In our culture, media and social norms tell us we should work, exercise, cook, clean, take care of our kids and pets, strive for a good social life and even squeeze some volunteer work if we can. A whole new level of busy is introduced into our lives with technology because we can read the news, talk with friends, listen to podcasts and books, pay our bills, and manage our schedule and email right from our phones anywhere we are.
We are not only doing more with our time than ever before, but we are also flooded with exposure and knowledge to others’ lives which leads to comparisons and the “better/faster/stronger/better” mentality.
Stress is a natural result of all of the pressures of our lives. Mix in a little negative self-talk, lack of time management, and minimal self-care and you get…. Drum roll…. ANXIETY!
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:
- Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.
- Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.
- People with an anxiety disorder are three to five times more likely to go to the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders.
- Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.
It’s important to distinguish that anxiety and clinical anxiety are two very different things. Anxiety is a naturally occurring phenomenon in the human body and not all of it is bad. If you didn’t have anxiety at all, you wouldn’t go to work in the morning, you wouldn’t avoid the pothole on the way out of your neighborhood or even lock your car door when you go into the grocery store.
The Webster definition of anxiety is: a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
Clinical anxiety is when the feeling of worry about an imminent event starts to impact your day-to-day functioning. So if your anxiety is impacting your relationships with others, your ability to do your job or function at school, how you interact with the community, or even how you sleep and eat, than you may meet criteria for an anxiety disorder.
The criteria to clinically diagnose someone with anxiety often includes the following but are different for each anxiety diagnosis:
- Excessive worry most days that you’ve been experiencing for at least 6 months
- You find it hard to manage the worrying
- You have 3 of these symptoms: feeling restless and edgy, becoming tired easily, hard time concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, difficulty falling or staying asleep
Anxiety disorders are a blanket term covering several different specific diagnoses. A diagnosis is a standardized way of labeling a set of symptoms. It is used to help doctors, therapists, and other health care professionals to coordinate care and speak the same language. Here are some anxiety disorders listed in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder published by the American Psychiatric Association) which is the manual all healthcare professionals use to diagnose mental health disorders:
- GAD affects 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population, yet only 43.2% are receiving treatment.
- Women are twice as likely to be affected as men. GAD often co-occurs with major depression.
Panic Disorder (PD)
- PD affects 6 million adults, or 2.7% of the U.S. population.
- Women are twice as likely to be affected as men.
- SAD affects 15 million adults, or 6.8% of the U.S. population.
- SAD is equally common among men and women and typically begins around age 13. According to a 2007 ADAA survey, 36% of people with social anxiety disorder report experiencing symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking help.
- Specific phobias affect 19 million adults, or 8.7% of the U.S. population.
- Women are twice as likely to be affected as men.
- Symptoms typically begin in childhood; the average age-of-onset is 7 years old.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are closely related to anxiety disorders, which some may experience at the same time, along with depression.
- OCD affects 2.2 million adults, or 1.0% of the U.S. population.
- OCD is equally common among men and women.
- The average age of onset is 19, with 25 percent of cases occurring by age 14. One-third of affected adults first experienced symptoms in childhood.
- PTSD affects 7.7 million adults, or 3.5% of the U.S. population.
- Women are more likely to be affected than men.
- Rape is the most likely trigger of PTSD: 65% of men and 45.9% of women who are raped will develop the disorder.
- Childhood sexual abuse is a strong predictor of lifetime likelihood for developing PTSD.
Anxiety in the Brain: What’s Happening to me?!
You’ve all heard of the fight or flight response. This is the body’s way of protecting you from danger. When we are in fight or flight (scientifically referred to as the sympathetic nervous system is activated), your body sends all it’s resources to the functions that are important for survival such as rapid breathing, tense legs and arms, dilated pupils, higher body temperature, etc. This activated sympathetic nervous system is functional. It’s how our ancestors avoided saber tooth tiger attacks and storms before we lived in a time when there aren’t such things as “the need to survive” on a scale like there used to be.
The sympathetic nervous system was not meant to be your default mode. The opposite system in our body, or the calm-your-shit-everything-is-safe mode, is called the parasympathetic nervous system. It comes online when your mind tells you, “there’s no danger, you can relax now.”
Here’s the pickle: the modern day “danger” is not a sabertooth tiger trying to eat you, it’s that Karen told Susan your shirt is ugly. It’s that traffic is too congested to get your Starbucks and make the meeting on time. It’s that you have to empty the dishwasher and clean your bathroom before your in-laws come over for dinner. Our brains are hardwired to find the “danger” in our lives but our day-to-day stress does not need rapid breathing and fast heart rates to problem solve.
So here you are facing all the daily stress in your life and your sympathetic nervous system is like the Terminator 24/7. There’s no class in grade school aimed to show you how to activate your calm-down system and tell your mind that being stuck in traffic is not a danger. Parents do not raise us to manage our biological urge to react to our environments as “dangerous” (to no fault of their own).