Understanding Anxiety

By: Brian M Murray, MS, IMH

Understanding what a person is feeling can sometimes be a little confusing. There are times when maladaptive understanding of emotions leads to a response that questions people of what they are truly feeling. If the feelings are misunderstood then often an inappropriate reaction leads to further stress and confusion. An example of two often confused emotions is anxiety and anger. Both are considered negative emotions that share common characteristics.

Both anger and anxiety promote an adrenaline response in the body. Adrenaline is like rocket fuel to the body getting ready for action. Often a person can tell they are getting tense, adrenaline is flowing, and there may be some queasiness in the stomach, shaky hands, heart rate increases along with increased breathing oxygenating the muscles. So if anxiety and anger are producing both of these emotions are creating a somatic response in the body, then how do you know which one it is?

One of the main differences is what the feeling is going to be used for. Anxiety is often associated with the urge to escape and avoid. The basis for anxiety is fear, while anger is used to fight or attack in response to a perceived threat. It is possible to have them simultaneously and both of them often coexist in a conflict situation. Usually anxiety shows up first and then anger follows. If the situation can be resolved by merely walking away the anxiety usually subsides after a few minutes and the body has a chance to burn off the excess adrenaline.

There are other forms of anxiety that are long term and may require clinical help beyond just being able to walk away. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD which is commonly associated with military combat veterans, is a form of anxiety. PTSD is the result of constantly perceiving a threat based on a traumatic past experience. Here we see the same common threads which are fear and the feelings of fight or flight at the thought of having to relive that experience.

Another common form of long term anxiety is Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD.  Most likely if you are a person who is fearful of losing their job, a loved one or facing some other major adjustment in your life then GAD is often the culprit. Some of the feelings associated with GAD is feeling keyed up or on edge all of the time, becoming easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, irritability and muscle tension. There are relaxation techniques, breathing exercises and imagery mindfulness techniques that can help relax and are often highly effective for reducing GAD.

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