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What Is Anxiety and How Can I Cope With It?

It’s 9 a.m. You’ve hit the snooze button for the twelfth time since 6 a.m. You’re already late. You sent a text to your supervisor to tell her you are sick and can’t come in today. “I’ll get a doctor’s note,” you tell yourself with a slight pang of guilt, and you lay back down.

That was Monday. Tuesday was the same. Now it’s Wednesday. It’s 9 a.m. The alarm clock has been unplugged since 7 and lies in a shattered chunk on the floor across the room. You sit, feeling just as shattered on the edge of the bed, work-ready from the waist up, but still donning the pyjama bottoms and rabbit slippers you’ve worn for the last three days. Warm tears run down your face as you sit staring at the phone, ready to text your supervisor one more time to say you are still down with a “summer cold.” Except, it isn’t a summer cold. This feels so much worse, and it’s been getting worse these past months. Your heart is racing, but your body won’t move. You don’t want to go to work, despite loving your job. You don’t want to talk to anyone. All you want to do is close every curtain, turn off your phone and avoid everything.

This is ANXIETY.

For many of us when we think of anxiety, we think of panic attacks and laboured breathing in a brown paper bag. We don’t always think of the many subtler symptoms, psychological and physiological, that can present more commonly but be just as crippling. With so many stigmas still swirling around mental illness, those who struggle with overwhelming anxiety hesitate to reach out to avoid the risk of being judged or misunderstood. In their silence, they grapple with trying to make sense of how difficult life feels while asking themselves over and over, “What’s wrong with me?”

Is this your story? Or the story of someone you know? Has it felt like anxiety has slowly (or not so slowly) “taken over” everything?

Effectively treating anxiety is about understanding what anxiety is and what happens in the body and mind when one is anxious. As a registered psychotherapist, a large part of my role is helping clear up some of the misconceptions about mental health and make sure clients get the information they need to feel and do better.

Here are the top five questions my clients ask when seeking help. 

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a set of physiological (body) responses that occur when the brain has detected a threat (real, possible or perceived). It is the feeling of the body preparing to defend or protect itself should the need arise. These responses are typically short-lived, can be directly linked to an obvious trigger or cause for concern and have little impact on overall daily functioning. In some cases, anxious responses can persist with an intensity and/or frequency that can severely impact daily functioning. Individuals may experience intense episodes of anxiety (often labeled as panic attacks) or a persistent feeling of worry, tension and/or fear (generalized anxiety).

What causes anxiety?

The cause or “trigger” of anxiety can be different for each person. In cases where no obvious threat or trigger can be identified, individuals often seek the support of a mental health professional such as a psychotherapist or social worker. These practitioners are trained in therapeutic techniques that can help provide the understanding and strategies needed to identify, manage and often eliminate disruptive symptoms. While the triggers to anxiety may be individual, there are common factors that make each of us more susceptible to heightened anxiety. These include, but are not limited to, lack of sleep, improper nutrition/hydration, lack of social supports, increased stress, interpersonal conflict and negative or self-limiting beliefs.

Do I need medication?

The use of anti-anxiety medication should always be decided in consultation with your general physician or a qualified medical professional. While medications have been shown to effectively reduce the impact of symptoms, therapy provided by a trained mental health clinician can help root out the source of anxiety giving individuals the ability and skills to better understand and cope with anxious responses in the long term.

Is there something wrong with me?

A better question is, “Why am I responding this way?” Anxiety is like the body’s alarm system. It tells us when something is not “right” or does not feel “safe.” The belief or fear that something is “wrong” with us only creates something else to be anxious about. This fear can often increase the intensity of the anxiety even further, creating an exhausting cycle of fear and shame. It is important to remember that anxiety is a protective system that is designed to help us stay alert. Effective anxiety management is about learning how to read and control our anxious responses.

What can I do to better cope with anxiety?

1. Manage your Energy – know that anxiety is a major source of energy output for the mind and body. This can be and feel very depleting. Manage your energy by ensuring sufficient rest and down time; if necessary, temporarily reducing the amount of responsibility or tasks at work or at home.
2. Connect with Others – It can be hard to say we are struggling, but you don’t have to go it alone. Letting a trusted loved one know you are struggling and asking for help can alleviate the stress and exhaustion of having to hide or create the “happy face” we feel people need us to have.
3. Seek Professional Support – When we are feeling fearful, nervous, and anxious and depleted, it is hard to be rational and even harder to reflect on our own experience rationally. A trained, registered mental health professional can provide you with the knowledgeable guidance you need to understand and manage anxious responses.

Bonnie J. Skinner is a Registered Psychotherapist and Certified Canadian Counsellor. With proven expertise in high-demand & evidence-based interventions including Cognitive Behavioural and Trauma Informed therapies, Bonnie’s primary goal is to ensure her clients get the professional support they need to make positive lasting changes in their lives.

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