ABC's of Anxiety

Anxiety can impact our lives in the following 6 ways:

  • Affect: Emotionally and physically–what we feel in our body
  • Behaviour: Behaviorally–what we do or our actions, such as avoiding or seeking-reassurance
  • Cognition: Mentally–what goes through our mind like worrisome thoughts
  • Dependence: Relying on partners and friends–Over time we can come to depend on others to meet our basic needs instead of developing the skills to do things ourselves
  • Excess and Extreme: Anxiety is a problem when it is excessive and extreme in relation to the situation
  • Functioning: Anxiety can negatively impact our ability to hold a job, maintain relationships, have a family, and more

Note: The pattern of these experiences varies in each individual, and from situation to situation, but in general these six areas have a negative impact on the lives of anxious adults.

Affect

Anxiety is an emotion that is felt in the body. It is a physical response. Often, when we feel anxious, there is a corresponding physical sensation felt in our body.

Common examples include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Discomfort or pain in the stomach, nausea
  • Dizzy, lightheaded, or unsteady feelings
  • Feeling foggy, or like things are unreal or a feeling of being detached from oneself
  • Feeling very hot or cold
  • Feelings of a lump in the throat or choking
  • Headaches
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breathing (hyperventilating), feelings of shortness of breath, or breath holding
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking

If 4 or more of these symptoms happen suddenly (within a few minutes) and intensely, you may be having a panic attack. Panic attacks are uncomfortable but not dangerous. Remember the body is not designed to remain anxious for hours and hours, but will settle back to a resting state. If you are suffering from anxiety, your worries may reoccur, starting off the anxiety cycle of symptoms over and over.

Behaviour

Anxious adults avoid! One of the most common behaviors in anxious adults is not doing things or refusing to go places, also known as avoidance. In a situation of real threat (e.g., being cornered by a large, snarling dog), moving away from the threat, or avoiding, is very helpful, as the fight-flight-freeze response keeps us safe from danger. In other situations where there is no real danger, avoidance prevents people from learning to cope with a challenging situation or from engaging in age appropriate activities.

Common examples include:

  • Difficulty speaking out loud in a work meeting
  • Passing up a promotion for fear of failure
  • Excessive fear of making mistakes, or desire to be “perfect” in appearance and work projects
  • Refusing routine medical or dental work
  • Declining social invitations, dating, or having few friends because of social fears
  • Taking the long route to work or home due to fears of traveling over bridges, through tunnels, or being in crowded areas
  • Avoiding areas you believe may expose you to illness or germs that result in missed opportunities such as a work outing or time with a friend

Key Point: Avoidance is a habit-forming, unhelpful way of coping with stress. Over time you can learn a variety of coping skills to practice, and will become ready to face your fears with success!

Cognition

Anxious adults worry. These worries take the form of brain messages that pop up in our minds, influencing our actions. These messages, or thoughts, can be about a current situation or about some future event. Once identified, these thoughts can range from the reasonable (e.g. I will fail my test) to the remote (e.g. I will get sick and die if I eat in a restaurant).

Common examples include:

  • I’ll flunk the interview
  • My partner will forget to meet me
  • My boss will yell at me and my co-workers will laugh
  • That dog might bite me!
  • The world is a dangerous place 
  • What if the car crashes?
  • What if I mess up?
  • What if my child gets really sick?

Dependence

Anxious adults reply and depend on their partners, friends, coworkers, and family far more than other adults. This can result in them either seeking reassurance about their safety or well-being, or asking others to do things for them that are unnecessary. While it is normal and helpful for us to ask for information when we are learning about new things, or seeking support when situations are challenging, anxious adults often ask the same questions over and over again, or demand comfort in non-threatening situations.

Common examples include:

  • Asking "Are you sure I won't get sick?”
  • Asking "Are you sure you will be there to meet me?"
  • Asking your boss for extra time on an assignment or asking your coworkers to guide you through routine tasks
  • Having a friend in the car in case you have a panic attack.
  • Not wanting to be away from your partner for more than a few hours
  • Texting your partner throughout the day to “check in” about all sorts of things
  • Requesting ongoing reassurance that eczema is not actually skin cancer
  • Continuing to live at home or rely on your parents long after your same aged friends have moved out and no longer need help from their families

Excessive and Extreme

Anxious adults worry in excess and to an extreme. They worry about more things, more often, and in more extreme ways than other adults. Socially anxious adults are not just worried about saying the wrong thing once or twice, but are afraid that they will say the wrong thing repeatedly, be judged harshly by their friends and coworkers, and embarrass themselves beyond repair for the rest of their lives!

Common examples include:

  • Expecting the worst to happen, all of the time
  • Generating extreme conclusions from vague information
  • Having trouble falling asleep due to excessive worries about daily events, getting enough sleep, or staying asleep
  • Making extreme predictions with catastrophic outcomes
  • Viewing themselves as incompetent, unlovable, worthless, ugly, etc.
  • Worrying for hours rather than minutes about talking to a coworker, a date, or a boss

Functioning

The daily lives of anxious adults are typically severely impacted by anxiety. Many of these adults are functioning at a lower level compared with others. They struggle to get up and ready in the morning, and are often late to work or forget things at home. They appear disorganized, unfocused, or fail to reach their full employment potential (and if they can reach their potential it is due to extreme efforts). They miss out on important social and recreational activities due to fear, often missing opportunities to learn important skills like making friends, dating, asserting oneself, and more. They experience more conflict with others, or depend more on parents and partners to get their needs met causing them to be unprepared for what life delivers.

Common examples include:

  • Being unable to apply for a job or seek a promotion
  • Believing, “I can’t cope” or “It’s safer to stay home”
  • Not getting enough sleep or good nutrition and exercise
  • Over time, academic or professional struggles and/or social withdrawal
  • Struggling to balance reasonable demands such as working and raising a family

Less common examples include:

  • Becoming house bound due to severe panic attacks and agoraphobia, or extreme contamination fears
  • Using drugs and alcohol to “take the edge off”