We all deal with anxiety in some form or another, whether it’s when you’re pulled over by the cops or about to give a speech in front of a crowd. But for some, anxiety is a much stronger, more fearsome force—one that never goes away. But what is anxiety exactly, and what’s going on in your mind (and your body) when anxiety strikes? How do you cope when it takes hold?
The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) says that over 40 million people in the US over the age of 18 suffer from some anxiety-related disorder, and those are just the people who have been diagnosed, or whose symptoms fit into a pre-described condition. Millions more go undiagnosed.
On the other hand, anxiety itself is a natural human response that serves a purpose. Our goal shouldn’t be to dismiss it entirely, just to make it a healthy, manageable part of our lives. Even if you don’t suffer from an anxiety-related disorder, you’ve likely had to deal with it and cope the best way you know how. Anxiety is part of our world, the same way stress, sadness, and happiness are, but the key is understanding how to cope with it, and how to keep it from becoming unhealthy.
What Anxiety Is, and How It Differs from Stress
Put simply, anxiety is a sense of fear and apprehension that puts you on alert. Biologically, it’s meant to put us in a heightened sense of awareness so we’re prepared for potential threats. Unfortunately, when we start to feel excessive anxiety, or we live in a constant state of anxiety, we’re in trouble. Our bodies never turn off our fight or flight response, and we live with the physical and emotional effects of anxiety on a day to day basis, even when there’s no reason or cause for them.
On its face, anxiety can look like stress but the reality isn’t so simple. Anxiety can arise as a result of stress, but stress can manifest in other ways. Stressors can make a person sad, angry, worried, or anxious, while anxiety is specifically that feeling of fear, dread, and apprehension we mentioned. You may never even know what’s causing your anxiety, or in some cases, it can manifest on its own, without any real “trigger” or cause. Stress is often caused by external influences, while anxiety is an internal response. That’s part of what makes anxiety intrinsically different than stress, and also what makes it so difficult to manage.