Triggered by stress and fear, anxiety warns us that something is potentially harmful. Human beings are wired to survive, and anxiety’s intention is to protect us. In the right “doses,” we are positively motivated by anxiety. In fact, scientists have identified good stress, known as eustress, as necessary for our overall well-being. This is the kind of stress that gives us butterflies when we’re excited and keeps us motivated toward a specific goal.
It is a paradox that stress is meant to help us—it is our fight, flight, or freeze response to dangerous situations—and yet is has the potential to impede our quality of life. What happens, then, when beneficial stress or “eustress” turns into distress? The downside of such anxious stress is that it can often lead to negative outcomes. Worry becomes excessive or chronic which can lead to dread and isolation for its sufferers. Because anxiety shows up in different ways, some people may not recognize its impact immediately and therefore live in distress for long periods of time. When anxiety become a chronic condition, it can keep us from enjoying life to the fullest.
Types of Anxiety
There are a number of subtypes of anxiety that are impairing including: panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Chronic anxiety is most often identified as General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and is characterized by persistent and pervasive worry. Over time, steady worry and negative thinking interfere with daily functioning and relationships.
For those of us who worry about “everything” anxiety can be debilitating. Life is stressful and requires much from us. Your environment, for example, asks that you adjust to the elements. You must endure weather, pollen, traffic, noise, and pollution. Additionally, there are such challenges as demands on time, competing priorities, interpersonal conflicts, financial problems, or perhaps the loss of a loved one. There are physiological and cognitive stressors that create tremendous anxiety for so many.
You may ask yourself where the worry comes from. In general, anxiety can be seen in childhood. Research demonstrates that nature (genetics) and nurture play a role in its development. While our DNA poses a potential risk factor for anxiety disorders, it does not necessarily mean that the condition is inevitable. Our environment plays a significant role and exposure to trauma at critical points in development can reset the brains normal fear-processing system to over react in non-threatening situations.
Panic Disorder is a type of anxiety marked by sudden and repeated panic attacks. Fear becomes so intense and uncomfortable that it manifests physically. Individuals often report chest pains, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness or vertigo, abdominal distress, loss of control and fear of dying.
How a Marriage and Family Therapist Can Help
If you find yourself struggling with anxiety and panic disorder, a marriage and family therapist (MFT) can be a valuable resource. Systemically trained, MFTs know how to assess and connect the environmental and genetic factors that may be contributing to your distress. In addition to effective treatment modalities like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), MFTs have expertise in relational therapy. The combination of these skills provides an anxious client the opportunity to:
- Connect thoughts, beliefs, and actions that maintain anxious symptoms
- Examine the impact of how major relationships and events shape thought patterns
- Build on existing strengths, while adding skills, like meditation and mindfulness to better manage stressors that trigger anxious thoughts and feelings of panic
- Increase awareness and understanding of the mechanics of anxiety through psychoeducation
We should all remember that no one chooses chronic anxiety. It is something that happens over time and can be treated effectively in therapy.
Written by Vanessa Bradden, LMFT