Mental Health Awareness Week 2023 runs from 15th-21st May and is themed around anxiety. Search Google for “anxiety” and you’ll immediately be faced with details about what disordered anxiety looks like.
But anxiety is a completely normal emotion and it’s important we don’t lose sight of this! It’s normal to feel anxious about:
- a lack of finances
- pressures at work
- performing in front of people
- being threatened verbally or physically
- medical procedures
Anxiety tells us “this is a high pressure or threatening situation”. The hormones associated with the feeling can help us to think more clearly and make decisions or be prepared to flee a situation if/when necessary. If, as a society, we pathologise healthy anxiety, we’ll stop being able to use anxiety for good!
The term anxiety is used to describe a mental disorder that can be completely debilitating. It becomes a disorder when the healthy emotion feels as though it’s taken on a life of its own. It can then have a significant impact on the person’s ability to carry out activities of daily living.
Anxiety is like a car alarm
Anxiety could be considered to be like a car alarm, it’s helpful when it goes off; we attend to see what the problem is (thief etc) and we’re glad we’ve been able to keep our car safe. Healthy anxiety tells us there’s a high pressure situation, we’re alert for the event, the event passes and the anxiety passes.
However, if the car alarm is behaving too sensitively it might go off when the wind blows, when a cat walks past or for no apparent reason.
When we feel anxious, we assume it’s accurate and therefore react (run out to the car assume it’s being stolen). We build up habitual patterns of behaving before we’ve realised the system is malfunctioning.
If going to a specific place or doing a specific thing makes us anxious, we stop going to that place or doing that thing. It’s perhaps, only when someone else wants to go there or do that thing… We realise we’ve built up routines that we thought were keeping us safe but the anxiety is keeping us prisoner.
Telling the difference between health anxiety and disordered anxiety
Feeling anxious about a specific event or situation, being able to rationalise it and keep things in perspective is healthy. If you start generalising these feelings so they pervade other scenarios and impact other areas of your life, this can have a negative impact on your health.
Talk to other people about your anxiety, is it something they would feel anxious about? It’s ok to be anxious. Talk about what thoughts you’re having and how your body feels, everybody gets anxious.
When the feelings of anxiety are not attached to a specific scenario, include irrational thoughts and/or prevent you from doing the things you enjoy, these are signs that seeking help is indicated. Never feel ashamed of seeking help. The GP could be your first port of call.
Fortunately, just like we can take our car to the mechanic and have the wiring checked and fixed, we can re-wire our brains. By understanding the reasons behind our thoughts, feelings and patterns of behaviour, counselling can help people with anxiety. It’s important we don’t just switch off the alarm and become numb to it but learn it can be a helpful, health emotion.