Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues that make people decide to go to therapy. I personally am a pretty anxious person- according to my doctor, “You’re an anxious cat!”
I have been anxious for as long as I can remember. According to his article Age of Onset: Earlier Than You Think in Psychology Today, Dr. Sebastian Ocklenburg says that anxiety is one of the mental disorders that is the earliest to appear, with the median age of onset being 5.5 years old. One of my earliest memories, around age 5, is crying while vomiting and being afraid I was going to die. That continued for much of my life.
Dr. Ocklenburg also writes “many assume that mental health problems afflict adults. But findings suggest that for nearly half of patients, the disorders first manifest in the teen years or earlier” (Oct. 2021, p.8). This was also true for me; I started having panic attacks when I was 19 years old. I went to the ER several times thinking that I was having a heart attack. The doctor would give me a shot or a pill, tell me I was fine, and send me home (along with a big bill). Finally, an ER nurse told me to go to my family physician for anxiety. I did, and was prescribed anxiety medication, which I took for decades.
It wasn’t until I became a therapist that I learned to manage my anxiety. I now rarely have anxiety that I cannot control, though I do continue to have panic attacks about 3 or 4 times a year. I now use mindfulness to get through those. My story of anxiety is more or less the average experience, except the part of being able to quickly reduce my anxiety.
What I find upsetting is that I had anxiety for decades without knowing anything about it, other than anxiety scared me. Especially because it is so common, I think thorough anxiety education should be provided to everyone. My own experience taught me that the more I understood what was happening in my body during an anxiety or panic attack, the less afraid I was because it wasn’t mysterious to me any longer.
When I am assessing for anxiety, some individuals say they don’t know if they have it. I go through anxiety symptoms and they frequently say “oh yeah, I have that.” So, anxiety education begins with the symptoms.
Anxiety has physical, emotional, and mental effects. Physical effects include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, trembling or shaking, sweating, choking, nausea or abdominal distress, hot flashes or chills, dizziness or unsteadiness. Emotional effects include feelings such as worry, anger, panic, and terror. Mental effects include thinking you’re going to die, or that you’re going crazy or are out of control.
There are varying degrees of anxiety and your ability to function is dependent on the level of discomfort you experience. Mild anxiety can be a good thing; it is necessary for learning to take place. However, as mild anxiety increases, it can lead to sleeplessness, restlessness, hostility, belittling, and misunderstandings.
When anxiety increases, your perception of what is going on around you decreases. Your hands or underarms may start to perspire, pulse and respiration increase, you may have “butterflies” in your stomach, diarrhea, frequent urination, tension headaches, fatigue, and/or increased muscle tension. You may speak more quickly, or more slowly, than usual.
When severe anxiety occurs, you may perspire profusely, and your pulse and blood pressure rise even higher. You may breathe rapidly in the upper part of your chest, and your lips and mouth may be dry. You may stammer, speak loudly, or rapidly. You may tremble, shiver, or clench your fists. Learning does not occur at this level of anxiety, and your attention span is short. Your chances of understanding what is happening to you or of taking reasonable action are zero to none.
Panic is the most extreme level of anxiety. You may blow things way out of proportion, experience terror and be unable to communicate with other people. Because the higher levels of anxiety are so distressing, your anxiety may change to anger, which can bring you back to feeling in control again, even though your anger is unreasonable. When you are anxious, you might withdrawal by canceling appointments or lying in bed. Anxiety can also manifest as physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, tension headaches, diarrhea, or fatigue.
The next time you feel anxious, start noticing what you are experiencing. Write it down so you can remember your anxiety cues. This is the beginning of anxiety management.
I am devoted to helping you understand anxiety and learn coping skills to manage it. Anxiety can be very distressing and interfere with your basic functioning. If you want to learn to control anxiety instead of it controlling you, contact me. Let’s start taming that anxious cat!
Love yourself, you deserve it!