Is there one definition of anxiety that we can all agree on? Probably not, as the definition would become a wordy essay because to describe what anxiety is & how it manifests is challenging. However, we've all experienced anxiety or anxious behaviors at some point in our lifetime. And, as a result, we all have a general understanding of what anxiety is & how it makes us feel.
However, when I break the news to some patients that I think their physical symptoms are a result of their anxiety, if often surprises them. They tell me that they thought their heart palpitations were part of the anxiety but not the stomach upset or acne.
So, I think it may be a good idea to review why & how anxiety can have so many manifestations. Occasional or situational anxiety (i.e. public speaking) caused by temporary worry or fear is a normal part of life. However, it is when the symptoms that define anxiety (fatigue, irritability, muscle tension or muscle aches, trembling, feeling twitchy, being easily startled, trouble sleeping, sweating, nausea, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome and/or headaches etc.) persist for more than six months that it becomes categorized as a 'disorder.'
It is important to note that the physical symptoms of anxiety are caused by a cluster of reactions (thoughts, feelings or actions) instigated by a trigger. The trigger could be a situation, a person, event etc.
Example: A saber tooth tiger began to chase me. I began running and could feel my heart rate rise and my hands tremble.
In the above example, the tiger is the trigger, the reactions are: thought that the tiger is going to eat me if I don't run, the emotion is fear and the action is running. The physical symptoms resulting from the reaction include increased heart rate and trembling hands.
So, if you experience ongoing anxiety, ask yourself:
- What physical symptoms am I experiencing?
- What reactions (thoughts, feelings, actions) caused my physical symptoms?
- What was the trigger?
Knowledge is power and thus knowledge is one effective tool people who experience anxiety disorders use to address it.