OVERVIEW: WHAT IS ANXIETY?
Much of our understanding of mental health can be attributed to brain health—the parts of the brain and its various functions. Gaining a basic understanding of the way our brains and bodies work can offer insight and empowerment. By facing and returning to knowledge on how we work, we can integrate and apply these learnings to improve our quality of life.
Anxiety is characterized by excessive worry that is difficult to control, ruminating on the past, or avoiding things we fear might trigger us further. It can also induce physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, changes in sleep and appetite, and general bodily tension.
It may be helpful to group anxiety in these forms:
Physical or physiological
Cognitive or thinking
Physical symptoms often include tension within the body, an increase in heart rate, difficulty concentrating, a sense of fatigue, jitteriness or restlessness, and shallow breathing. Cognitive symptoms often include racing thoughts, worries, “what if” thoughts, replaying previous conversations or moments, or trying to imagine future scenarios.
While there are unifying components to anxiety across individuals, it’s important to note that the combination of symptoms and how a person “looks” to others is unique. One person’s experience of anxiety might present itself as an overactive mind and activity. Anxiety might create a kind of “stuckness” for the next person: frozen, unable to make a decision, weighing different options. This action or inaction might enable or prevent us from forming a string of words and sentences, or building interpretation and meaning.
While we often think of anxiety as an annoyance at best, anxiety may be trying to help us– inaction means we don’t act rashly to make a bad situation worse, and analysis means we are trying to think about and set ourselves up for success in the future. In a sometimes overwhelming and dangerous world, anxiety can be an adaptive and helpful response. Then again, sometimes it’s as helpful as a toddler trying to grab china from a high shelf. It’s important to remember that anxiety is a felt human experience—with or without a clinical diagnosis.
NEXT STEPS: WORKING WITH ANXIETY
Skillful management of our anxiety includes befriending our brain’s tendencies and perceptions. Our brains like to take cognitive shortcuts, called schemas, which are based on things we’ve learned from previous experience. That time that you forgot your notebook in 4th grade and the teacher called you out in front of everyone, making you feel really embarrassed and awkward? Your brain might have learned a strong lesson in that moment: be extra prepared, even over-prepared, because that really didn’t feel good and if you’re not over-prepared, something bad will happen. Identifying these cognitive shortcuts, regardless of when they were learned, is central to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the gold-standard of mental health treatment. This evidence-based treatment is the focus of The Anti-Anxiety Notebook.
With the help of therapists, the notebook focuses on utilizing the Thought Log tool of CBT to identify unhelpful cognitive shortcuts. Through simple design and instruction—describe the situation, describe your thoughts, note the intensity, circle patterns, reflect—you can step back from the lived experience of the anxiety and practice identifying and changing the thoughts that drive it.
Learn more about how you can implement CBT-based journaling into a regular practice here.
This article is not therapy or a replacement for therapy with a licensed professional. It is designed to provide information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is not engaged in rendering psychological, financial, legal, or other professional services. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, seek the services of a competent professional.