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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Shaw

What is Anxiety? What is an Anxiety Disorder?

We all experience anxiety in our life. In fact, anxious feelings and thoughts are a normal response to stressful situations and high-pressure moments. We are often taught that anxiety is a bad thing to have. It makes sense, given how unpleasant anxiety can get: hot and cold flushes, racing heart, tight chest, sweaty palms, incessant thoughts, and so on. While these are painful experiences, anxiety isn't our enemy or bad. It is a useful tool our brain creates to help respond to threats in our life. The key difference between our usual experience of anxiety and an anxiety disorder lies in the persistence of the anxiety and the degree to which our anxiety interferes with day to day life. So how do we tell the difference?

Anxiety in daily life...

The usual anxiety that we experience when preparing for a test, presentation, work meeting, sporting event, or a family discussion has a very important function in our daily lives. It can help us focus on the issue at hand, strategise and plan accordingly for challenges, and, consider various relevant factors in addressing an issue. Many people report experiencing a heightened sense of arousal, which generally facilitates our ability to respond to challenges and achieve high levels of performance. At the same time, it doesn't necessarily feel good to experience anxiety. We may experience "butterflies" in the stomach, tension in our shoulders, headaches, shortness of breath, feel extremely rushed, or, alert to the passing of time. But it tends to work! We complete the test, we remember to make the key points in a presentation, we clearly raise an issue with our family and talk it out. Then, once the challenge is over, we return back to our normal activities and enjoy the benefits. Of course, this is the ideal situation!

Sometimes, our experience of anxiety is too much to hold and our performance suffers as a result. We can't seem to remember the simple facts, we freeze up when going for the winning goal, we walk out of a discussion before we've reached a constructive end. While this is also a normal experience - we've all had it at some point in our life - it feels horrible. But, the feeling of anxiety passes once the incident is over and we move on from there. In summary, although some degree of anxiety can improve our performance on a range of tasks, severe anxiety can have the opposite effect and hinder our performance. But these are both fairly normal outcomes! Psychologists often refer to this as the Performance and Arousal Curve or the Yerkes–Dodson Law.

The Performance and Arousal Curve (Yerkes-Dodson Law)

Anxiety disorders in daily life...

Anxiety becomes a disorder when the experience of anxiety frequently sends us to the "overload" section of the curve or when it continues despite the original issue being solved or the problem being out of our control. The main point here is that the experience of anxiety interrupts our ability to function in daily life.

Imagine that the decision to have toast or cereal for breakfast carried the same level of anxiety as preparing for an astrophysics exam. We would likely feel out of our depth, overwhelmed, concerned about making the wrong choice, how spending time on this issue might affect our day and mood, worried about making a mistake, or, we might simply choose to skip breakfast. If we faced this every morning of every day then imagine how tiring our life might become and how we might start avoiding breakfast altogether - it might not be worth all this worry and anxiety. The behaviour of avoidance is often the beginning of an anxiety disorder. The experience of anxiety has become so intense and so persistent that we start to avoid the issues that cause anxiety, spend energy trying to minimise the chances of feeling anxiety, and when we finally do experience anxiety, we worry about how it has affected us and our performance.

This scenario highlights how painful an anxiety disorder can be. Common activities and choices can become issues that consume our attention, dominate our life, and cost us a rich and meaningful connection with the world and people around us. The good news is that an anxiety disorder is treatable through counselling and other methods which you can discuss with a psychologist.

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