We Asked a Psychologist 10 Questions About Anxiety
by Dean Stattmann
If it feels like you’ve been hearing more and more about anxiety recently, it’s not your imagination; the discussion around this controversial emotion has been growing louder and louder over the past few years as whispers have turned into social media posts, fueling a long-overdue national conversation
That said, anxiety is not an inherently bad thing.
“It is a biologically programmed emotion that helps us stay safe and take action where needed,” says Brad Rappaport, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and the founder of Inner Path Psychotherapy in Raleigh, N.C. “Anxiety in small doses helps us be alert, stay focused, and even push for peak performance.”
As our anxiety intensifies, however, these benefits can quickly fade away, Rappaport says. In these moments, even a basic understanding of anxiety can help you recognize what is happening and regain control of your mind.
Below, Rappaport answers our top questions about how to identify anxiety, mitigate its effects in the short and long term, and even use this powerful emotion to your advantage.
1. What exactly is anxiety?
Anxiety is your body and mind’s reaction to situations that are stressful, frightening, or unfamiliar. As a result of experiencing anxiety, we often feel uneasy and a sense of fear or distress.
2. It seems like anxiety is something we’re hearing about more and more. Are people getting more anxious, or are we just getting more comfortable talking about it?
We are definitely getting more comfortable talking about it. In sports and entertainment circles, you see more and more athletes, actors, and pop culture figures revealing their struggles with anxiety. Social media outlets are also platforms where people reveal and discuss their experiences with anxiety. This makes it more mainstream and acceptable for others to begin to share their own story with anxiety. So, yes, I think as a society we have become more comfortable discussing the impact of anxiety on our lives.
3. How has anxiety changed in your clientele over the past 10 years?
I would say that people are generally more comfortable sharing their experiences with anxiety than they were in the past. This goes for both men and women. However, I feel there has definitely been a shift with men where they are more willing to acknowledge and explore their struggles with anxiety. For many, it can be a source of great shame, but, despite this, many people now see anxiety as something that comes with the territory of being human in challenging and changing times.
4. How can a person tell if what they are experiencing is anxiety or something else, like depression?
Anxiety generally manifests in our experience as something that is “activating.” When experiencing anxiety, you tend to feel revved up and activated physiologically. This often takes the form of a racing heart, shortness of breath, tightness in your chest or the muscles in your back, neck, and face, feeling like your stomach is in knots or has butterflies fluttering in it, feeling restless or uneasy in your skin, sweating, and even pacing. Anxiety also tends to activate our minds in the form of racing and repetitive thoughts and a heightened sense of alertness.
Depression, on the other hand, is generally “deactivating.” It tends to feel like a weight that is pulling us down. People typically feel as if their energy and engagement with the world has been “turned off.” Typical symptoms might include a loss of motivation, diminished interest and pleasure in things, fatigue and a lack of energy to get tasks done, a heaviness in one’s body, sadness, isolating from others, a decrease in one’s attention and concentration, as well as changes in one’s appetite and sleeping pattern.
5. When are perceived feelings of anxiety worth bringing to a professional?
Anxiety is a normal human emotion and typically arises when we are faced with unfamiliar, stressful, or frightening situations. In mild to moderate doses it can be a call to action, letting us know we need to attend to something important. It is time to seek professional help when your anxiety begins to significantly impact and impede your ability to function at work or in the important relationships in your life, and your ability to engage in playful and leisure activities.
6. How can an athlete or professional better focus on an important task at hand while also dealing with feelings of anxiety?
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to just acknowledge that in this moment you are feeling anxious. Normally, our reflex reaction is to fight or try and suppress the discomfort. Once you let yourself be with the anxiety, bringing your attention to the feel of the breath as it enters and leaves your body is a great way to ground yourself and do a quick reset.
7. Is there such a thing as “good anxiety?”
Anxiety is not a “bad” thing. It is uncomfortable, no doubt, but it is a biologically programmed emotion that helps us stay safe and take action where needed. Anxiety in small doses helps us be alert, stay focused, and even push for peak performance. As our anxiety intensifies, however, these benefits quickly fade away and we tend to get lost in the anxious stories in our minds.
8. How can a person identify anxiety in a friend, and what can they do to help?
This is a challenging task, for sure. There can be outward, observable signs of anxiety in someone, such as pacing, being fidgety and restless, biting one’s nails, or twirling one’s hair. Another sign of anxiety or fear is avoidance. When people begin to avoid activities or public places that they would normally attend, this can be a sign of anxiety as well.
If you are able to notice anxiety in a friend, opening a conversation about it would be a great place to start. You could also recommend books or podcasts on anxiety as a way for your friend to gather more information and resources on different ways to manage their discomfort.
9. What are a couple of DIY quick fixes to reduce or mute anxiety in the immediate term?
As mentioned before, attending to your breath is a wonderful way to ground yourself in the present moment. Anxiety is often about thinking, planning, and worrying about future events. Staying connected to your breath is a great way to slow down your mind and ground it in the present moment.
Another great practice is using your five senses as a way to connect your attention with the present moment. You could notice the clouds passing in the sky, or the different shades of green in the trees that are around you. You can smell a relaxing scent such as lavender, or close your eyes before you eat lunch and smell the aromas of your food, or you could touch or rub something soothing to help you step back from the anxiety running wild in your mind.
10. Are there practices or habits that a person can incorporate into their lifestyle or routine to systematically avoid anxiety over the long-term?
This is something we have been trying to figure out for as long as humans have been around! Unfortunately, anxiety is a part of life and it serves a useful function when it arrives in the right dosage. That said, there are practices that we can employ to help cultivate our ability to manage anxiety when it shows up.
Having a “tool kit” of practices and skills to employ on a daily basis can be very helpful in equipping us to keep our stress levels manageable. Your toolkit could include any or even all of the following: regular exercise, yoga, meditation, connecting with nature, getting enough sleep, and eating a healthy diet. These are all excellent ways to manage anxiety. These activities tend to get us more connected to ourselves and less connected to our devices and the stressors of our daily lives.