, what differentiates them is when we experience them in relation to a stimulus. Take the common example of a phobia of dogs. A natural fear response would be the reaction to being confronted by an aggressive dog; our heart would beat quickly, palms would sweat, our fight or flight response would kick in and either we would confront the dog (fight) or attempt to escape (flight).
On the other hand, a phobia of dogs would have us in a state where we would be constantly anticipating the possibility of being confronted by a dog at some point. It is this anticipation that consumes those who suffer from anxiety. Although the possibility that harm may occur might at times be a realistic one, with a phobia, the fear is unwarranted and can be so debilitating that it can stop us from living our lives in a productive and healthy manner. Imagine not being able to leave the house – not even to check the mail – or constantly worrying that around the next corner you may be faced with your greatest fear.
Cumulative effects of anxiety
Being in a constant state of arousal, a state which would normally only be triggered in the face of actual threat, can be detrimental to your immune system and your health. The somatic symptoms such as headaches, digestive problems and increased heart rate are not only unpleasant but also very draining on the system as a whole. The mind-body connection means that anxious thoughts can lead to physical responses, which in turn can encourage further anxiety – a vicious cycle begins and the toll can be taxing.
Anxiety was never meant to be a constant state. When anxiety becomes an ongoing state, the mind remains alert for so long that it becomes slow and clumsy, we get tired and the anxiety gets worse, and our ability to differentiate between threatening and non-threatening situations is compromised. The initial butterflies in our stomach can develop into recurrent and sometimes debilitating digestive problems and a sense of hyper-awareness may develop into chronic fatigue. As these symptoms accumulate, the differentiation between normal levels of anxiety and the beginnings of a psychological disorder begins.
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