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Anxiety FAQ


Q:  What is anxiety?
A: Anxiety can take many forms. It is usually experienced as worry, stress, tension, panic or fear. It may occur in response to a specific situation or for no apparent reason at all.
Q:  Isn't it normal to be anxious sometimes?
A: Yes. People normally go through physical and psychological changes when they perceive a threat. Physically, the heart may pound, the pulse race, the pupils dilate and the blood flow to muscle groups that are involved in warding off or fleeing from danger. Psychologically, people may feel tense, restless, irritable, on edge, or extra alert. Thoughts may race or repeat themselves over and over. These are aspects of the "fight or flight" mechanism that helps us cope with crisis situations.
Q:  When is anxiety a problem?
A: Anxiety symptoms become a problem when people experience them in the absence of an obvious threat, or when the reaction is far in excess of what seems justified by its cause. People should consider seeking treatment for anxiety when it is frequent, intense or prolonged, or when it interferes with their daily functioning and enjoyment of life.
Q:  What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Anxiety takes different forms, each with its own characteristic set of symptoms.

  • Panic attacks are episodes of sudden, overwhelming fear accompanied by intense physical symptoms such as a pounding heart, chest pains, nausea, shortness of breath, dizzyness or faintness. People may feel like they're having a heart attack or dying. Usually, the symptoms begin to subside after about ten minutes, but there is often a lingering fear of having another attack.
  • Phobias are intense, debilitating fears of things that pose little or no danger. Almost anything can be the object of a phobia. Some common ones are fear of heights, fear of flying, fear of enclosed spaces, fear of leaving the house, fear of small animals, fear of meeting new people, fear of public speaking, etc.
  • Obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are repetitive, unpleasant thoughts or images that a person "just can't get out of his mind." Compulsions are a powerful need to engage in ritualized, irrational behaviors. The two often go together. For example, a person may be obsessed with worries about germs or dirt, so they wash their hands compulsively, over and over.
  • Post-traumatic stress. Post-traumatic stress is a response to a violent or frightening incident, usually one in which the individual experiences overwhelming feelings of helplessness or fear. The incident may have happened directly to the person or they may have witnessed it happening to others. Common symptoms of post-traumatic stress are frequent flashbacks to the incident, feelings of emotional numbness and detachment from other people, sleep disruption and frightening dreams, irritability and hyper-alertness. The symptoms may appear shortly after the incident or long after the incident is over.
  • General anxiety. Sometimes people suffer from a prolonged period (about six months) of anxiety and worry that they find difficult to control. During this time they may be frequently tense, restless or irritable. They may have difficulty concentrating and their sleep may be disturbed. The anxiety might be about one thing or, more frequently, a number of different things.
Q:  What is the treatment for anxiety problems?
A: The treatments for the various anxiety problems tend to be quite specific, and differ depending on the problem. The links at the bottom of this page will provide more information on various treatments. In the case of severe anxiety, some combination of medication and therapy is usually indicated. For less severe problems, therapy alone may be sufficient. Relaxation, visualization and meditation exercises can play an important role both in the treatment of anxiety and in preventing it from recurring once the symptoms have subsided.
Q:  If I feel anxious, what can I do to help myself?

Intense anxiety should be treated by a mental health professional, but there are a number things people can do to help themselves cope with stress and strain:

  • Distract Yourself. Catch up on your reading, go to a movie or go out with friends. Keep yourself busy with constructive activities. Spend less time alone.
  • Aerobic Exercise. If you are in normally good health, aerobic exercise such as running, biking or taking a brisk walk can be very helpful. It releases endorphins, the body's natural relaxants.
  • Take a Yoga Class. Yoga is particularly good exercise for coming back to your center and calming the mind.
  • Meditate. Take a meditation class or learn a simple meditation from a book. Start slowly. Just five or ten minutes a day can help.
  • Do a Body Scan. Sit comfortably in a chair or lie on the floor. Scan your body slowly from the tip of your toes to the top of your head. As you scan, tense then relax each part of your body, starting with the toes and ending with the top of you scalp. Following the scan, imagine all the tension in your body draining down through the floor and into the earth.
  • Breathe. Throughout the day, pause and take one good deep breath. Enjoy the feeling of the air filling your lungs. Picture the tension leaving your body as you gently exhale. This can be particularly helpful just before and just after you engage in a stressful activity.
  • Make a List. Write down the things that are worrying you. Number them in order, from the most bothersome to the least. Notice how each item makes you feel in your body, just notice, without trying to change it. Then, for each item, ask yourself whether the worry is reasonable or not. If the answer is "no", quietly note the fact without judging yourself or trying to get rid of the worry. If the answer is "yes," write down some things you can do to address the situation.
  • Do a Tension Drain. Following a stressful situation, touch your hand to the wall and visualize the tension flowing out through your hand and down into the earth, as if it were electricity grounding itself.
  • Help Yourself Sleep. If you're having trouble sleeping, try drinking a glass of warm milk about one-half hour before going to bed. But don't get hung up on sleep. If your mind won't calm down, get up and do something constructive or enjoyable, then go back to bed when you feel tired. For prolonged sleep disturbance, get professional treatment.
Once again, if you have intense, persistent or prolonged anxiety, consult a mental health professional.


Helpful links:

National Institute of Mental Health - Anxiety
Anxiety Disorder Association of America
Freedom From Fear