Surely you have felt anxious before taking a pop quiz in class or stressed when you realized that an assignment is due sooner than you anticipated. It’s also possible that you have felt so nervous before giving a presentation that it seemed as if you couldn’t form full sentences anymore. Maybe you have gone into a store, only to quickly leave because you felt overwhelmed with a racing heart, sweaty palms, and tension growing throughout your body. You may wonder sometimes if your feelings of anxiety are even normal.
The short answer: Yes. Anxiety, nervousness, worry, and fear are all very normal emotions. They can even be helpful at times! But sometimes it may feel like your brain and body have been hijacked and rewired and your built-in alarm system goes off at times that aren’t all that helpful.
How Anxiety Affects You
You are wired with the ability to feel emotions, including happiness, guilt, sadness, excitement, shame, anger, fear, love, embarrassment, and many others. These feelings alert you to something that has either happened inside of you (like a thought or physical body sensation) or outside of you (such as a loud sound or interaction with someone). This emotional alert then motivates you to respond in some way. For instance, if someone steals something out of your backpack, you would probably feel angry — it’s a normal emotional reaction when something important is blocked from you or you (or someone/something important) have been devalued.
Once you get angry, you might respond by:
- Thinking thoughts such as “That isn’t fair.” “People shouldn’t steal from each other.” “Someone did me wrong.”
- Having body sensations such as muscle tension, a hot face, or a racing heart
- Confronting people around you or raising your voice
To better understand anxiety, think about its close relative: Fear. Fear is the emotion you are wired to feel when there is a threat to your safety and livelihood; fear is your alarm system. If you detect a fire, see a car not stopping at a red light, or are being attacked, your body’s fear alert helps turn on a built-in survival mode (Fight-Flight-Freeze), which has the goal of keeping you alive. This system ramps up your body so you can run faster than usual to get away; gives you incredible focus and extra strength if you have to confront/fight; or in some specific instances helps your body numb and detach if enduring trauma is the only or best option seemingly available.
Because of this incredible survival system, your body experiences quick changes, including:
- Faster, heavier breathing
- Increased heart rate
- Feeling jittery with a surge of energy
- Very narrow, focused thoughts and point of view
Do any of those sound similar to you when you feel anxious? They probably do, because anxiety is like a sibling to fear. Anxiety causes your body to ramp up in much the same way, but there are a couple of differences. While fear comes as a result to an actual threat, anxiety on the other hand shows up in response to situations and thoughts that might have a bad outcome. Anxiety helps you prepare for the future and possible bad, challenging, or even dangerous situations.
Here are some examples of those thoughts or situations and their relationship to anxiety, which you might experience from time to time:
- Feeling anxious before giving a presentation in class
- Feeling nervous before taking your driving test for your license
- Feeling anxiety when you think about a difficult conversation you need to have with a friend or boyfriend/girlfriend
Why Too Much Anxiety Is Unhealthy
Anxiety helps alert you to the importance of a situation. Imagine if you didn’t feel nervous as your driving test was approaching. Do you think you would be invested in studying, preparing, and practicing? Probably not. In the big picture, anxiety is a very normal emotion that serves a purpose and can even be helpful to you. Yet, you may have had an experience that goes along with the saying “too much of a good thing.”
Take that driving test example. The right amount of anxiety will help you focus time and energy into preparing so that you can minimize the chances of having a bad outcome (such as failing the test). Too much anxiety, however, and you may find yourself unable to concentrate on studying because you’re focused on the possibility of failing. Or perhaps your body gets tense and sweaty every time you think about the test, which is really uncomfortable to experience. Potentially, you may begin to avoid driving practice altogether and spend less time studying as a result. In these instances, the experience of anxiety is still completely normal; however, the response you have (in your thoughts, body, and actions) is becoming less helpful.
If you have experienced the unhelpful side of anxiety, you are not alone. But this doesn’t have to be the way it will always be. There are ways to reclaim your brain and body when anxiety is sounding an alarm that is bigger than the situation at hand. Stay tuned for our next article, which will focus on techniques you can use to address anxiety that has gotten the best of you lately.