Experiencing uncomfortably high levels of anxiety is one of the most common reasons why South Floridians might seek psychological help.
While a certain level of anxiety is natural, especially during stressful times, what is not normal is anxiety accompanied by serious, debilitating symptoms like relentless worrying and dread, inability to be at ease physically (almost as if one has been placed on “high alert”), and having to struggle through situations that used to be “no problem.”
The major categories of anxiety disorders are: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Specific Phobia, Social Phobia, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Anxiety Due to a Medical Condition. More about the specific characteristics of different anxiety-related conditions may be found on our website: www.nbiweston.com.
Anxiety is like a “false alarm.” The mind and body feel “as if” they are in a dangerous situation that requires some type of decisive action. This is known as “fight or flight.” However, despite this distressing state, most people simultaneously recognize that their heightened concerns and reactive bodily sensations are excessive, even irrational.
Some theorists have speculated that today’s high rates of anxiety are due to an increasing discrepancy between the ways our bodies learned to respond to danger over the course of thousands of years and our more sedentary and “safer” modern world. In other words, our “alarm systems” are currently more prone to going “haywire” because we don’t have enough opportunity to face truly dangerous, real life or death situations.
Thus, presently, some people’s nervous system lack the capacity to differentiate a real tiger from a symbolic “tiger,” such as a big test or being criticized. (People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have faced truly dangerous situations, but their fears persist long after the actual threat is no longer present).
Compounding this situation, our accelerated pace of social, economic, and technological change adds further stress in our lives as well as on our nervous systems. Unfortunately, anxiety is progressive in many cases because natural instincts, like avoiding stressful situations (e.g., finding “safety signals,” sitting near an exit), or constantly seeking reassurance, only makes this problem worse over time.
With proper and timely intervention, anxiety often can be treated successfully. Yet, barriers to effective intervention are quite common. Many with anxiety conditions are concerned about getting help or being stigmatized. Thus, they often needlessly delay obtaining necessary treatment, often trying every home remedy, regardless of lack of evidence. Some may feel as if they are being weak and need to deal with it on their own, or that they are letting others in their lives down.
Others may experience shame or embarrassment. In fact, many people with severe anxiety become “experts” in learning how to hide their symptoms, even from close relatives or friends. They are often described as “white-knuckling” their way through anxiety. Ironically, once they decide to be more open, they often find that they have become so good at putting up a façade that their significant others have difficulty understanding the gravity of their anxiety problems.
Although every person has their own threshold for how much anxiety they can bear, a good rule of thumb is to consider seeking professional assistance when your level of inner distress and avoidance behaviors (e.g. “making excuses”) are increasing, when it feels like anxiety is “taking over your life” by negatively affecting your education, job, or relationships, and when “common sense” approaches aren’t working.
As untreated anxiety worsens and becomes more time consuming, depression or self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, gambling, or food can become overlapping problems. Sometimes anxiety and its related problems can become so intense that thoughts about wanting to die occur. Suicidal ideations always need to be taken seriously. It is a myth that those who talk about wanting to hurt themselves never do it.
Although medications can be very helpful for anxiety, some experts think that learning to understand and manage stressful situations, upsetting thoughts, and uncomfortable sensations might be an effective first step to try in many cases. If a psychological approach is not achieving the desired outcome after a reasonable time period, or if symptoms are severely worsening or associated with unsafe impulses or behaviors, considering medicinal strategies then becomes more urgent.
Unfortunately, however, the class of medications that can provide the quickest relief, benzodiazepines, have been associated with addictive qualities and “anxiety rebound effects” if taken for too long a time. Consequently, a medical practitioner will likely only be able to prescribe these agents on a limited basis and inform you about other kinds of effective anxiety-reducing agents. In many cases, the best results will result from combining psychological approaches with a medication regimen, at least for a while. Also, obtaining a thorough medical check-up is often recommended at the outset of treatment because there are a number of medical conditions that can masquerade as an anxiety disorder (e.g. ear infections).
In terms of specific psychological treatments, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), an evidence-based method, seems to be especially effective for many kinds of anxiety conditions. CBT focuses on building present stress management skills, challenging anxious thought patterns, dealing with uncomfortable physical sensations, and eliminating self-defeating avoidance behaviors.
Bottom line: Getting help for an anxiety problem isn’t easy, but it’s often a necessity to make real and lasting progress. With the appropriate intervention, there is every reason to think that anxiety treatment can work, even in complicated or chronic cases.