Anxiety is an emotion we have all most likely experienced at one point in our lives. It is a normal and often healthy emotion but when an individual feels levels of anxiety that are not warranted by the situation, it might become a medical disorder. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Individuals with anxiety have constant worrying thoughts that may prevent them from being in certain social situations. Anxiety may also have physical symptoms such as dizziness, sweating, diarrhea, increased heart rate, fainting and could also lead to a change in behavior.
Classifications of anxiety disorders include: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Selective Mutism, Separation Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Specific Phobia, Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia), Substance/medication-Induced Anxiety Disorder, Anxiety disorder due to another medical condition and Agoraphobia. In this article we are going to focus on normal anxiety that does not necessarily fit the diagnostic criteria for the disorders.
Normal anxiety must often be distinguished from anxiety disorders. When one faces potentially harmful or worrying situations, feelings of anxiety are not only normal but necessary for survival. The presence of danger sets off alarms in the body, these alarms present as physiological manifestations of anxiety which include sympathetic nervous system symptoms such as being shaky, sweating, pupil dilation and the subjective experience of tachycardia or irregular heartbeat…..basically you go into fight or flight mode.
Nowadays anxieties revolve around work, money, family life, health and other pressing issues that demand our personal attention. The nervous feeling we get before huge life events is an echo of our “fight or flight” response. Normal anxiety can be extremely beneficial or can cause problems.
There are many experiences that may provoke anxiety in our lives. Life offers us many first time experiences that are anxiety provoking such as first day in a new school, first date, first public speech. There are many important events that occur as we go through life, both good and bad, that cause varying amounts of anxiety. These events can include things such as getting married, having to get sick, losing a loved one, writing an exam or going through a divorce.
The discomfort that anxiety brings is considered normal and even beneficial in some cases. This anxiety will make you study harder, look both ways before you cross the road, be alert and cautious in dodgy situations’ and make you think twice about that guy/girl you are about to say “I do” to. Basically the discomfort of anxiety helps us make logical and measured decisions.
In other cases anxiety is debilitating and problematic. Have you ever had to take a cold shower in the winter? You know that feeling you get right before you step under the shower head? When your heart starts to beat faster as you anticipate that moment of shock as the water runs down your back. The feeling is intense but you know it only lasts a few seconds before your body adjusts to the temperature of the water….But what if that moment of relief never came? What if no matter how long you stayed under the water, the relief never came, your body never relaxed or ever felt at ease? That’s what it’s like to live with problematic and chronic anxiety.
For women, living in a world that puts pressure on you from all directions can cause chronic anxiety, your African family is starting to question why you are not married yet, or why its 2 years into your marriage and their no kids yet. When you finally become a mum, the world tells you, you can do it all and you eventually want to do it all because ALL the superwomen in history seemed to do it all, with all the pressure you begin to perpetually wait for the proverbial ball to drop which leads to constant worry, ergo anxiety.
For men you are expected to be a “man”, growing up you were constantly told boys don’t cry or talk about their feelings while you watched the girls in your life get comforted and protected, no one protected you as you were required to be the protector. Men are “supposed” to solely take care of their families no questions asked. If you can’t provide for your family you have failed as a man. This adds pressure on the men in our communities. Because you are a man, you cannot verbalize your anxiety, your fears and your worries otherwise you may be perceived as weak.
And if you are not heterosexual or you are transgender and you had to grow up in an African home and an African community, the constant worry of whether you will be accepted as you are or not, scared to express your true self because you live in a homophobic community, a community that is non accepting and has deemed you abnormal. You constantly worry about having to fit in, in a world that you were not created to fit into.
When you finally graduate from university you begin to worry about employment, when you get the job you start to worry about how it will ever be possible for you to climb the ranks in the company. You finally get that promotion and now the worry is about proving you are worthy of the job. You have the dream job and now you have found love, you begin to hold your breath waiting for the romance to turn sour. When you are happy, healthy and in love you begin to clutch your heart in fear of the day that you may lose it all. I am sure you notice the pattern by now, intense and constant worry at every stage in our lives which is usually from external pressures.
On the other side of the “anxiety is beneficial” coin is the problematic anxiety that many people experience. The main difference between beneficial anxiety and problematic anxiety is the source and the intensity of the experience. While beneficial anxiety is intermittent and expected problematic anxiety tends to be chronic, irrational and interferes with daily life activities. To quote mystery thriller writer Arthur Somers Roche “anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.” If not checked problematic anxiety could quickly turn into an anxiety disorder.
People who inherit or develop this problematic anxiety constantly see the world as a threat, and if they do not learn to cope they will react to minor issues as if they were major, this causes persistent and pervasive worrying. When this kind of anxiety turns into an anxiety disorder it often results in occupational, social, ad physical impairment, as well as emotional distress.
People living with anxiety can use coping mechanisms to reduce their stress levels and control their anxiety. These are some of the common coping mechanisms:
- Make time for yourself, time to just sit by yourself and recharge. The world can be exhausting.
- Exercise regularly; exercises reduces stress levels
- Eat a balanced diet, your brain needs the nutrition. You are what you eat after all.
- Use relaxation techniques such as meditation.
- BREATHE! Just breathe through that situation.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine intake
- Learn how to change your inner thought pattern
- Speak to a mental health professional if anxiety persists and is preventing you from living the awesome life you were created to live.
“Anxiety is an urgent, deafening thing. No matter how many logical reasons you have to remain happy and positive, when it is present you can hear nothing else.” – Unknown
Featured image | nikko macaspac | Unsplash
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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