Anxiety: What is It?

Anxiety is a word we hear frequently these days, but what does it mean and how is it different from fear? And when is Anxiety a bona fide problem, rather than just an annoying inconvenience?

Anxiety and Fear are two emotions that can easily be confused.

Fear is usually directed toward something specific – something or someone outside of ourselves, or a possible situation that we can take some action about.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is like inventing things to be stressed about before they ever happen. It is more like a sense of worry, uneasiness, or dread, often without even knowing the exact reason. (For example: feeling that “something bad might happen.”)

When we don’t know the cause of our anxiety, it’s hard to know when it’s safe to relax. In fact, it never really feels safe to relax, so we stay alert and watchful all the time. And that’s emotionally AND physically exhausting!! (Read more about the Fight or Flight Reflex.)

I have a good friend who is a “professional worrier.” She believes that worrying about every possible thing that could go wrong is her duty and responsibility to her family. If someone suggests an outing, she thinks of the dangers involved. If someone has a business idea, she sees risks and uncertainties. She’s so convinced that worrying actually does something of value, that she says she’s afraid to stop worrying because she’d “lose her edge!”

It probably wouldn’t be so bad if the worrying translated into action of some kind, but it usually doesn’t because she’s too tired from all the worrying. And it’s no big surprise that she suffers from many physical problems brought on or made worse by chronic stress.

Chronic stress and anxiety can have profound effects on our whole being!

Physically, anxiety can create muscle tension, increased heart rate, sweating, or queasy stomach. Getting worse, muscle tension can become muscle spasms, sciatica, or pain in the shoulders or lower back. Increased heart rates can be a step on the path to erratic heart beats or high blood pressure; and queasy stomachs can develop into irritable bowel syndrome or acid reflux problems.

Mentally, being in a constant state of anxiety makes it hard to concentrate, solve problems, or deal with everyday situations. Thoughts circle endlessly from one worry to another with no solution in sight.

And it is emotionally exhausting! Who has the energy to enjoy a walk in the park with the dog when we’re anxious?

Anxiety Accumulates

Anxiety can build up in us, too, sometimes leading to things like panic attacks.

A panic attack (also commonly called an anxiety attack) is an intense episode of fear, anxiety or panic with symptoms like pounding heart, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, trembling, chest pain or pressure, nausea, dizziness or feeling faint, fear of dying, losing control or going crazy.

In short, panic attacks share many of the same symptoms as a heart attack! And because of that, it is wise to get to an emergency room to get checked out in case it IS a heart attack!

In fact, panic attacks can be so frightening and upsetting that people frequently develop what we’d call “secondary anxiety” about having more panic attacks!! People get anxiety about getting anxiety and that can be a real vicious cycle!

Some people become so afraid of having panic attacks that they try to avoid any place, person, or situation that might trigger one. They may stop leaving the house, lose the ability to go to work, avoid going to the grocery store, and even stop seeing their doctors. At that point, we’d probably call it agoraphobia, which is anxiety about having anxiety in a public place.

And that’s an awful way to live, don’t you think?

Our Culture Contributes to Our Anxieties

Have you ever noticed how people like to gather to chew the fat about things that are going wrong in life? It’s the old “misery loves company” habit. People gather in the breakroom or around the water cooler to worry about the economy and possible layoffs. We call our friends to hash over the painful details of someone’s relationship struggles.

And, of course, we believe it’s vitally important to stay current with the news in order to hear the latest reports of murders, fires, global climate changes, and weapons of mass destruction. It’s so important, we can have news updates sent to our cell phones!!

Here’s a question: Have you ever noticed what happens when you try to inject some encouragement or hopefulness into a conversation with a current events doom and gloom junkie?

I usually get a stunned “This is REALITY!” response followed by an indignant lecture along the lines of “If you don’t watch the news, if you don’t stay informed, if you don’t think the world is going to you-know-where in a handbasket, well, then you’re just an ostrich with your head stuck in the sand.”

People who see the glass half full are “looking at the world through rose-colored glasses;” and people who see the glass half empty are “realists.”

And yet…aren’t both observations equally true? Isn’t that proverbial glass both half empty AND half full? Does one cancel out the other?

Why Is This So Important?

Recognizing that there is both good AND bad, positive AND negative is vitally important to our well being.

A recent article on WebMD: Pessimism, Cynicism Can Hurt Your Heart talks about a research study that indicates that a "negative outlook appears to raise risk of heart disease, death...[and] new research suggests that having a positive attitude just might protect against heart disease and keep you alive."

That's pretty powerful encouragement for optimism, don't you think?

Our minds, like our bodies, reflect what we put into it.

Our minds tend to take on the attributes of whatever we focus our attention upon.

If we spend a lot of time learning, practicing, and making music, we will hear music playing in the background of our dreams.

If we enjoy writing poetry or stories, we’ll always be alert to new themes and ideas, and we’ll catch ourselves composing poetic phrases in our minds.

If we enjoy photography, we’ll frame every view in our mind’s eye.

If we love plants and gardening, we’ll notice the wildflowers and trees, and the landscaping of other yards, parks, and wild places.

If we believe the world is falling apart, we will notice the things that support that belief, and we will likely miss the things that contradict it.

When we’re so busy imagining and worrying about worst-case future scenarios, we lose touch with the present. And what’s really sad is that most of those imaginary scenarios we worry about never even come to pass. All that energy wasted for nothing.

It's all about BALANCE

So, accepting that our metaphorical glass is both half full and half empty, what do we do?

First, evaluate your worries for the purposes of developing an action plan.

For example: If you’re worried about being laid off from your job, take some steps to be better prepared. Consider modifying the family budget to reduce spending and put more into savings to cover you in the event you need to look for another position; update your resume; start sending out feelers into your social and professional network of friends and associates.

Take whatever action is prudent and reasonable to increase your ability to respond effectively in the event your worry comes true.

Having done that, it’s time to work on detaching from the worry and anxiety. This is what some people refer to as “Let go and let God handle it.”

At first blush, that might sound flippant to some; but there is actually great wisdom there if you stop to think about it. Once you’ve done all you can do, continuing to dwell, worry, and rehash your fears only increases your anxiety and it’s wasted energy. Give your whole system a break – a mini-vacation, if you will – from worrying, even if it’s only for 30 minutes at a time!

Go on-line and be inspired and motivated by reading some good news for a change on Daryn Kagan's site.


At the risk of being tarred and feathered, turn off the news once in a while and do some yoga stretching instead.

Remember all the times you’ve already handled uncertain situations, and remind yourself that no matter what happens, you’ll handle this, too. It may involve changes, but, hey, change is not just part of, but is actually essential to life.

And that means: This, too, shall pass.

So, enjoy that sunset. Watch those clouds.

Blow bubbles with your grandkids.

Play with the family dog.

Get a group together and play a game of Apples to Apples (guaranteed to make you laugh!)

Do something ridiculously silly.

Help to balance your personal scales by noticing what is good in your life – right here, right now.

Remember it is just as true to say that the glass is half full as it is to see it as half empty.



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A Better Day Counseling Services & Paula Sharp, LCSW

Serving Boise, Eagle, Meridian and Treasure Valley, Idaho

Located at: 1414 W. Franklin St., Boise, ID 83702

(208) 344-4343

In the Heart of Boise, for Good!

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