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Is Anxiety Always a Bad Thing?
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You may be nervous about something important you need to do. Maybe it’s a social event where you will be meeting new people. Or perhaps you need to give a presentation at work or school in front of your peers, professor or boss. Or maybe you are even getting ready for something major— like playing in a big sports game or taking an important exam.
You have that familiar feeling coming back. Your palms start sweating, your heart starts beating faster, your mind is racing, your breath feels shallow, your stomach is in knots. These are signs that you’re starting to feel anxious and you don’t like how it feels. But is anxiety always a bad thing?
What is Your Anxiety Telling You?
Your emotions often tell you something important and a lot of times, your body is communicating with you through symptoms in your body. It is doing an important job when it sends you signals telling you that you feel anxious. From an evolutionary standpoint, anxiety’s purpose is a survival mechanism.
If you were faced with something scary in nature, like a bear (which could happen in Colorado where I live, but I hope to never experience that!), your heart would beat faster and you would likely start to breathe more shallowly. This is to help pump more blood and oxygen to your lungs and throughout the rest of your body so you can take action to help you survive the bear encounter.
When your stomach hurts from anxiety and you feel like you need to use the restroom, it’s because your body wants to save its energy. It doesn’t want to spend its precious energy on digesting your food when it should be focusing on your most important organs, your heart and brain. Yes, your body wants to evacuate your bladder and your digestive system which explains the expression of being so scared you sh*t your pants! Your brain is also sending adrenaline and cortisol throughout your body when you feel anxious. Your body would be getting ready to fight the bear, run away, or even stand still until you felt safe enough to leave.
I know what you’re thinking. Why is my body confusing a life-threatening incident with something not life-threatening, like a social event, a presentation, a sports game, or an exam? You still get some anxiety because these moments can still feel scary, but the anxiety signals are also there to help you perform. Is it a bad thing that your body is preparing you to run when you’re about to play in that big game? Of course not! It might even help you run faster. It’s not a bad thing either if you’re feeling more alert for your test or presentation because you have more adrenaline and you may be able to think better because you have more oxygen pumped to your brain.
Can Anxiety Feel Like Something Else?
Also, try to remember a time when you felt really excited about something. Where did you feel it in your body? Was it in your chest? What about in your abdomen? These are the same places that a lot of people feel anxious, so sometimes excitement can also feel like anxiety. Or you’ve probably even felt both at the same time, like when you’re about to go on a date with someone you have a crush on, starting a new job or on the first day of school. So don’t forget that what you’re feeling may not actually be anxiety or it could be anxiety mixed with a different, positive emotion.
Are There Ways to Limit Anxiety?
Yes! Watch how much caffeine you are consuming. For people who have excessive anxiety, caffeine can really exacerbate it and I would recommend limiting or avoiding caffeine consumption if you feel anxious a lot of the time. Otherwise, just make sure you’re drinking it in moderation (1-2 cups of coffee or tea per day). Tobacco and substance use may also increase anxiety, so just monitor this if you are using tobacco, drugs or alcohol. You might want to consider cutting back or quitting all together. Exercise may also help calm anxiety.
What if I Feel Anxious All the Time?
If you feel anxious about a lot of everyday activities, like leaving the house, going to the grocery store, and driving, for example, and it is negatively affecting your functioning at work, school, home, or in your relationships, it could be time to think about getting some extra help.
I would recommend considering talking with a therapist to discover what is causing you to feel anxious and to learn healthy coping skills to manage your anxiety. When trying to choose a therapist, you want to make sure that they are either a licensed mental health professional or are an associate/candidate for licensure. Some states, including Colorado, allow people with no training to become a “registered” or “unlicensed therapist” so watch out for that.
You could also talk to your primary care provider about trying medication to help you feel better. There are some medications you can take as needed for anxiety and others you can take daily to help prevent anxiety.
Anxiety serves a purpose: to help you survive.
- Notice if you’re confusing excitement with anxiety. Maybe you’re not anxious at all. Or perhaps you’re experiencing both excitement and anxiety simultaneously.
- Remember anxiety isn’t always a bad thing! Try to think about how it might be trying to help you. Is it trying to help you run faster or to help you be more alert for your exam?
- Thank your body for looking out for you. It might just appreciate the gratitude.
- Limit caffeine, tobacco, and substance use to reduce anxiety.
- If your anxiety feels out of control or is unmanageable, consider getting help from a mental health professional to learn how to cope with anxiety and/or talking to your primary care provider about medication options.
For performance anxiety, we can work together to overcome mental blocks that are impacting your performance, process new or old injuries, develop self-acceptance when you make mistakes, and improve self-confidence. For other types of anxiety, we can work together to discover what is causing your anxiety, challenging and reframing limiting beliefs and creating healthy coping skills to help you manage anxiety.