Anxiety is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States. At least 40 million American adults—or nearly one fifth of the population—are affected by anxiety. About 1 in 12 children have also been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, and hundreds, if not thousands, more are likely undiagnosed.
In most situations, anxiety is an extremely uncomfortable experience. Symptoms range from sweating and a rapid heart beat to full-on panic attacks and disassociation. These symptoms can be disruptive to daily life and can also be embarrassing when experienced in public.
Awareness about anxiety disorders has increased during recent years as have the many methods of treatment and symptom relief. Meditation and mindfulness, physical activity, diet changes, and medication have all been proven to help relieve symptoms of anxiety. While individuals with anxiety may want to dispel the discomfort of their symptoms as quickly as possible and feel more in control of their lives, they may also be able to learn something from their anxiety when it arises.
In most cases, anxiety is not a random or unprovoked experience. While some individuals appear to be genetically predisposed to struggle with anxiety or other mental health disorders, there are also many environmental and situational factors. Anxiety often acts as a messenger, relaying valuable information when a certain environment or situation poses a threat.
The human defense mechanisms—fight, flight, freeze, or fawn—developed during a time when threats to our lives and safety were constant and urgent. For most of history, our nervous systems had to be at the ready to defend ourselves from predators and help us survive harsh conditions. Today, in developed countries, the threats to our lives are fewer and farther between, but our nervous systems don’t always recognize the difference. For that reason, individuals with anxiety may experience a nervous system reaction far more extreme than a situation calls for. For example, a critical message from a loved one may feel more like being chased by a bear, resulting in symptoms like fast breathing and a sense of panic.
While it can be scary to experience intense feelings of anxiety, these feelings are often conveying an important message. Reducing anxiety symptoms can help us temporarily feel better, but listening for the underlying message can lead to long-term resolution and relief. There are many things your anxiety could be telling you. These include:
- This situation isn’t healthy for you
- You need more rest
- You are acting out of alignment with your values
- There is a deeper source of your stress
- You need to draw a boundary
- You need to make a lifestyle change
- There is a strong emotion you may be repressing
- You need a healthy energy outlet
To understand what your anxiety is telling you, it is helpful to do a little self discovery and spend time learning about yourself and your patterns. If your anxiety is connected to trauma or a traumatic incident, it is important to undertake this process with the support of a therapist or mental health professional.
By befriending your anxiety and practicing listening for the messages it is sending you, it is possible to resolve underlying issues and find sustainable relief from your anxiety symptoms.
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