This is probably not the first time you are hearing the word “anxiety,” yet it is important to know it can mean different things to different people.
When we think about anxiety from a clinical perspective, it means a level of cognitive (thoughts) and physiological (experiences in our body) difficulties that occur to the extent they impact our lives. Some people have more thought anxiety, some people have more body anxiety, and some people have both.
Let me give you an example of thought and body anxiety.
But aren’t these things just your body getting you ready for something stressful and keeping you on your toes? Yes and no.
If you think to yourself “I am not very comfortable speaking in public so I am going to practice beforehand,” it can absolutely help you prepare. If you think “I am going to be terrible at this and people will think I am pathetic. I should be much better at presentations by now” and you are then so nervous it impacts your performance and your self-confidence, it is no longer helpful.
If your heart is racing and you view it as your body helping you rise to the occasion, it can help you feel energized and ready. If your heart is racing and you are so worried that it pulls your attention from the material you know, it is no longer helpful.
Anxiety can occur in your thoughts and in your body. It becomes problematic when it gets in the way of you doing the things you want to and need to do. If you want to spend time with others but can’t due to social anxiety, it is getting in the way. If you are nervous about flying on a plane but never need to do so - not problematic. If you have always wanted to go visit a foreign country where your grandparents were raised but can’t get yourself on a plane due to anxiety - problematic.
If you are experiencing anxiety to the extent it is negatively impacting your life, it is a good time to speak with a clinical psychologist. They will ask you a lot about the thought and body anxiety you have been experiencing.
In order to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you have to have a certain number of thought and body anxiety symptoms happening concurrently for a certain period of time. You will also need to experience difficulty controlling the anxiety or at least a lot of discomfort when you try to manage it. Also, the anxiety has to cause actual difficulty for you (like that flying example above).
Just like anxiety can show up in different ways, it can be created by different things and situations. The psychologist will ask you more about when and why you feel anxious to arrive at the correct anxiety diagnosis. Anxiety diagnoses can be related to general situations, social situations, and even very specific things (like flying).
Anxiety thrives off of being avoided. It just lurks there around the corner when someone tries to run away from it. It often lives in the future - the "what ifs."
Evidence-based ways to treat anxiety include: