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What is anxiety and what causes it?

Webster’s dictionary defines anxiety as:

  • A state of uneasiness and apprehension, as about future uncertainties.

  • A state of apprehension, uncertainty, and fear resulting from the anticipation of a realistic or fantasized threatening event or situation, often impairing physical and psychological functioning.

Anxiety is normal. Everyone experiences anxiety at times. For example, it is normal to feel anxious on a rollercoaster or before a job interview.

Anxiety is adaptive. It is a system in our body that helps us to deal with real danger (for example, anxiety allows us to jump out of the way of a speeding car) or to perform at our best (for example, it motivates us to prepare for a big presentation). When you experience anxiety, your body's "fight-flight-freeze" response (also called the "adrenaline response") is triggered. This prepares your body to defend itself.

More on Fight-Flight-Freeze response
Our body's natural alarm system (the fight-flight-freeze response) can be activated when there is a real danger, such as coming across a bear when hiking in the woods. In this case, you may flee (e.g. run away from the bear), freeze (e.g. stay still until the bear passes), or fight (e.g. yell and wave your arms to appear big and scary).

This response can also occur when something feels dangerous but really isn't, such as being interviewed for a job. For example, you may feel jittery, on edge or uncomfortable. You may snap at people (fight) or have a hard time thinking clearly (freeze). These feelings can become overwhelming and make you feel you want to avoid doing the interview (flight). Many people stop doing things or going places that make them feel anxious.

Anxiety is not dangerous. Although anxiety may feel uncomfortable, it is not dangerous or harmful to you. Remember, all the sensations you feel when you are anxious are there to protect you from danger, not hurt you.

Anxiety does not last forever. When you are anxious, you may feel like the anxiety is going to last forever. But anxiety is temporary and will eventually decrease.

Anxiety is mostly anonymous. Most people (except those close to you) cannot tell when you are anxious because it does not show on your face.

Anxiety can become a problem. Anxiety is a problem when your body reacts as if there is danger when there is no real danger. It's like having an overly senstive smoke alarm system in your body.

Anxiety problems are common. 1-in-10 adults suffer from anxiety problems.

Anxiety is like a smoke alarm system:
A smoke alarm can help protect us when there is a fire but, when a smoke alarm is too sensitive and goes off when there isn't a fire (e.g. burning toast in toaster), it is annoying.

Like a smoke alarm, anxiety is helpful and adaptive when it works properly but, if it goes off when there is no real danger, it can be scary and exhausting.

However, we DO NOT want to get rid of the alarm (or eliminate anxiety) because it protects us from danger. We want to fix it (i.e. bring the anxiety down to a more manageable level) so it works properly for us.

What Happens to Your Body When You Are Anxious?

Anxiety can cause many sensations in your body as it prepares for danger. These sensations are called the "alarm reaction". They occur when the body's natural alarm system ("fight-flight-freeze") is activated.

  • Rapid heart beat and rapid breathing: When your body is preparing itself for action, it makes sure enough blood and oxygen are circulated to your major muscle groups and essential organs. This enables you to run away or fight off danger.

  • Sweating: Sweating cools the body. It also makes the skin more slippery and difficult for an attacking animal or person to grab hold of you.

  • Nausea and stomach upset: When faced with danger, the body shuts down systems/processes that are not needed for survival; that way it can direct energy to functions that are critical for survival. Digestion is one of the processes that is not needed at times of danger. Because of this, anxiety might lead to feelings of stomach upset, nausea or diarrhea.

  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded: Because our blood and oxygen goes to major muscle groups when we are in danger, we breathe much faster to move oxygen toward those muscles. However, this can cause hyperventilation (too much oxygen from breathing very rapidly to prepare the body for action), which can make you feel dizzy or lightheaded. Also, since most of your blood and oxygen are going to your arms and legs (for "fight or flight"), there is a slight decrease of blood to the brain, which can also make you dizzy. Don't worry-- the slight decrease in blood flow to the brain is not dangerous.

  • Tight or painful chest: Because your muscles tense up as your body prepares for danger, your chest may feel tight or painful when you take in large breaths.

  • Numbness and tingling sensations: Hyperventilation (taking in too much oxygen) can also cause numbness and tingling sensations. The tingling sensations may also related to the fact that the hairs on our bodies often stand up when faced with danger to increase our sensitivity to touch or movement. Finally, fingers and toes may also feel numb/tingly as blood flows away from places where it is not needed (like our fingers) and towards major muscle groups that are needed (like our arms).

  • Unreality or bright vision: When responding to danger, our pupils dilate to let in more light and to make sure that we can see clearly enough. This reaction makes our environment look brighter or fuzzier, and sometimes less real.

  • Heavy legs: As our legs prepare for action (fight or flight), increased muscle tension as well as increased blood flow to those muscles, can cause the sensation of heavy legs.

A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Explanation about How Anxiety Works

Often, how we interpret a situation determines how anxious we will feel about it and how we respond. Therefore, there are 3 parts to anxiety, specifically: physical symptoms (how our body responds); thoughts (what we say to ourselves); and behaviors (what we do or our actions). Learning to recognize these signs of anxiety can help us be less afraid.

  • Thoughts e.g. What if I forget what I want to say during the presentation?

  • Behaviors e.g. find an excuse to get out of it

  • Physical Symptoms e.g. stomach ache, cold sweat, racing heart


Types of anxiety
A person can experience anxious feelings in response to a specific event, like a car accident or they may have unexplained, constant  worry, feelings of doom, anticipation of a stressful event with reccurring negative feelings or feeling as if they’re nerves are frazzled. They may feel this way all the time or only occasionally.

Anxiety is a feeling of worry and/or fear. It can be a mild, but chronic nagging. Imaginings of disasters, trouble, glitches that could, would, should, or might happen  fill your thoughts and keep you from feeling comfortable and relaxed in your body and in your life.

Physical signs of anxiety
Anxiety is usually accompanied by muscle tension, sleeplessness, lack of appetite or chronic eating. People try to squash these feelings by keeping busy, focusing on the needs of others, drinking or smoking. Anxious people sometimes crave carbohydrates such as breads, pasta and potatoes. Little do they know that these foods often fuel more anxiety. Many people try to calm their anxiety by drinking alcohol or using drugs--referred to as "self-medicating."   However, they risk developing an addiction, overdosing on meds or developing a more serious health problem, like diabetes.

Anxiety is often felt in the stomach
Anxiety sufferers may have a “nervous stomach” (Irritable bowel, ulcers, spastic colon or colitis) which may both result from and contribute to problems with digestive flora.

Panic attacks are the sudden feeling of rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, faintness and feelings of having a heart attack. Panic attacks usually increase anxiety due to fear of having more panic attacks. Panic attacks are disabling and may accompany agoraphobia (fear of going out or social phobia). They may cause someone to avoid going out or being around people for years. Some people may find that they  may have panic attacks or phobias that come and go with certain foods, medications or exposure to certain chemicals or certain settings.

What causes this anxiety? There are a number of theories but the underlying mechanism is a nervous system that is getting a message that there is an emergency around you. That nervous system is sending alarm messages to the body which prepares for fight or flight. Fear and anxiety go hand in hand. Sleeplessness and anxiety are regular companions.

Information source: http://africanamericantherapists.com/about-therapy/do-you-need-therapy/anxiety-in-african-americans-causes/#sthash.ZP5NmQgC.dpbs

Additional Anxiety Resources:

Angela Neal-Barnett, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Kent State University, is a leading expert on anxiety disorders among African Americans. She is the CEO of Soothe Your Nerves, Inc., and the author of Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman’s Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic, and Fear (Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 2003).

Bible verses to remind us - We do not have to Fear:

1.  “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10

2.  “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” Psalm 56:3

3.  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7

4.  “Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace that I give you. I do not give it as the world does. Do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid.” John 14:27

5.  “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7

6.  “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:18

7.  “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.” Psalm 94:19

8.  “But now, this is what the Lord says…Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” Isaiah 43:1

9.  “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” Proverbs 12:25

10. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4

11. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9

12. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:34

13. “Humble yourselves, then, under God’s mighty hand, so that he will lift you up in his own good time.  Leave all your worries with him, because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:6-7

14. “Tell everyone who is discouraged, Be strong and don’t be afraid! God is coming to your rescue…” Isaiah 35:4

15. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear.  Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.  Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!  Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?  Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” Luke 12:22-26

16. “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” Psalm 27:1

17. “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.” Psalm 55:22

18. “Immediately he spoke to them and said, 'Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.'” Mark 6:50

19. “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

20. “'For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.  Do not be afraid, for I myself will help you,' declares the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.” Isaiah 41:13-14

21. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Psalm 46:1

22. “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.  What can man do to me?  The Lord is with me; he is my helper.” Psalm 118:6-7

23. “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.” Proverbs 29:25

24. “He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.  He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Mark 4:39-40

25. “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.” Psalm 34:7

26. “But even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats.” 1 Peter 3:14

27. “I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me.  He freed me from all my fears.” Psalm 34:4

28. “Do not be afraid of them; the Lord your God himself will fight for you.” Deuteronomy 3:22

29. “Then he placed his right hand on me and said: 'Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.'” Revelation 1:17

30. “Jesus told him, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe.’” Mark 5:36

31. “And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.” Romans 8:38-39

32. “The Lord your God is in your midst, A victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.” Zephaniah 3:17

33. “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”…He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.  You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.  A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you…For he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways…“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.  He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him…” from Psalm 91:1-16

Be assured, He is with you in whatever you face, in the turmoil and struggles, amidst the anxious thoughts and the worries of life. He is there, strengthening, helping, and He holds you in His hands.

God is greater. He gives us the power to live courageously, boldly, fearlessly in this life, when many things that surround us would tell us to be afraid. His truth whispers strong and sure to the deepest core of our spirits.

“Do not fear.”

All of that stuff on your mind? Give it to Him – again. Replace those fearful thoughts with His words of truth. And sleep in peace tonight. He knows what concerns you, He’s got you covered. (http://www.crosswalk.com) 

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