Peace is the result of retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than as you think it should be.
-Dr. Wayne Dyer
Anxiety disorders have become the most common mental health disorder in the United States, affecting at least 18% of the adult population, and those with anxiety disorders are three times more likely to receive treatment from a medical doctor. However, only about 40% of those who suffer with anxiety actually seek treatment1. But the good news is that anxiety disorders are highly treatable.
Let’s step back and first take a deeper look at anxiety. What is anxiety? Anxiety is a normal, common emotion that we all feel from time to time. It is often the emotional manifestation of stress. In counseling, it is common for clients to report that they are “stressed out,” but what they are usually experiencing is anxiety that is caused by life stressors. The symptoms of anxiety typically include worried thoughts, physical tension, and sometimes increased blood pressure. Individuals with anxiety might also notice shallow breathing and rapid heart rate.
At a primitive level, anxiety is our mind and body’s reaction to fear. If you are familiar with the flight-fight-freeze response, you know that this is a physiological reaction when we perceive a harmful event or threat to our survival. Through this response, we see three actions: 1) fight back any harm, 2) fleeing from harm, or 3) becoming paralyzed. A problem that we have is that our body sometimes perceive all threats the same, meaning that we can have the same reaction whether we find ourselves face-to-face with a bear, or simply overwhelmed with a deadline that is approaching very soon.
Another aspect of anxiety that often stands out to me among my clients is mindset. Many people with anxiety get stuck in one or two patterns. That is, they tend to dwell on the past, thinking about things that did not go as they would have wanted. Other times, anxiety makes individuals stuck in the future, worrying about things that have not occurred and may never occur. And much of the time, I see both. Clients will dwell on past events and project those into the future. An example often experienced by college students pertains to academic performance. If a student did not do well on an exam, the student may begin to believe that they will not do well on all future exams. This type of mindset can sometimes lead to thoughts about what we shoulddo, even if it is not right for us. For example, I should be making more money. I should be happier. I should agree to do ____ even though I do not want to. As Dr. Wayne Dyer stated, see quote above, this happens when we do not allow life to happen as it is and try to make it what we believe it should be. So, my response to clients in this moment is to tell them to stop shoulding all over yourself.
Unfortunately, if one does not seek support and learn how to manage our anxiety and cope with stressors, anxiety disorders are more likely to develop. In counseling, we consider anxiety to be a disorderwhen it becomes intense and excessive, often impacting daily functioning. AADA1 reported that about 3% of adults in the U.S. are affected by generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is one of the most common anxiety disorders I treat in counseling. AADA1also reported that almost 3% of American adults experience panic disorder, about 7% of adults experience social anxiety, about 8% have a phobia, and about 1% experience obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
So, what can you do if you think you have an anxiety disorder? Seek help! It’s okay to ask for support. Counseling is an effective way to treat anxiety disorders. In counseling, you will learn coping skills to help you better manage anxiety and lessen the impact on your daily life. These skills can work towards reducing worry and eliminating racing thoughts, improving sleep, and stopping panic attacks. Counseling can also help you better understand how your body holds onto anxiety and help to reduce tension and pain that is caused by it. Also, a counselor can help you to discover how unhealthy lifestyle choices can increase anxiety. If you are prescribed medication, you and your counselor can collaborate with physicians to help you create a treatment plan that works best for you. Overall, the goal of counseling is to help individuals improve their health, wellness, and life satisfaction while navigating challenges and stressors