What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural physical and emotional response to threatening situations.

Everyone has anxiety from time to time. In some ways, anxiety is our friend. It alerts us when there is danger and keeps us from making unsafe choices or entering into unsafe situations.

Anxiety becomes problematic when it shows up needlessly. When there is no danger but anxiety shows up anyway, it can become a hassle and can impact quality of life.

Anxiety that shows up frequently and without cause is known as an Anxiety Disorder. There are different types of anxiety disorders, but the common theme is the fear response that results in physical, emotional and behavioral reactions.

Reactions to anxiety

Reactions to anxiety vary from person to person.

Think of it as a spectrum; some people merely experience nervous feelings, while people at the other end of the spectrum may become extremely fearful.

For some, anxiety can be severe and may result in a temporary change in heart rate, tremor of the hands, dizziness or other intense physical reactions. The physiological aspects of anxiety are normal parts of the response, but some people have a more drastic bodily reaction than others. Usually the level of physical response to anxiety corresponds to the situation at hand. Anxiety provoking situations are often referred to as “triggers”. A low grade trigger that doesn’t cause much distress may result in mere feelings of nervousness, while something that provokes a lot of fear will result in a greater physical response such as hand tremors or racing heart.

Along with these physical reactions, anxious thoughts often loom large when anxiety hits. Some people may fear that they’re losing control of themselves or “going crazy.” Fears of doing something inappropriate are common, as well as fear of impending doom or death. Often people who suffer from severe anxiety describe a sense of being outside of oneself. These are all temporary thoughts and feelings that will abate when the anxiety passes.

An important part of managing anxiety is to reaffirm that this is only a temporary feeling and it will pass soon.

How CBT helps anxiety

CBT is one of the best ways to manage anxiety.

Anxiety symptoms can be tricky and make people think there is something dreadfully wrong. When people become aware of their physical and emotional responses to anxiety, it becomes easier to recognize it as it’s happening and retrain the mind and body through the use of CBT.

Identifying triggers and the corresponding thoughts, feelings and behaviors is a useful starting point. For example, a child who is experiencing high anxiety as a result of having to give a presentation in class may be able to trace the anxiety back to fears of embarrassing herself in front of peers. Her fears may inadvertently result in avoidance, such as not completing homework, or disruptive behaviors that result in her removal from class. CBT for this child may be focused around altering her expectations of failure and practicing exposure to her fears to decrease sensitivity to talking in front of groups. Through education about anxiety, thinking strategies, and facing one’s fears in a structured way, kids with anxiety can learn how to regain a sense of control so that anxiety is no longer in charge.