Although it is uncomfortable, normal anxiety is a healthy and adaptive reaction that arises when one’s built-in alarm system (the part of the brain in which fear associations are made) is triggered. We are all equipped with this essential self-protective mechanism, but sometimes the system becomes oversensitive or hyper-reactive to particular cues or situations. This is when we experience anxiety in ways that are no longer adaptive (i.e., to protect individual from an actual, immediate danger), but rather hampering and counterproductive. With an anxiety disorder, the trigger may be external or internal, and provokes some sense of fear, dread, danger or threat. However, the threat is not realistic but rather subjectively perceived, and out of proportion, often to an extreme degree. The perceived threat of harm may be on the physical level (as in risk of injury, illness or death), or the psychological (as in rejection, embarrassment or emotional hurt).
Anxiety, & Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders are quite common, affecting approximately 19 million American adults. These disorders include Panic Disorder (with or without Agoraphobia), Phobias, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Anxiety due to a stressful event, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder (or Social Phobia), and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
If anxiety reactions are interfering with your functioning, or expanding to realistically neutral situations where the probability of harm is actually low, there are steps you can take to overcome and break these patterns. The anxiety you live with does not need to remain a permanent obstacle to your activities and enjoyment of life. Treatment is important, as untreated anxiety disorders tend to grow and get worse over time. Though it can be a struggle to change over-learned ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that exacerbate and prolong stress responses, cognitive-behavioral therapy has a proven track record in helping people to improve coping skills, and thereby manage emotional reactions more effectively. Learning how the patterns developed, and developing alternative ways of reacting, are key in breaking these patterns that are ultimately self-defeating.
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