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Understanding Anxiety

Updated: Sep 3

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults or roughly 18% of the population each year. The good news is that anxiety disorders are highly treatable, but the bad news is that the majority of people who suffer don't seek out the treatment they need.


What is the difference between worry and anxiety?


Everybody worries from time to time, but anxiety becomes excessive, persistent, and debilitating. It can get in the way of your daily functioning, and often results in avoidance of anxiety-provoking triggers.


While worry resides in the mind, anxiety is a full mind-body experience with physical symptoms.


What are the common symptoms of anxiety?

While each person's experience of anxiety will be unique, here are some common signs/symptoms:

  • Feeling nervous, restless or tense

  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom

  • Having an increased heart rate

  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Feeling weak or tired

  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry

  • Having trouble sleeping

  • Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems

  • Having difficulty controlling worry

  • Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety


Where does anxiety come from?


The amygdalae are two almond-shaped areas of your brain located in your limbic system. It is referred to as the "fear center," and its job is to detect danger. While it is adept at protecting you from harm, the information it sends to the rest of your body can sometimes be misleading. The problem with the amygdala is that it doesn't differentiate between real versus perceived (or downright imagined) fears. Once the amygdala is triggered, it sends a message to your hypothalamus, which triggers your body's sympathetic nervous system (let's call this the "gas"), which releases adrenaline throughout your body. This "fight, flight, or freeze" response is supposed to gear your body up to respond to danger. But, sometimes the amygdala gets it wrong. Sometimes it detects dangers or threats that aren't really present. When that happens, it can become harmful to us and get in the way of our functioning.


Fight, flight, or freeze?


It can be helpful to identify your primary response to perceived danger. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

  • Someone in "fight" mode will likely be angry, irritable, or on edge. Physically, they'll probably feel tense and hot throughout their body.

  • Someone in "flight" mode will seek to run away, escape, or avoid. They'll probably feel restless and fidgety.

  • Someone in "freeze" mode will shut down or check out. They'll probably feel stuck, numb, stiff, or heavy.


While anxiety can feel overwhelming, it absolutely can be managed with the right skill-set! You don't have to feel like this forever; there is hope. Check back later this week for another blog post with several techniques for managing anxiety. In the meantime, feel free to reach out if you have any questions!

Carrie Nicholes is a Maryland Board approved Licensed Certified Social Worker - Clinical (LCSW-C) and the founder of Cedar Counseling & Wellness. Recognized as one of the top therapists in Annapolis, she has a lifelong passion for teaching people tools to improve their lives.

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