Overcoming Anxiety: What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

We all have anxiety. At its most basic level, anxiety is an evolutionary trait tied to our survival (“fight or flight”). It’s primitive and automatic.

Anxiety is an evolutionary trait

An illiterate (and unbathed) primal being lives within all of us. He wears a loin cloth around his nether region and leather thonged huaraches on his callused feet. At times, he mistakenly believes a saber tooth tiger is lurking in your office building, sniffing you out cubicle to cubicle; and sometimes this ancient being inside you will request you mark your territory prior to standing your ground and/or make yourself lighter by emptying your bladder so that you can run as fast as humanly possible from the saber tooth tiger hunting you that, to reiterate, does not actually exist in your office workspace.

It’s really just your boss who sent you a cryptic email that said: Please come see me in my office at 3 PM today. With absolutely zero other context. Oh, no. I’m going to lose my job! Then I won’t be able to pay my mortgage and I’ll lose my house. Oh, what’s that? You just need help embedding a PDF into a Word document.

Occasional anxiety is normal

Occasional anxiety is perfectly normal. (1) You feel a bit nervous standing before your co-workers when giving an important presentation. Your heart races. Your throat dries. (2) A touch of panic comes over you the morning of final exams when you sit at your desk and the paper exam is placed down in front of you, your #2 pencil just to the right. (3) A cop hits his blue lights while you are driving down the interstate and the hair on your arms stands up or a shiver sprints up your spine.

Perfectly normal.

Anxiety is normal — except when it’s not

It’s when the frequency and severity of your anxiety begins to leak into your everyday life, or worse, floods your everyday life, and paints detailed imaginings of terrible causes and effects that it is no longer normal, but a disorder.

And while we all have anxiety, only some of us suffer from an anxiety disorder.

The hair standing up on your arm when seeing a cop is one thing, even if you were only going 61 in a 55 and think those blue lights are intended for you. Vividly imagining the blue lights that race by you are headed to a horrible car accident involving a tractor trailer and someone in your immediate family four miles down the road, and picturing the scene as if it were produced by Emmanuel Lubezki on a Hollywood set frame by frame before, during, and after a fatal crash that may or may not—the answer is: likely not—have even taken place is a whole different ballgame.

That, my friend, is when you suffer from an anxiety disorder—whether you realize it or not. And every day that passes when you let anxiety run uncaged, wild and free, in your mind, feeding it a steady diet of panic and low- and high-level stresses, it grows stronger and stronger, affirmed in itself and its beliefs in the neurosis it brings to your mind and daily life.

Thoughts? Share in the comments below

This post is part of the Overcoming Anxiety series. If you enjoyed this post or to follow this series, I invite you to subscribe to receive notifications of new posts by email. No spam, ever.

Photo: James St. John. “Saber toothed tiger re-construction.” Licensed under CC BY 2.0

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  1. Jeff- my 10 year old has been diagnosed with anxiety disorder that is related mostly to fears of death. She has a horrible time when her dad travels because she sees things like you describe happening here when you see those blue lights pass you. I have been taking her to counseling for almost a year with no improvement – recently her counselor suggested meds. I talked to the pediatrician and after talking to myself and my daughter, she completely agreed. So we are trying it and are two weeks into it. It was a hard decision to have your 10 year old take Zoloft- but when she is unable to do sleepovers- or even go on a spring break trip with myself and her sister- for fear that her dad will die in a car accident if she isn’t here in the same town– I have to try something else to help her.

    1. My heart goes out to you. I was that way when I was her age. Nobody knew because I kept it all in, but I suffered silently and terribly. Horrible events played over and over in my head. I still was that person until recently (and by recently I mean six months ago); and even now, I still have moments. I’m going to go into detail about this in a later blog post, but meditation… I highly recommend it.

      She might think it’s silly or lame. Tell her it’s silly and lame. I definitely would have thought it was silly or lame at that age.

      Have her meditate every morning before she gets out of bed and every night before she goes to sleep. There’s an app called Stop, Breathe, & Think which is great, particularly if you or anyone reading this is like me and has/had no clue how to meditate or where to even begin. The key is consistency and scheduling. Hence, first thing in the morning while she lays in bed, still dark out, and at night.

      You can meditate with her. I think that would be really helpful actually.

      (Once again, if she thinks it’s stupid, tell her it is, but that you’re going to be stupid together for at least 60 days, every day)

      It has provided great benefits for me — someone who apparently is anxious while sleeping and when waking, meaning: I actually have panic attacks that begin while I sleep. Meditation has all but erased this.

      There are other outlets I’m going to suggest too that I’ll go into detail about. But another one relates to something I read in a book recently. Think of it like this, which is what the author does. He calls anxiety a wild horse. Meditation is training the wild horse to be calm and to learn stillness. Running, which is my second recommendation (doesn’t matter how slow or fast you go, as long as you go), exhausts the wild horse. And sometimes, you have to exhaust the wild horse. I like to exhaust the wild horse every day with running. It’s a little extreme, but I know how my head works if I don’t.

      Best to you and your family. Thinking of you.

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