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What is anxiety?  

If you're getting stressed just thinking about the word, that's probably a good example.

But, according to American Psychological Association:

Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry.


It is the words recurring and avoid that help us to define the difference between a normal occasional occurrence and a pathological problem…. the spectrum that moves from “getting stressed” to being an “anxious person” to having an “Anxiety disorder”.  


Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life for almost all of us. We might feel anxious when faced with an argument at work, before taking a test, or actually deciding to buy a car, or even worse, a house. But anxiety disorders require more than temporary and resolvable worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not really go away, it can appear in unexpected illogical situations, and can get worse in magnitude over time.  While most of us get less anxious if we deal with the same situation more often - as we “get used to it”, and realise that maybe the outcomes aren’t as bad as we think… for people with Anxiety disorder, the feelings grow, and can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships. 


There are several different types of anxiety disorders. Examples include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.


The symptoms of a generalised anxiety disorder include:

  • Restlessness or feeling wound-up or on edge

  • Being easily fatigued

  • Difficulty concentrating or having their minds go blank

  • Irritability

  • Muscle tension

  • Difficulty controlling the worry

  • Sleep problems (difficulty falling or staying asleep or restless, unsatisfying sleep)

Anxiety has been argued to be an evolutionary adaptation of the survival mechanism that allows us to respond to danger with heightened heart rate and response time - we’re ready to fight, or to flee - as we talked about in previous theme “fight or flight”.


But what happens, then, when that anxiety response becomes over-developed?  When there are so many stimuli that have potential danger attached to them, that there is no time for the “adrenaline and friends” to go away before we’re on edge again, slowly drowning in an ever growing Anxiety Soup, so to speak?  Is this a symptom of the modern world in which we live - where there are, indeed, endless factors for which we can be anxious about?


When it comes to social anxiety, for example, there are a multitude of platforms and a plethora of nuanced ways in which we can perceive or experience rejection, shame, a lack of validation or threats to our status. Facebook makes an industry of how ‘likeable’ our ‘real lives’ are, by providing opportunity for others to make comment on or display approval of what we show.


The things we do share on Facebook tend to be highly curated, as a result. Because we are performing our lives for an audience, an audience of people who know us (therefore, the risks and consequences of their approval tend to be perceived as higher), we feel we must present a particular version of ourselves. This version is what is acceptable to others, what we feel will be worthy of others validation, and can, over time, become the mirror by which we also judge ourselves.


We’re expected, with technological advances, to be contactable 24/7. On the flip side - if people don’t respond to us immediately, we are firstly more aware of this apparent rejection (with features such as “last seen at X time” and message “Seen”), leaving a blank canvas made of “what if’s” that the gremlins of our mind can fill with destructive pictures, broad brush strokes of emotional turmoil Jackson Pollock-esque. 


“Maybe that person didn't respond because of something I did…” 


“Maybe they are ignoring me, because I’m not good enough for their time…”


“Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe…”



Is it any wonder that young people in particular are reporting increased rates of anxiety?:Mission Australia's 2016 Youth Survey Findings that 


Almost a quarter (22.8 per cent) of young people aged 15 to 19 show the symptoms of probable serious mental illness, up from 18.7 per cent five years ago.

Teenage girls are more than twice as likely as boys to be in severe psychological distress, even though the suicide rate is higher in males.

Almost one third (31.6 per cent) of Indigenous Australians are affected.

The three top stressors for teens are: coping with stress; school and study problems; and depression. Other notable issues include bullying, family conflict and suicide. 


Anxiety, it seems, may just be a symptom of living in our current culture. 


For some, this anxiety extends into other areas of life, where perhaps there aren't any threats (however real it might feel). Our brains are capable of incredible creativity, and unfortunately, Anxiety has the power to harness that ability for ‘destructive purposes’. 


It can be difficult to help someone who is suffering from anxiety. On the outside, they might seem to be reacting to something illogical - as a result, advice like “it’s nothing” or “get over it” may come to mind. For someone suffering from anxiety, the emotions are very real - and undermining those experiences will often make the anxiety worse.  There is a fine line between being supportive and understanding, and providing clarity and reality.  A fine line it is very hard to walk, even for those with the training and skills to do so. 


When it comes to treating anxiety? Well… there are many different options. From cognitive behavioural therapy, to medication, to exposure therapy… part of what makes it so damn difficult is that overcoming the anxiety often means embracing the very thing that terrifies you. It requires an incredible amount of courage to face your fears.


If this is perhaps a cultural problem, then we can begin to be brave as a culture in challenging the voices that enslave us, and exposing the tigers in our mind, exposing them for what they are - just shadows of the real world. 

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