Mind Your Mind: What is anxiety?

Do you ever feel numb, apprehensive or worried before writing an exam? Do you feel nervous at the thought of making friends, or panic when you find yourself interacting with strangers? Or, if you’re like me, do you ever catch yourself ruminating, having obsessive thoughts and experiencing waves of distress for no reason? If you answered yes to any of the above, you might be suffering from anxiety.

Students at UBC, as well as other universities, experience an incredible amount of anxiety. As someone who experiences anxiety on a daily basis, I can definitely assert that too much anxiety can significantly impact your well-being and affect your life in a negative way.

What is anxiety exactly?

According to The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, anxiety can be defined as a response to perceived danger that “affects your whole being.” “It is a physiological, behavioural and psychological reaction all at once.” Anxiety functions as our natural “internal alarm system." It alerts us of potential threats, and helps our bodies prepare to deal with those perceived dangers.

I feel anxious. Is that normal?

Totally! Although anxiety can often make us feel alienated and different from our peers, it’s normal to feel anxious from time to time. The truth is that we all experience anxiety to some degree.

In fact, anxiety can be adaptive at times. It can protect or help us cope with real danger. Anxiety is what “allows us to jump out of the way of speeding car” by making sure we’re “ready to take action” according to AnxietyBC. In short, we need a certain amount of anxiety to survive!

It’s important to note, though, that although anxiety is part of life, it is not always healthy. When a person begins to experience an unreasonable amount of anxiety, he or she may need to seek professional help. Anxiety disorders, the most common mental illnesses, are diagnosed when individuals experience more intense anxiety, that is longer lasting and ends up affecting their overall level of functioning. Examples of anxiety disorders include social anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

What’s the anxiety triangle?

Anxiety affects our cognition (thoughts), behaviours (actions) and physical sensations. For example, before writing an exam, my breath deepens, my muscles tense up, and my heart beats faster. At the same time, worries explode inside my head, and I catch myself either frozen on the spot, or having the urge to get up and run out of the classroom.

The fight-flight-freeze response

When we experience anxiety, we are having an acute stress response, conceptualized as hyperarousal. Fight-flight-freeze is an automatic built-in mechanism that from an evolutionary perspective, allowed us to fight predators, flee dangerous situations or hide from enemies. This response is great when there are immediate threats to our survival. The problem nowadays is that our bodies respond in this same manner to situations that are viewed as psychologically dangerous or overwhelming, but aren’t really life-threatening. Examples includes having an argument with your partner, writing an exam or attending a party.

Causes, signs and symptoms

Anxiety is caused by different factors, including heredity predispositions, childhood circumstances, biological causes (genes), personality traits, trauma and life stressors. Symptoms include:

Physiological: Rapid breathing, increased heart rate, nausea, sweating, dizziness, numbness, dissociation, tingling sensations, muscle tension, etc.

Cognitive: worry thoughts, catastrophizing, memory difficulties, loss of concentration, mind going “blank”. In short, anxiety can skew our views of the world and our interpretations of events.

Behavioural: Avoidant behaviours like not showing up to an exam, escape behaviours like leaving a party as soon as you feel uncomfortable and safety behaviours like only attending social events with a trusted partner.

How can I cope with anxiety?

Even though humans can’t get rid of anxiety completely, the good news is that we have plenty of ways to cope. Top proven strategies to reduce anxious distress include, mindfulness, physical exercise, relaxation/meditation/breathing techniques, changing self-talk/mistaken beliefs, improving your self-esteem and confidence, eating healthy or medication & psychotherapy

In the next few articles, I’ll discuss ways to deal with anxiety, and share resources. In the meantime, I encourage you to notice when you’re anxious, and acknowledge the feelings of anxiety. Be curious about what’s going on in your mind and body, identify physical sensations, and remember to breathe deeply.

The authors of this column are not mental health professionals. If you need additional support, please contact Student Health Services, Sexual Assault Support Centre and/or the Wellness Centre. In case of an emergency, call 911.